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NogginLabs was founded on the notion that custom e-learning design and development is the ultimate horizontal industry. Time and again, each new project, client, and industry proves it. The biggest advantage of the e-learning horizontal is cross-pollinating ideas from two wildly different domains. A restaurant service simulation for iPad may influence a high-fashion online retail challenge. E-learning for financial advisors in a bank could inspire a mobile outreach program for cancer survivors. This variety also keeps the creative folks at NogginLabs fresh. Fresh learning ideas and designs come from a set of constantly changing constraints.

Five tips for putting strong distractors in your e-learning


Five tips for putting strong distractors in your e-learning

Jonathan Baude

When I was 15, I was pretty freaked out about the driver's test. I'd already passed the driving portion, so the only thing standing between me and the open road was a 30-question written examination on my knowledge of the rules and regulations that govern vehicular operation in the state of Indiana. I studied booklets front to back. I made flashcards and came up with handy mnemonics. When the day came to take the test, nerves aflutter, I took my time and triple-checked each answer as I went. I watched the attendant grade my test before my very eyes, and anxiously awaited my fate. And then: I passed! I felt a rush of relief, pride, and excitement for a job well done.

Fast forward 3 months. I'm back at the DMV with my best friend, Nathan, who just got done with his test. He passed, too. "Nice work," I say. "All that studying paid off!" He says, "Oh... I didn't study. I didn't need to." He's kidding, right? "No, anybody with an ounce of common sense can pass those things." He recounts one of the questions:

What should you do before you exit of your driveway?

A) Pull out quickly

B) Keep your seatbelt unbuckled

C) Start using your cell phone

D) Buckle seatbelt, adjust mirrors, and check to ensure the roadway is clear 

You don't need to have studied to get that question right. You don't need to have months of experience. You probably don't need to have actually seen a car in your entire life to ace that question—and the rest of the test along with it.


This question is an example of a very real problem that e-learning developers face all the time when we write knowledge checks: It's easy to get so preoccupied with loading up the correct answer with every possible detail that it becomes the bloated, obvious choice every single time. By making your correct answers painfully obvious, you don't just make it easy to pass; you also sacrifice credibility with your audience. Challenging knowledge checks are essential to effectively engaging your audience. So forget about the right answers for a second—let's talk about what you can do to make your wrong answers shine.

1. Keep them realistic.

If you remember nothing else, remember this! You want to write questions and answers that challenge your learners by making them think about why they make the choices they do. Sometimes, you'll see resistance to realistic wrong answers because they can feel like they are corroborating or legitimizing mistakes—but that's exactly where powerful learning can happen. By acknowledging the sorts of mistakes learners are actually likely to make, you can catch them early, remediate with feedback or advice, and set them on the path with practical knowledge about how to make smarter choices.

Put it another way: An untrained outside party probably shouldn't be able to ace your knowledge checks. Meet your audience on their territory. Speak their language. Your training will have a lasting impact that way.

2. Always tie back to your learning points

When you're coming up with wrong answers, really think about what the purpose of the training is. What behavior are you trying to change? Knowledge checks aren't about tripping up your learners with technicalities or testing their ability to find the only vaguely reasonable option out of a set. Try to test your learners' knowledge of the concepts at the very center of your training. If you're clearing up common misconceptions, you'll want to be sure you're including those misconceptions!

This concept applies no matter the complexity of the course. Say you've developed a fully immersive business simulation to teach your learners to be more diligent when it comes to proactive upselling. By making it possible for your learners to fail at upselling, you can capture the very mistake you're trying to correct, and you can get them thinking about why they're making a choice as they make it! Remediation is powerful when it happens in the moment, rather than in a vacuum. 

3. Consider varying degrees of correctness

A smart way to come up with plausible distractors is to think about your correct answer, and then try dialing it back. What does 50% correct look like? By pressing your audience to find the best possible answer, you're still challenging them to think hard about each option, but you're not making it so easy that they could do it with their eyes closed. 

Consider the driver's test example above. It's painfully easy because none of the wrong answers are even vaguely plausible. You can eliminate all three wrong answers without batting an eye. Offer your learners an option that isn't technically wrong, but isn't as correct as it could be. This will really get them thinking. 

By the same token, you can also think about overcorrection. Try answer options that might sound correct on paper for a second, but wouldn't work in the real world. This gets your learners engaging thoughtfully with the material as they think hard and leverage their expertise on the reality of how something should be done.


4. Look out for length and parallel structure

It's happened to everyone. You've ironed out perfect, unimpeachably correct answers, with every relevant detail and impeccable phrasing. Then you write your distractors. Now, you look at your quiz, and every single question has one paragraph-long answer that's always right. You don't want to write a knowledge check that people can pass while they're squinting. Try concise correct answers. Try lengthy incorrect answers. There are a lot of ways to do this, but I always try to make a final pass through my quiz without my glasses on to make sure I'm not giving anything away.

Parallel structure matters here, too. Say your correct answer has three different steps and describes a sequence in full from start to finish... now look at your wrong answers. Are you following the same pattern for each answer? Failing to keep answer options consistent is another way you can unintentionally make your correct answers a dead giveaway.

5. Don't be afraid to be a little tricky

When you write overly simple questions, you may make your training too easy and, frankly, kind of boring. Don't underestimate your learners. Give them a challenge! As I've said, no one wants to feel like they're being tripped up by a sneaky question. Once a learner sees the answer, it should always be clear that it was the right choice. But the most satisfying knowledge checks have an "Aha!" moment. It can be very rewarding to look at a question, feel stumped for a moment... and then have the pieces click into place. When you learn with a click, the information sticks!


These are just a few examples of ways you can take your answer writing to the next level. The specifics of your training can vary wildly, of course, and it may lend itself to particular types of knowledge checks over others. Just remember to always put yourself in the learner's shoes, and don't be afraid to write genuinely challenging questions. It's not just engaging—it's effective.