Participants should get some of your assessment questions wrong

As I was driving my kids to school on Tuesday morning, a local radio station asked for a contestant to call in to be part of the Puget Sound Showdown. Basically, it’s a lightning round-style radio quiz competition in which two listeners (one from the north Puget Sound area near Seattle, one from the south Puget Sound area) compete to answer random trivia questions correctly. The first contestant to answer five questions correctly is the winner. So I called in (on a hands-free device, of course, because I was driving).

“What was Peter Parker’s day job?” was one of the questions.

I buzzed in. “Uuuuuhhhhhhhmmmm… student?” I answered, though I wasn’t very confident. It’s all I could remember Tom Holland doing as he portrayed Peter Parker in the most recent film version of Spider-Man.

My oldest child, in the passenger seat next to me, shook their head in disbelief.

“Not the answer we were looking for,” is what the DJ said, letting me down easy.

Apparently I should read more (comics) and watch fewer movies. The correct answer: photographer for the Daily Bugle.

Learners Remember The Questions They Get Wrong

That is now a piece of trivia that I will never, ever forget.

I answered a bunch of questions correctly, too. But I don’t really remember many of those. It’s the one I got wrong (and probably should have known better) that is sticking with me.

As I reflected on my 3 minutes of radio fame (you can listen to the entire, short Puget Sound Showdown episode to find out whether I was able to earn the title of Puget Sound Showdown Champion here), I realized there was an instructional design lesson to be drawn: Sometimes the things we retain best are those questions we get wrong (especially when we feel we should have gotten them right).

I’ll confess, the title of this article is a bit click-baity. Honestly, if participants are knowledgeable and skilled enough to answer every assessment question correctly (without taking guesses), then they deserve to get a perfect score. (They may also deserve an opportunity to test out of your training all together, too!)

incorrect answers followed by discussion and reflection can often lead to powerful ah-ha moments

That said, there shouldn’t be any shame or stigma if participants come up with a wrong answer during a learning event – be it during a group discussion or as part of a more formal assessment. The key is to ensure they understand why the may have given an incorrect answer. It’s these incorrect answers followed by discussion and reflection that can often lead to powerful ah-ha moments, which in turn can lead to strong retention.

What tips can I offer to help you craft better assessment questions, making sure that you’re not just trying to “trick” your participants with your choices while also ensuring you’re not writing distractors (incorrect choices for multiple choice questions) that can too easily be eliminated? My biggest tip is to become familiar with anything that Patti Shank says or writes.

You can find more about her research on writing better multiple choice questions by re-visiting her recent appearance on IDIODC or by picking up her recently released book, Write Better Multiple Choice Questions to Assess Learning.

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