Writing Assessment Distractors

Course design often includes creating an assessment of the skills gained during training. To truly assess a learner’s knowledge on a subject, you need more than just a question and a correct answer for them to choose, you need good distractors. There is magic in a good set of distractors that really makes the learner analyze the choices in front of them and consider what the question is asking. How do we accomplish that?

Before we go too far, let’s define distractor. A distractor is “A usually plausible but incorrect answer given as a choice in a multiple-choice test.” Somewhere along the line, I believe we start to lose the plausible part of that definition and we make things too obvious in the interest of ease.

All of the Above and None of the Above

These two distractors may be the most over-used, and often used out of laziness. There are occasions where they are useful; such as making a decision to combine or not combine something, but they should be used sparingly. Any time you use either of these distractors, ask yourself if they add value to this question or are you just cutting corners?

Obvious Incorrect Answers

Answers that are clearly not correct do not add value to an assessment. The best distractors come from information in the course on which they are being assessed. This gives them an opportunity to clarify what they just learned and how they will apply it.

Distractor-based Feedback

When a distractor is selected, the leaner should be given feedback on why it is incorrect. This is more than just telling the learner they selected the wrong answer and here is the correct one. Feedback should be specific to the distractor, which means you need to write different feedback for each distractor. This learning opportunity is often missed, especially if assessments suffer from the aforementioned distractor issues.

Final Thoughts

Assessments are not a formality, they are a learning opportunity. As much care that was put into a course should be given to all aspects of an assessment. Good distractors are hard to write; they shouldn’t be tricky, but they should challenge the learner. How do you create good distractors? Let’s talk about it in the comments below.

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