Using knowledge checks effectively

Tips for making knowledge checks more effective

5 April 2016 | Rosalind Scott | , ,

Let’s be honest here – however we dress them up, most of the questions used in e-learning courses are just variations on the multiple choice.

Are multiple choices…?

A.      Good
B.      Alright
C.      Boring
D.      Mind-achingly boring

Well, what do you think?

Ha, you’re all wrong. The answer is E. It depends how they are written. Can’t believe you didn’t know that. Alright, I stacked the deck a bit that time, but I got you listening, didn’t I?

Drag and drop, matching, tick all that apply, dropdown lists, true or false, quizzes – if we’re completely honest with ourselves these are all just multiple choice questions aren’t they? In that they are questions from which the learner chooses an answer, or answers, from a list.

Puzzled Dragon

Of course that’s not necessarily a bad thing and there are very good reasons why it is the case: We might need to track the answers people give, courses need to be interactive etc. But still we, of course clients, and most importantly learners, view multiple choice questions as boring, lazy and limited.

What can we do about this?

The answers could come spinning onto the screen one by one! Or we could have music playing in the background to make it seem exciting! Or we could have the questions read out by a celebrity!

Or we could just make the questions good?

As usual the best way to design effective e-learning is to start with the learner and keep them in mind throughout the storyboarding process. What can we do for the learner that is actually going to help them learn?

Let’s imagine you’re designing a course about Basic Dragon Care – hey, it could happen and it’s important to be prepared.

Dragon 1Fool them!

Which activity is more effective?

Activity 1: Which of the following food groups does the basic dragon diet incorporate?

Answer A: Red meat

Answer B: Hummus and other dips

Activity 2: You are in charge of feeding a four-year-old male. Drag the foods you would include in his basic diet into the dragon feeding bowl. Drag the unnecessary foods into the dustbin.

Activity 2 is obviously better. It’s more engaging and allows the learner to believe that they are not just answering an MCQ.

Use a few different types of question screens so that learners think they’re answering different types of questions. Even though a drag and drop exercise might just be a multiple choice by another name, it’s important to use it and other variations occasionally. Even the simple process of learning how to complete a new kind of activity will make the learner feel more involved.

Make them care!

Activity 1: Weaned dragonlets must be exercised a minimum of four times per day. True or false?

Activity 2: It’s Jessica’s first day on work experience and she has been put in charge of eight-month-old Lucifer, who has recently been weaned. She comes to you for advice about how many times he will need exercise – what will you tell her?Dragon 2

Once again Activity 2 wins. By making the learner sympathetic to Jessica we have at once made the question more interesting and made the learner more likely to think about their answer.

As always, stories and scenarios are invaluable tools. Our brains are programmed to respond to storytelling. How much can you remember about the content of the last course you designed? And how much can remember about the most recent episode of your favourite TV show? Thought so.

Ask SMEs for real life examples to help your content come alive, or make them up and ask the SME to help you make them realistic and relevant.

Make them think!

In order to ensure the Working with Dragons Health and Safety Policy 2016 is followed what must we all ensure we do?

Answer A

Answer B

Answer C which is very obviously the correct one because it goes on to two or three lines and needs to include all of the legal language or we risk getting in trouble with Compliance and we don't want that headache.

This is a trap I’m sure we’ve all fallen into. The correct answer is too obvious as it’s the longest and the only one that has really been thought about. Also the question merely asks the learner to remember wording from the policy, it doesn’t ask them to think about how they might apply it in real life. We need to try and ask questions that do more than check the learner’s memory, but also check their understanding.

Surprise them!

Where you put your knowledge checks is sometimes as important as the questions themselves. To continue with the dragon care example, it might be useful to have a question at the very beginning of the course:

What do you think are the three most important dragon-keeping skills?

Dragon 3Using the ask-and-tell technique gives the learner the chance to see what they already know. And whether they get the answer wrong or right this is an excellent moment to offer useful feedback; while the learner is still curious to find out how good they already are.

It can be easy to fall into the rut of just putting one or two knowledge checks at the end of each topic, but this isn’t always the best option. Sometimes it can be helpful to ask easier questions immediately after information is given and then ask more complex questions, perhaps at the end of a module, then ask the learner to take everything they have learned and show that they understand and can apply it.

Let them win!

Finally, you could add elements of scoring and competitiveness – in other words gamification. These do not need to be complex, but can be used effectively to leverage the competitive drive.

Answer the questions to stack the dragon eggs and win points for every egg stacked, but don't be too slow! If the mother dragon wakes up, it’s game over for you!

Egg of Dragon

Simple techniques such as adding a score or a time limit can immediately make quizzes more interesting. The points may not mean much in real life, but that doesn’t stop people returning time and again to try and beat their scores. They might even learn something along the way!

Most of what has been suggested here does not require complicated technical work and could be achieved on almost any budget. Turning simple, unremarkable knowledge checks into useful learning tools is simple if we focus on the learner; the e-learning fatigued, time-poor, jaded learner that we all spend our lives trying to reach. What do they need to know? How can we reach them? How can we surprise them?

It’s got to be easier than looking after dragons…