Purnima Valiathan

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Question Design for Formative Assessment

What ails question design?

What’s in a name?

I belong to the school of thought where formative assessments are not called “Knowledge Check”, “Quick Quiz” or “CYU”. Some may say, “What’s in a name”, but I do think that referring to formative assessments as CYU, Quick Quiz and Knowledge Check is one reason why our questions have been reduced to checklist items. However that is a debate for another day. In this brief write-up, I want to address the purpose of formative assessment and hope that this understanding may perhaps help us address the deficiency that is observed in practice questions added to online learning.


Not a Checklist Item!

I also belong to the times when distractors in Multiple Choice Questions were minutely dissected to ascertain their plausibility and challenge quotient.  When I review courses these days, I find the questions too simple. Most of these seem to test learners to recall information. What makes it even easier is the fact that these are presented soon after the new information is explained. This makes me wonder if the questions are added to tick off an item in the “Storyboard Checklist”.


What is the purpose of formative assessments?

Formative assessment is supposed to help learners retrieve information from memory so as to strengthen learning. It is not the evaluation of learning; but it is an evaluation for learning. Questions that prompt learners to retrieve information from memory are commonly used as formative assessment.  The practice of retrieving new concepts from memory enables learning and ensures durable retention. But for the retrieval practice to be meaningful, you must design questions carefully.


Guidelines for Question Design

Here are some guidelines to help you design effective formative assessment.

  1. Placement: If you present a question to check a concept soon after it is taught, you inadvertently reduce the challenge level. There is always a recency factor in learning – things most recently learned are best remembered. Therefore, chances that the learner will get the question right are high; and it will require less cognitive effort to recall the information. This could develop a false sense of confidence in learners and negate the impact of retrieval practice.
  2. Challenge: The more effort a learner makes in retrieving the information, the more effective learning is. When we design online learning, we mostly create objective type questions, and that too mostly Multiple Choice Questions (MCQ). Fill-in-the-blank (for objective questions) and short-answer questions are better choices for formative assessments. Remember, formative assessment is the evaluation for learning, which means that you do not have to score the learner, so these question types can be easily added. Such questions require the learner to supply the answer as against recognizing the answer from a list of options and have proven to be more effective than simple recognition tests.
  3. Feedback: Feedback is a great tool to teach through questions. Use it as a mechanism to reinforce learning. If the learner gets the answer to a question wrong, provide feedback that will rectify the understanding or lead the learner to revisit the concept. If the content is open-ended (doesn’t have a single correct answer), provide “Expert views”, so that the learner can compare his/her response to the Expert’s opinion.


Here is an example of a short-answer question with detailed explanation as feedback from one of our online courses.


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