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7 Things that may be wrong with your online course quizzes

Your online course outline looks great and you’ve already started working on your modules. Everything’s peachy so far, but you feel as if you’re missing something.

Most likely, that something is a challenge, a challenge that can help you and your learners see if they’ve really engaged with the course material. And that my friends, is a good old quiz to spruce up your course.

After all, without a quiz, how can your learners know if they’ve learned something? And if they don’t know what they’ve learned, what is the point in going on with the course?

Unfortunately, even experienced instructors make mistakes when it comes to creating a good quiz. We’re all only human!

However, before we get into that, what does a good quiz look like? While this is not a definitive list, good assessments have the following things in common:

  • are related to learners’ goals for the course
  • are useful for improving retention by helping learners recall content
  • are challenging and engage learners
  • are well integrated into the structure of the course
  • offer enough variety in terms of questions and tasks
  • are created using a tool such as a learning management system (LMS) or course authoring tool that automatically corrects answers

7 Things that may be wrong with your online course quizzes

Instructors that tend to treat quizzes like an afterthought will stop short of creating a great course. Fortunately for you and other course creators, there is room for improvement in this area. So, whether you’re troubleshooting your quiz or are thinking about creating one, here are seven main questions to ask yourself:

  1. Are you measuring learning goals?

    This is the first and most important step when it comes to creating a quiz for your online course.

    Beginner instructors fall into the trap of trivia questions. For example, if they’d be teaching basic video editing skills, they’d tend to evaluate factual knowledge only. Questions such as “In which year did the first editor appear on the market?” are pointless. They’re related to the content but pointless.

    Your job is to measure learning goals and the degree to which they’ve been achieved.

    Experienced instructors have clearly defined learning goals such as “Learners identify the main three features of the video editor”, and evaluate it through a multiple-choice question, for example. It’s still basic knowledge, but it’s what you want them to remember from your course.

    What to do:

    • Connect questions to the course learning goals
    • Ask questions related to what learners most likely use for their hobby or job
  2. Are you evaluating knowledge only?

    Online courses are (or should be) practical and focused on gaining new skills, that learners will apply in various life situations. Evaluating knowledge only (recognizing and recalling information) doesn’t accurately represent what the course teaches.

    For example, for a learning goal such as “Learner designs an infographic” it’s clear that you’re evaluating a higher-order skill. It’s best to have learners actually create an infographic and send it to you for review or showcase to other learners.

    Bloom’s taxonomy helps course creators better evaluate what they are teaching. The revised framework has 6 levels: remember, understand, apply, analyze, evaluate and create. For example, at the analysis stage, learners can “organize” or “differentiate” between different categories. At the evaluation stage, they can “critique” a piece of work. These verbs define what you want them to be able to do, so use them when you’re creating your learning goals

    That being said, keep in mind that quizzes can evaluate up to a certain point. When you get to evaluate and create stages, you can ask learners to answer an open-ended question through surveys or submit their creations.

    In short,

    • You can evaluate more than factual knowledge through quizzes: how learners understand, apply and analyze what they’ve learned
    • Use Bloom’s taxonomy to define learning goals and use the goals to create quiz questions
    • Freeform assignments and open-ended questions work best when learners get to the “create” stage, often later in the course
  3. Are your questions too easy or too difficult?

    On one hand, a quiz shouldn’t be way too hard to pass. On the other hand, it shouldn't be so easy that it bores people. If you fear that your learners will simply give up if you don’t make it easy for them to pass, know that people tend to see something as being more valuable if they’ve invested some time and effort into it.

    Variation is another thing you need to consider. After taking five True/False questions in a row, learners will wonder: why is it so easy? They quickly figure out how your quizzes work. If there’s no variety, they’ll know that you tend to be biased towards a certain type of question and they’ll try to guess the correct answer with the minimum amount of work.

    Instead, you should:

    • Use the content wisely and make questions progressively harder
    • Avoid including hints, as the answer shouldn’t be deduced from the question
    • Keep a balance between True/False, Multiple Choice, Matching, Fill-in-the-blanks questions and so on. For example, if you have five questions adopt the 2-2-1 rule: 2- True/False, 2- Multiple choice and 1- Fill-in-the-blanks
  4. Is your quiz confusing for learners?

    It’s important for your lessons or modules to have a logical flow and clear, concise language. The same goes for your online quizzes. Wording and grammar are important since you don’t want to confuse learners. One missing word can make all the difference when it comes to understanding what you want them to do.

    The biggest mistake that can be made here is to write multi-paragraph questions that diverge from the main subject. In a multiple-choice question, keep all the answers (the correct and wrong ones) the same approximate length. Try not to pepper your questions with clues! That doesn’t really help learners achieve their desired outcomes.

    Try to:

    • Keep questions and answers short and to the point
    • Make the wrong answers seem plausible, but 100% wrong (check and double-check)
    • Leave no room for interpretation unless you’re asking learners to create something or give their personal opinion
    • Use negatives sparingly; questions such as “Which items DON’T belong here?” are tricky
  5. Are your timing and quiz placement right?

    I advise you against quizzing only at the end of the course. Let’s say learners spend a few hours per week with the course, and after two months they take a test, which means that 1) there were no quizzes to help them retain what is important throughout the course and 2) they’re likely to fail exactly because of this.

    In general, for self-paced courses, the lack of feedback is really unmotivating so you’ll want to at least have these autocorrected quizzes for engagement. This is not to say that all courses must follow a certain pattern, you get to decide what works best in terms of quiz length, difficulty, and so on.

    Read more: How to give the best feedback to your online learners

    To sum up,

    • For a longer module, (7-10 lessons), make sure to quiz after 2-4 lessons or after each lesson
    • For a shorter module (3-4 lessons), you can quiz after each module
  6. Are your quizzes improving your course?

    If the average score on your quizzes is constantly low, is the content too difficult? Or, could it be that learners need additional explanations? This is for you to investigate and it can actually improve your course content since you can pinpoint what and why they get something wrong.

    For example, if you use a scale of 1-100 to score quizzes, you can interpret them as follows:

    • Consistently low scores: most likely the questions should be revised. Is the wording confusing? Are the questions relevant to your learning goals?
    • 50 high-50 low scores: if half of your learners are doing well and half aren’t, is the quiz the problem, or is it the difficulty of the subject? It could also be that people are not engaged enough and aren’t taking the quiz seriously.
    • 70 high-30 low: it’s an OK situation, you want to aim for something like this.
    • 100 percent right: ehh, could it be that the questions are too easy?
  7. Can you reuse quiz questions?

    The fastest way to create new quizzes is to save questions and reuse them when needed. Sure, this doesn’t work for all courses - some may have very different content - but there are some basic ones that can be reused.

    For example, if learners are taking a more advanced course, you might want to set up an introductory module that explains concepts found in another basic course. Then, you can reuse questions from the basic course to quickly create a quiz.

    It’s also good to save them all in one place and revise them in order to make improvements. Alternatively, use saved questions for inspiration when creating new quizzes.

    It’s not hard to do and it can save you lots of time:

    • For starters, keep quiz questions in a spreadsheet organized by topic
    • If your LMS has a resource library, you can save individual questions in a Question Bank and reuse them later when you’re creating new quizzes (this is the fastest and easiest option).

Pencils down!

Quizzes are an integral part of a self-paced course so you want to spend some time learning how to get them right. There are a few mistakes that even more experienced course creators make, such as making questions too long or repeating the same question format all the time, so don’t feel bad if you need to troubleshoot your quizzes now and then.

In an online course, mentality shifts from boring to fun, from stressful to challenging quizzing. Yes, the stakes are low, but that is not the main idea. It’s up to course creators to make quizzes engaging enough so they serve their final purpose: help learners retain what they’ve learned.