The Million Dollar Question

September 29, 2015/0/3

Beau looks at some lessons that can be learned from game show quizzes and why eLearning should take heed when asking the big questions.

Kevin Smith’s run on the US version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire reached its climax when the man with the extravagant beard took home the lot. He showed no emotion when the confetti fell from the ceiling. The show’s host nearly went into meltdown with excitement, but for Smith, it was like another day in the office. Men wanted to be him and women wanted to be with him. The final question he had to nail wasn’t an easy one for the general viewer, but Mr. Smith was never in doubt.

Uncle Sam was a meat inspector and Smith was a million dollars richer. Smith correctly answered 15 multiple choice questions and took home the top prize, but let’s take a look at the first challenge Smith faced; the $100 question.

Now we all know the first few questions are pretty much freebies, but it is important to remember their purpose in a game show such as this. They are a light-hearted question designed to give the audience a bit of a laugh or, in some cases, a way to humiliate people on national television.

Most importantly, they aren’t taken very seriously because they aren’t really a proper multiple choice question. At a very basic level, yes, it is a question with four possible choices. But its alternative answers don’t challenge people to think and this is something eLearning can learn a lot from. Handing a learner the answer on a plate doesn’t help anyone. The only thing that needs to be handed on a plate is option D.

When we are designing multiple choice questions in eLearning, you want to aim for that million dollar question every time. This all might sound obvious, but falling into the trap of providing poor alternative answers can seriously damage the chances of learning from the question. They can completely change the complexion of a question.

The million dollar question loses its value if the alternative answers are not properly thought out.

Vanderbilt University in the US provide a pretty handy guide for designing alternative answers. They break down the function of alternative answers into a number of factors that need to be considered.

They should be plausible.
An obviously incorrect answer serves no function to multiple choice questions. It only minimises the number of answers the user needs to consider. Common errors that the user may make are the best form of alternatives.

They should be stated clearly and concisely.
A lengthy alternative doesn’t test knowledge application, it only tests the ability to read.

They should be similar in content.
If one answer has a different make-up compared to the others, it might give clues to the user that it is the correct answer.

They should be free from clues about which response is correct.
A very specific answer among other vague answers can be a clue to a correct answer. Try to make sure that all answers are similar in form, length and tone.

“All of the above” and “none of the above” should not be used.
If “all of the above” is the correct answer in a four-option multiple choice question, the learner only needs the knowledge on two of the three options. If they know that two options are correct, the “all of the above” answer is arrived at by not knowing all of the information. It is the same case for “none of the above” answers too; users can arrive at the correct answer with only partial knowledge.

They should be presented in a logical order.
If you present answers in a numerical or alphabetical order, you avoid placing correct answers in certain positions.

The number of alternatives can vary among items as long as all are plausible.
The number of alternatives isn’t a crucial component. As long as all options are plausible, you can provide two, three or four options. False alternatives are designed to catch out those with a knowledge gap, and those with the knowledge can navigate around them.

Designing alternative answers can be challenging at times, but the more care, effort and thought put into the process can ensure better learning outcomes. Whether it is knowing a propaganda icon’s past employment, or what flies out of a slingshot, test the knowledge by providing plausible answers.

The meatloaf is best left on the plate.

Beau Bardenhagen
Beau Bardenhagen
Beau puts words together on screens. He also likes to yell at sports.
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