How to Write a Test that Ensures Your Top Students SHINE

Writing tests can be daunting sometimes. Aside from the discussions on whether we should be ‘testing’ students at all, most institutions or courses that require certain compliance criteria require students to be tested, and for the testing to cover particular curricula.

The question here is, how do you make sure that the test suits the point of the material and is challenging enough that knowledge is tested at varying levels?

How do you help separate the top students from the ‘good’ students?

Here are some suggestions to help navigate writing test questions and ensure that your top students shine.

  1. Base the assessment on the course or unit objectives. What do you want the student to learn? Keep the questions focused on the broader learning objectives. Don’t ‘trip up’ students by asking them trivial details, these are not a true measure of the learning objective. Students should not have to guess what might be in the test.
  1. Mark the student on their ability to answer the questions asked, rather than bringing in extra supplementary information. Set expectations and tell students what you expect from them. This does not mean that they get high grades because they provide extra information. Going ‘above and beyond’ would mean doing this and still meeting the expectations for the course/unit.
  1. Make the questions easy to read and easy to follow. A number of students (and instructors) don’t fully read questions. Make the questions straightforward, keep the sentence structure the same throughout the test and don’t confuse with using things like double negatives. The sentences should be clean and unambiguous.
  1. Use unique examples and situations. Repeating phrases from the materials only lends to the students repeating information via rote learning rather than having gained knowledge.
  1. To separate the ‘stars’ from the just plain ‘good’ students, consider utilising higher order cognitive skills. For example, follow Bloom’s taxonomy’s different levels of learning.

Consider asking test questions that cover learning in Bloom’s higher order levels of learning. Think about the verbs, create, evaluate and analyse.


Depending on the subject matter or objective ask students to use different materials to create something specific. This doesn’t have to be a ‘hands on’ test, but students could be (for example) creating a formula or recipe for a hand soap out of specific ingredients.


Evaluate is often used in essay style questions, to give a summation of a document or procedure. Ask for a judgement based on different theories or scenarios.


Analyse could be to classify or establish connections, even the traditional ‘compare and contrast’ question could be used as an analysis of course materials. Analyse involves looking further into different elements that make a particular situation.

Using a variety of questions that focus on different levels of comprehension help ensure that all students have the opportunity to answer questions and that some students also have the opportunity to shine.

Test questions can be incredibly difficult to write, so the number one tip is to get someone to proof read everything and take the test themselves before you release it on students.

Good luck and enjoy.

Image by Alberto G. / CC BY

Using Learning Design to Help Combat Busyness

We’re all so busy, right? Do you encounter anyone in today’s world who admits to having free time? It’s almost like you’re shunned if you do. Somehow busyness has become not just a way of life, but a badge of honor!

There are all kinds of studies that tell us to refrain from multitasking. Eric Barker, a blogger, reports that “when people do two cognitive tasks at once, their cognitive capacity can drop from that of a Harvard MBA to that of an 8-year-old.” I don’t know about you, but I’m not looking to lower my intelligence capacity. But if you’re anything like me, it’s incredibly difficult not to fall prey to this mentality.

If this is the mindset prevalent in corporate America, how do we as instructional designers expect anyone to truly invest time in learning? The key is not only giving people tools they can access when they need it, but making sure the learning is:

  • Fast, with at-your-fingertips support
  • Specific, tactile training and not high concept or too general
  • Bite-sized, with easily digestible and actionable information

After all, people WANT to learn but simply lack TIME and READY ACCESS to information and training that could help them perform better on the job. You may have heard the term “microlibrary.” In my world, this concept is a reality. It allows us to create various types of learning assets to allow people to focus on enhancing skills in conjunction with the 50 million other responsibilities they have. Here are a few examples of assets we’re currently building:

  • A short 3-minute podcast on how best to prioritize prospective customers that includes a job aid
  • An activity to use as part of a department meeting to practice tailoring C-level sales conversations
  • A 5-minute eLearning that provides a simple strategy for managing time

Within all of these learning assets, the key is to focus learning on one objective to narrow the focus. Remember that the whole purpose is to create fast, specific, and bite-sized learning making it feasible for learners to master in the time they are able to allot.

How to Design Analogies for eLearning

Analogies are a powerful way to explain “unknown” topics by linking them to what the learners already know. Since learning is really about the transformation of experience into knowledge, a component of this process has to do with what is called analogical reasoning.

When a learner grasps new concepts with analogies, it’s like putting their ability to learn on steroids. This is because analogies provide the shortcut to understanding.

Let’s say you are designing an eLearning module about sleep apnea. What would be the analogy you would use to explain what happens during sleep apnea? Virend Somers, MD, PhD, Professor of Medicine at the Mayo Clinic, describes that sleep apnea occurs when the upper airway (respiratory tract) collapses during sleep. He likens this process to sucking on a “wet paper straw.” To visualize this concept, check out this short sleep apnea video, where you can see how the wet paper straw analogy can be applied. The video does not mention of a wet paper straw, but this is where you come in as an instructional designer to help the learner make the connection between the collapse of the upper airway (shown in the video) to the concept of sucking on a wet paper straw.

See how analogies can be used? It’s a powerful learning technique. For more on analogies, visit my Slideshare presentation below to discover how to use analogies in eLearning. Would love to hear about some of your favorite analogies in the comment box below.

The Case Against Video-Based Instruction

Before I start receiving hate mail from my colleagues, I want to go on the record to say I’m not an anti-video evangelist. In fact I frequently use screen recordings and other video content in my own training design and development.

These days, videos are cheaper and easier to make than ever before. But my stance is this: just because we can, doesn’t mean we should.

On a recent client project, I was presented with a plan for a beginner-level course that consisted of nothing but 40 talking head videos.

Of course, the issue was two-fold. Obviously the client was trying to cram way too much learning into this course. But that was a touchy subject so my practical mind went to numbers. 40 VIDEOS! Even if they went with snippet-length content like I had recommended, we were looking at 2 to 3 hours of videos.

Luckily, the project manager was a friend – and also mother to a 3-year old – so I appealed to her logic. I asked, “You want Sophie to learn her ABCs, right? Are you just plopping her in front of Sesame Street for a few hours a day? Or are you also including other things, like books, songs and activities?” Thank goodness, that comparison paid off.

I contend that effective adult learning isn’t all that different from effective childhood learning. We have the same short attention spans. We need varied and rich content to keep us engaged. We need activities to help process and emphasize what we’re learning.

Few of us want to learn by reading a 1,000-page textbook. But we also have the propensity for multitasking when we’re online. I know I’m guilty of saying, “I’ll just peek at my email while I watch this video on my other monitor.” 10 minutes later, I’ve pretty much missed what happened in the video.

What I’m saying is that most training should have multiple components to be really effective. We must pair engaging video (if your Powerpoint put me to sleep in person, it isn’t any better as a screen recording!), on-screen interactivity (clicking ‘Next’ doesn’t count), short reading assignments, and off-line activities to really get people learning.

The End is the Best Place to Begin

Needs assessments are one of the first things we learn about in Instructional Design education and certification programs. But I’ve come to realize that many of my training industry colleagues have not had the luxury of formal education. Often they are developers, HR professionals or subject matter experts who are thrown into the instructional design world through interest or necessity.

How does a professional in this position know what they don’t know? Savvy folks often figure out a needs-assessment-like process along the way. But for the absolute beginner? Where do they even start?

When asked for advice, I always tell new IDs that basic needs assessment looks like this: start with the end in mind. I feel like this is a great reminder, even for seasoned designers. After all, it’s easy to get sidetracked from the original intent of training when we’re presented with a client’s or employer’s epic training wish list!

Starting with the end in mind simply means: what should learners be able to do, that they couldn’t do before, when they have completed the training? If we don’t have a specific, focused answer to that question, we are not on track.

On the other hand, knowing very clearly the knowledge we expect learners to gain means we can easily reverse engineer the design process. In other words, if I want learners to know how to perform “skill XYZ,” then I must present them with “instruction A,” “activity B,” and “quiz C” in order to facilitate that result.

I realize this simplistic approach to instructional design may not fully stand the test of formal learning evaluation models (sorry Dr. Kirkpatrick!), but it’s a solid rule of thumb that sure beats the disorganized and overly complex courses I’ve seen throughout corporate America.

Bottom line, we serve learners when we design educational content. If they walk away from a course without new skills because they were confused, or were presented with material that was irrelevant, we simply haven’t done our job!

Image by ComputerGuy – Wikipedia User Nico Cavallotto / CC BY

Engaging Clients in Instructional Design Process

Being an Industrial Trainer working for a community college, I am frequently asked to provide instructional design and training to address specific problems for my clients. Not being “educators” these clients know what the problems are, but not the necessary instructional pieces required to address the learning and skills needed to meet those challenges. I usually spend sufficient time with clients discovering specific information so that I can write a proposal or scope of the learning project. The Project Proposal / Scope will become the document that defines what the finished product will be.

In my initial proposal for client consideration, I keep the learning outcomes specific to the declared problems but leave vague the instructional methods to be used. My proposals always include a statement concerning the necessary client input in every step of the development / training process. Wishing to keep my options open, I also suggest possible delivery methods to the client (Face-to-Face, Computer-Based, Live & Interactive Distance Learning, etc.).

I find that by engaging clients in all aspects of the instructional design process (asking for input, clarifications, and critiques), clients are not surprised at the finished product nor are being asked to pay for something they didn’t want. Clients who may have been vague about what the learning content will look like, should recognize it when they see it.

Do You Know the Learning Outcomes?

The best tip I can share with instructional designers is to focus your efforts on learning outcomes first before you get wrapped up in how you’re going to develop the learning. If you could do that you’re already setting the course for your design work, making a difference, and faithfully supporting the industry.

My first set of questions are:

  • What is it the learner is supposed to do better as a result of the training?
  • How do you know he or she has accomplished that?
  • What does success look like after the learner has attended training?

If you can’t get your stakeholder to answer those questions then most likely training isn’t going to solve the problem.

Too often stakeholders already know they want an eight hour training class and they ignore figuring out what the training is supposed to solve. As Lewis Carroll eloquently said, “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there.”

Image by Robert Couse-Baker / CC BY

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