Online learning is fast becoming the go-to method for delivering courses, and testing is becoming a key part of making sure that your participants take away the right information. The trouble is that getting someone to answer a question might be good in the moment, but how do you write questions that will test participants so that they’ll retain the information longer than a Snapchat.

Testing, testing, 1,2,3…

I’m going to begin with a little rant about school. But before you skip down, there are some pretty important things I’m going to say about the nature (and theory) of testing.

I’m a test-acer; I have the capacity to remember paragraphs of text after very little effort, and it made most of my education a doddle. I was able to retain a textbook-worth of information in my head for the precise amount of time that it would take to do the exam. I would then proceed to forget it in its entirety: it’s the only explanation for getting an A in GCSE maths and then 10 years later not being able to add up particularly well.

Testing in the UK is designed to test how well you can remember something. This system is incredibly easy to fool and isn’t an effective way to test if someone has actually understood a concept.

There’s also a real focus on right and wrong. Children are taught that being wrong is a bad thing that should be punished in some way or other (usually with a poor grade). I am of the opinion that children should instead be taught that making mistakes is ok, especially if you’re on the road to making a great discovery. That could be algebra, literary theory, or mixed media painting – if we cared less about a right answer and more about teaching our children how to discover things, I think we’d become a nation of active learners taking the initiative to find out great stuff in all sorts of different ways.

Active and passive testing

Rant over. But it brings me nicely to active and passive learning. So, if exams were structured so that students were given information and then a series of questions applying the theories (because let’s be honest, in the real world we’re never that far from Google so that we’d have to remember the equation for voltage, or what exactly primogeniture is), then students would engage with the information in a more active way, using it as a tool, rather than just reciting it.

When we engage more actively with information, it’s hitting more areas of our brain and so we’re more likely to hold onto it. And that should be the point – we should be learning things because we want to use that information.

So in your online courses you should be testing people because you want them to use the information contained in the course as part of their work. They need to be tested in such a way so that they engage actively with the information so that they’re prepared to take the theories and apply them to their work.

Visual Conversations ™

But they also need content that helps them do that. There’s no point writing some great questions only to be clueless because the course material was impossible to digest. The test and the course need to go hand-in-hand, stimulating your participant and engaging with them actively, so that your retention rate stays super-high.

There’s a really great piece of science that backs up what I’m about to say. We use it a lot in our training material, so if you’re interested in finding out more about that, take yourself over here…

When you have visual and audio working together in complementary harmony, studies have found that retention skyrockets. People can’t read and listen at the same time, but because they can look at visuals while they listen, putting the two together actually enhances the weight of your message and it’s much easier for your audience to remember what you’ve said.

This is vital in training courses because you’ll probably be explaining something. Even if you think what you’re explaining can’t be done using pictures, think about the story that you’re trying to tell. Even though it might be an explanation, you’ll still have key characters and events. Choose something to represent each of your characters and animate them.

Sometimes it’s difficult to know where to start with something like that, but why not use this as a starting point: you’ll probably have things that don’t fit together (try some jigsaw pieces), things that actively repel each other (hello opposite poles on a magnet) and then things that go well together (I tend to favour the hair in the drain metaphor for that one…). If you place this association within your story, you’re locking in that concept with something that your already audience gets.

Asking the right questions

So now you’ve got some great visual slides working in perfect harmony with the narration, so that you can explain clearly the concepts you’re talking about and solidify everything in a pleasing way. Sit back and relax. No hang on a minute…

What about your questions?

Online training courses are just that. Online. No interaction with trainer and student. Firstly it means that your slides must be really engaging because you don’t have a presenter (you might want to make your animation sequences longer in this case, so there are fewer and shorter pauses). Secondly, checking your viewer has understood the presentation can only be done via testing and interactivity. So what kind of questions should you ask?

Well, to kick things off your questions shouldn’t be insultingly easy:
What is the population of China?
1.4 billion

It looks ridiculous, but I’ve seen similar cases in training material. If it’s going to be that easy, don’t put it in. Instead, invest your time in making that point in your course really clear so that your audience doesn’t need to answer a question on it at the end (you might do this through repetition and reinforcing or other gems hidden in this article).

Next, I’m not a big fan of ‘what’ questions. Let’s go back to school. For example on one slide you have the equation for voltage and on the next slide you have the question ‘what is the equation for voltage?’. If you have to ask the ‘what’ question, your explanation probably wasn’t good enough. Make sure your explanation is really clear – try colour-coding or icons, and then make it consistent throughout your presentation. When you get to your question you can do one of two things:
1. You assume they already know the equation, so you can just give them application questions.
2. Put the colour-coded diagram on the application question page because in the real world they’ll never actually need to remember it.

Incidentally all question/answer pages should have a built-in hyperlink back to the original explanation slide. This is because we’re not testing right and wrong – if some people need another look at the explanation before they attempt some questions, then that’s just fine.

The best questions to test someone’s understanding are application questions. So you deliver a piece of information and then you ask your student to use it. I remember doing an open book A level exam on Pride and Prejudice. I took in my book absolutely jammed with notes, one of them being a definition of primogeniture (the right of the first-born male to inherit). I don’t consider it cheating, and would have happily argued for it to be displayed on posters around the exam hall. Knowing what something is counts for nothing: knowing why it’s relevant is what’s important.

Making questions in PowerPoint

We often have great ideas for quizzes and questions, but are hampered by our lack of skills when it comes to building super-slick, designed, interactive slides. You don’t, however, need to be a PowerPoint jedi to build interactive slides. Find out just how by following this link.

The two examples there (and I really recommend you take a good look) will help you to build everything from maps, menus, and multiple choice questions, to simple games (if you’ve got plenty of time on your hands).

You shouldn’t let PowerPoint get in the way of making some really good testing material – be creative. Start with your ideal question – don’t work up from what you think can be achieved in PowerPoint. Chances are you might not be able to do it in PowerPoint, but there are some great plug-ins that you can download that make all sorts possible within your presentation.

Struggling with making some really good interactive questions? Post your comment below and we’ll see if we can help!

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Written by

Hannah Harper

Principal consultant

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