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  • Rikki Lee

Test Story

Spoiler alert: There will be a test in this blog post!

Most instructional designers routinely prepare tests for their courses, such as pre-assessment, post-assessment and knowledge questions. As we’re developing these true-or-false, multiple choice, fill-in-the-blank, short answer and other traditional types of tests, we often give little thought to improving the learner’s experience when taking them. We usually spend most of our time and energy designing great content slides that include scenarios, interactions and eye-opening graphics, leaving the tests as an afterthought.

And why bother with also making tests more interesting? The conventional thinking is: If learners have been paying attention during training, they shouldn’t have any trouble answering a traditional question-and-answer test. After all, tests are just not meant to be interesting.

Take a test

Here’s a short multiple-choice test consisting of three questions; see how many you can answer correctly:

1. Which Captivate feature must Mary change?

A. Advanced action

B. Rollover slidelet

C. Text-to-speech audio

D. Drag-and-drop interaction

2. What might be Dr. Taylor’s diagnosis of Sam’s condition?


B. Appendicitis

C. Irritable bowel syndrome

D. Diverticulitis

3. How should the jury find in their criminal verdict against Mr. Riley?

A. Guilty of murder in the first degree B. Guilty of involuntary manslaughter C. Guilty of vehicular manslaughter D. Guilty of DUI with aggravating circumstance

Score yourself

How'd you do? Wait, what—you mean you couldn’t answer any of these questions? Of course, the reason is that each of the questions assumes knowledge that you don’t have. In other words, something’s missing. You don’t know the story (or the scenario) behind each question: What is Mary trying to do in Captivate? What are Sam’s symptoms? And why is Mr. Riley on trial?

But our absurd sample test illustrates the same situation that an adult learner faces with any question in a test they take after training. That is, the test assumes knowledge that a learner may or may not have learned or remembered. And unlearned, forgotten or partially remembered knowledge is really not knowledge at all.

Adult learners need more help with taking tests, which should be treated as something beyond a memory-recall experience. A scenario will increase the learner’s interest in a test question, and it’ll help them recall and retain the knowledge they’ve gained during the course. They’ll have a point of reference (that is, a story) to link and reinforce their knowledge.

As has been often mentioned in this blog, we hold increasingly less information in our brains as we grow older. When we're thirty-something, we forget more than when we were twenty-something, and forgetting accelerates with advancing age. If learners don’t remember the specific knowledge when facing a four-alternative multiple-choice question, they’ll have a 25% chance of answering correctly—or a 75% chance of answering incorrectly.

A scenario question is a great solution to the adult learner’s reduced retention of the knowledge they need to pass a test. Scenarios offer what adults require most when learning: context (or the ability to apply knowledge in a real-life situation)—whether the story, or the question itself, is true or false.

Every scenario tells a story

For example, Question 1 above might be found on a test given during a workshop on improving Adobe Captivate skills. Here’s one scenario: “Mary is converting her legacy Flash-based Captivate courses to HTML5 compatibility, and she finds that not all features will work after publishing. Which Captivate feature must Mary change?” Based on this scenario, “rollover slidelet” (B) is the correct answer. But if you didn’t know what Mary was doing, you wouldn’t know the answer.

Question 2 may be part of an online Continuing Medical Education course for family practitioners. Here’s one scenario: “Sam visits his physician, Dr. Taylor, and complains of burning chest pain after eating, dry cough, difficulty swallowing, and a frequent bitter taste in his throat. What might be Dr. Taylor’s diagnosis of Sam’s condition?” The correct answer is “GERD” (A), which is short for gastroesophageal reflux disease.

Question 3 could be on a test for legal assistants. Here’s one scenario: “Mr. Riley was driving home one night after drinking in a downtown bar. He ran through a stop sign and swerved to miss a cyclist. But he struck a pedestrian instead, who came out of a coma two weeks later. How should the jury find in their criminal verdict against Mr. Riley?” The correct answer is “Guilty of DUI with aggravating circumstance” (D).

Of course, we’ve simplified these scenarios to give you just the bare minimum information. Scenarios should be expanded so that the learner can locate the important facts and disregard any unimportant or misleading information (such as if Sam also complained about an earache or Mr. Riley was late for his daughter’s piano recital). The more complex the scenario, the more it’s based on reality and the more engaged a learner becomes.

So, don’t just assume that the adult learner has picked up the right knowledge to answer every question in a traditional test, for which they would automatically recall and come up with the right answer. Instead, give them the opportunity to apply what they’ve learned by sprinkling real-life scenarios throughout the test. Be creative when developing your own stories to tell, using Mary, Sam, Mr. Riley or any fictitious person you’d like.

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