As instructional designers, writing quiz questions is one of the trickiest parts of the job. To come up with effective questions that will help determine if learners understand the material and can apply it to their jobs, you have to first reflect on the learning objectives and how they were presented in the course content. 

It’s common for course designers to spend so much time coming up with the quiz questions that the incorrect answer options (often referred to as “distractors”) are almost an afterthought. One way to combat this is to flip your course design process on its head and design the quiz questions first—before you build out the core course content. That way you can be sure your content aligns with the quiz questions right from the start.

Another good strategy is to avoid rushing through the quiz-designing phase at the end to meet your delivery deadline. Hurrying this step often results in incorrect answers that are obviously wrong, defeating the purpose of the quiz. After all, the point of quizzing learners is to make sure they know the correct answer—not to put them through a tedious exercise.

So, how do you come up with plausible incorrect answers that aren’t too obvious, nor too subtle? In this article, I’ll walk you through a few best practices that can help.

1. Base Answer Options on Real-Life Situations

The word plausible literally means “seeming reasonable or probable.” When you’re writing incorrect answers, think to yourself: Is this something that sounds reasonable? Is this something that someone would actually do? 

The easiest way to ensure your incorrect answers seem legit is to base them on real-life situations in which someone made the wrong call. Use those mistakes as your incorrect answers. Remember, the goal of quizzing people isn’t to trick them, but to offer up a few realistic options to see whether they make the right choice, based on what they learned in the course.

2. Talk to the Right People

Coming up with plausible incorrect answer options is even more challenging if you don’t have well-rounded, broad-based information. If you find yourself in that situation, consider reaching out to the following people for input:

  • A Subject Matter Expert: If you have access to someone who is an expert on the course topic, talk to them! They’re sure to have some real-life examples to share.
  • Your Client: The person who asked you to create this course likely did so for a reason. If it’s because people aren’t doing things correctly, you could ask them to elaborate on mistakes they’ve seen people make.
  • Your Learners: If they need to be trained on this topic, chances are it’s because they’re lacking knowledge or skills in this area. If possible, talk to a few learners and see where their current knowledge or skill level is at. Doing so can give you insight into the kinds of mistakes they might be making. 

Talking to people who are closer to the subject matter can help you get a better understanding of where things commonly go off the rails, which can make it that much easier to come up with ideas for plausible distractors.

3. Ask the Right Questions

When you’re chatting with the people mentioned above, be sure to ask open-ended questions. Then, just let them talk. Take detailed notes or ask if you can record the meeting. You never know what off-hand comment will be helpful. Here are some questions to get the conversation rolling:

For SMEs and Managers:

  • What are some common Topic X–related mistakes you’ve seen people make? 
  • What are some commonly held myths or misconceptions about Topic X?

For Learners:

  • What’s something about Topic X that’s always confused you?
  • What’s something you’ve always wondered about Topic X?
  • Tell me about a time that you’ve made a Topic X–related mistake.
  • What obstacles get in the way of you performing X task (achieving the goal of the course)? 

Don’t be afraid to ask follow-up questions. Let the conversation flow freely. When a response ends naturally, go back to your list of questions and start again.

The Bottom Line

Sitting down and asking pointed questions about mistakes people make in real life can take time, but it’s the best way to come up with plausible incorrect answers that will truly test your learner’s knowledge. If that’s the purpose of your quiz, it’ll be time well spent.

Want more tips for creating effective quizzes? Check out these helpful resources:

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