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The power of questions: putting the interactivity into online self-study
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by Clive Shepherd
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It's hard to bring about learning without a degree of interactivity, whether this is between people or built into the training materials. And most meaningful forms of interaction are stimulated by questions. If you’re creating online, self-study materials, questions are your most powerful tool. In this article, Clive Shepherd introduces the wide range of question types available and explains how you can build these into your web-based training programmes.

Contents
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How questions can be used in training
Types of question
Categories of learning
Methods for obtaining input
Questions in simple HTML
Questions with scripting
Questions with Java
Summary

How questions can be used in training
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It's easy to underestimate just how powerful questions can be. They serve so many important purposes in training:

To gather information
If you need some data about the user, you ask questions like:

To create a profile
Often you will use questions to help develop a profile of the user or to have users gain some awareness of themselves. You may use a questionnaire, inventory or self-assessment test:

To stimulate reflection
An important part of learning is to relate new material to past experience. Questions can stimulate a pause for thought:

To gather views and opinions
If you’ve used a case study or some form of group exercise, you may want to follow this up by asking the user’s opinion about some aspect of what they’ve seen:

To gather ideas
A common training activity is brainstorming. You may ask questions like:

To reinforce learning
Questions may be used as part of a drill and practice activity to help learners master a new skill, or as a form of repetitive exercise to aid memory retention:

To assess learning
Questions may be used before, during or after a course to assess the level of learning attained by the learner. These questions will usually be closely related to the learning objectives of the course:

To stimulate action
Questions can be used to help bring about the transfer of learning:

To obtain feedback
And at key review points or at the end of the course, you will use questions to obtain feedback:

Life beyond questions
Of course, questioning is not the only way of achieving the above. There are many more techniques in the training toolkit:

Nor are all question types suited to interactive self-study. Many questions need much longer answers, which are harder (if not impossible) for a computer to react to. In addition, some questions may be posed by a computer but responded to away from the computer, say a research task, a pause to think, an essay or paper to write, or discussion with other learners (whether on or off-line).

questions as a training activity

The diagram explains how the questioning covered in this article fits into the broader training picture:

Having narrowed down the scope to such an extent, are we left with anything of real importance? We certainly are. In interactive self-study, it is questioning that provides the most meaningful interactivity, that is the most powerful weapon in facilitating online learning.
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Types of question
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The questions that can be used in interactive self-study can be classified into five types:

Selecting
In selecting questions, the user simply picks from a range of options. These are the most common questions and the simplest to develop. There are many varieties:

Supplying
With this type of question, the user supplies an answer by typing into a text box. There are several variants:

Ordering/ranking
The purpose of this type of question is to have the user place a number of items in sequence, whether this is their logical order or their order of importance. In the case of the former, there will typically be one correct position for each item, although there is no reason why items shouldn’t be accepted in a range of positions.

Matching
With this type of question the user identifies matched pairs, usually from two lists. There may or may not be equal numbers of items in each list.

Locating
In this case, the user identifies the location of a part on a photo, illustration or diagram. The user may have to locate a single item or a series of items.
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Categories of learning
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The various question types listed above are going to be more or less useful depending on the nature of the learning need. The following categories can be useful in analysing the need:

The following table provides examples of question formats and types that can be employed to reinforce or test for learning of each of these five categories.

Category Question format Question type
facts what is …?
who is …?
where is …?
supplying or selecting
  what goes with …? matching
concepts which class does this object belong to? selecting or supplying
  which object(s) belong in this class? selecting
processes, principles, rules given x situation, what are the likely effects? selecting or supplying
  given x situation, what should you do? selecting or supplying
  if x happens, what is likely to be the cause? selecting or supplying
procedures place these steps in the order in which they should be executed ordering
  given that you have just done x, what would the next step be? selecting or supplying
  what are the names of the steps in the procedure for …? supplying
parts of … given a location on an object, provide the name of the part selecting or supplying
  given a part name, identify the correct position on the object
locating

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Methods for obtaining input
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Our five types of question - selecting, supplying, ordering/ranking, matching and locating - can be implemented using a wide variety of input methods. Here are nine common methods:

Text links
A text link is the standard hypertext method. The text is typically underlined and/or differently coloured. The user answers the question by clicking on the link.

Image links
Images, typically in the form of buttons, are an obvious alternative to the above. Instead of the user clicking on text, they click on an image to make their selection.

Image maps
With this method the user answers a question by clicking on a particular part of an image. The image will contain a number of ‘hot spots’, each of which represents an alternative answer.

Radio buttons
Radio buttons allow the user to make a single selection from a range of options. To answer the question, the user simply clicks on the radio button corresponding to their chosen option.

Check boxes
A single check box allows the user to make a binary decision - either they tick the box or they don’t. Used in combination, they allow the user to make multiple selections from a list of options.

Drop down lists
A drop down list provides the user with a limited list of text options, from which they can typically make a single selection.

Text boxes
A text box allows a user to type in an answer.

Drag and drop
With this method, the user answers a question by dragging objects from one part of the screen to another. Depending on the type of question it will make a difference what objects they select and where they choose to position them.

Sliders
In this case, the user drags a slider to a chosen position, typically to represent a position on a scale.

Implementing these methods
Not all of these input methods are equally simple to implement in an online learning environment. Some require only basic HTML, some require the addition of some JavaScript into the HTML code and some require the services of a Java programmer. The following sections provide examples of the sorts of questions that can be achieved at each of these three levels.
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Questions in simple HTML
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Three of the input methods can be accomplished using only the simplest HTML, whether coded directly or with the aid of a what-you-see-is-what-you-get editor like Microsoft FrontPage or Macromedia Dreamweaver. The three are:

Here are some examples of each of these, all of the selecting type. This is a multiple choice question using text links:

multiple choice question with text links

Here is a true-false question using buttons links:

true false question with image links

This is a locating question in which choices are made using an image map:

locating question using an image map
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Questions with scripting
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With the help of a little JavaScript, you can start to employ standard HTML form elements to provide input to your questions:

JavaScript programming is easy if you know how, but is not a task for the technically-unadventurous. If that describes you, you have two choices:

Here are some examples of questions employing scripted input methods. The first is a multiple choice question using radio buttons:

multiple choice question using radio buttons

The next uses check boxes to allow the user to make multiple selections from a list of options:

Multiple answer question using check boxes

This example uses a series of drop-down lists to create a matching question:

matching question using drop down lists

Text boxes are primarily used for the supplying question type. Here a single text box is used to obtain numerical input:

numerical input using a text box

In this example, a series of text boxes are used to ‘fill-in-the-blanks’:

multiple fill-in-the-blank questions
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Questions with Java
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Java applets allow you to use input methods that were never conceived as part of the HTML format:

Java programming is a job for the professional. However, a well-written Java ‘applet’ should be generic enough to satisfy a wide range of requirements, so the costs are not likely to be prohibitive.

Here are some examples of questions that employ a Java applet. The first is a drag and drop of the ordering type:

ordering question using drag and drop

The final example is a slider used as an alternative way to obtain numerical input to a supplying type question:

numerical input using a slider
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Summary
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Our guided tour of the world of questions has taken us from the abstract to the specific, from an understanding of the possibilities to a review of the practical implications. Let’s briefly recap where we’ve been:

So has this tour taken you anywhere worthwhile? Well hopefully it has alerted you to the wide range of questioning possibilities in interactive, self-study materials. It may have helped you to identify the learning situations to which these questions are best suited. It may also have made you aware of the technical implications of building questions into your own online learning courseware.

Any questions anybody?
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