January 12th, 2011

Short Answer Questions: A Great Middle Ground

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Stronger than multiple choice, yet not quite as revealing (or time consuming to grade) as the essay question, the short answer question offers a great middle ground – the chance to measure a student’s brief composition of facts, concepts, and attitudes in a paragraph or less.

The University of Wisconsin Teaching Academy calls short answer questions “constructed response”, or “open-ended questions that require students to create an answer.” The Center for Teaching Excellence at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign says that short answer questions allow students to present an original answer.

Like all assessment items, a short answer question should clearly assess a specific learning objective. It should ask students to select relevant facts and concepts and integrate them into a coherent written response. Question 1, below, is a typical example of a short answer question requiring such a constructed response.

Short Answer 1

This question sets up a scenario with an expert role, a community history, and an environmental problem and asks the students to use a specific problem-solving strategy — the 4 A’s — to frame a response, which can most likely be completed in one paragraph.

Question 2 is slightly more problematic because of a very common error in constructing short answer questions.

Short Answer 2

This question, while well-intended, actually asks two questions. This likely will leave the student confused as to which question is more important. Additionally, the student will have to write a longer response to answer both questions, leading this particular test question more toward an essay response than a short answer. Short answer questions should always ask one clear question, rather than confusing the issue with multiple queries.

Finally, one strategy professors use is to post a rubric in the test so that students will know how points will be distributed. Question 3, below, both shows such a rubric and demonstrates another common problem in short answer question development.

Short Answer 3

Note in this question, a scoring distribution is provided to the students — not only do they know the question is worth six points, but they also know immediately that three points will be awarded for fully answering the question and two points for legibility, with the final point for spelling and grammar. Question 3 also demonstrates another common error — writing questions that close off a student’s potential answer. A better question would ask “How might two accidents be an acceptable level of risk…”, in order to promote a more meaningful answer.

Short answer questions are a great middle ground for professors. They are easier to develop than multiple choice and generate a more in-depth answer. Because of their brevity, they are easier to grade and they encourage students to integrate information into a coherent written answer. They can measure many types of knowledge when phrased correctly — even divergent thinking and subjective and imaginative thought. Best of all, they can provide professors with an open window into student learning — the real purpose of assessment.

Susan Codone, PhD is an associate professor in the Department of Technical Communication, School of Engineering at Mercer University.