Moodle ‘Short answer’ quiz questions in second language teaching

Moodle’s ‘Short answer’ quiz questions are popular and easy to use. However, they are also an obvious source of mistakes.

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Short answers are sensitive to spelling mistakes, incorrect spacing between words, or unforeseen answers. Thus, using them in second language learning requires a sharp focus and unambiguous instructions.

If you have never used Short answer quiz questions before, Moodle Docs is a good place to start.

Short answer questions consist of an empty ‘box’ students fill in, either with a single word or a short phrase. One or more correct answers are defined by the teacher, who can also decide whether the answer is supposed to be case-sensitive. Whenever the student types in something that does not match one of the teacher’s answers exactly, the answer will count as incorrect.

This requires that teachers are conscious about the focus of the exercise, reflect upon the design of the quiz, and rule out possible sources of error by providing clear, unmistakable instructions.

When do ‘Short answer’ questions make sense in second language teaching?

Short answers are great tools when

  • you want to check whether a student knows a specific term or vocabulary
  • students have to demonstrate their command of inflectional endings, e.g. drink/drinks or Kind/Kindes/Kinder/Kindern (choose “Yes, case must match” from the Case sensitivity drow-down menu)
  • the exercise focuses on the correct spelling of words
  • the range of possible answers is limited (preferably pairs of words, e.g. inside vs. outside, his vs. her, fun vs. funny)

When are ‘Short answer’ questions problematic?

When you add ‘Short answer’ questions to your quiz, be aware of the high risk of errors due to incorrect spelling or spacing. This can be really frustrating or confusing for students who have actually comprehended the purpose of the exercise, but still get zero points.

Start by asking yourself the question what you actually want to test, or which point you want to make. If it is one of the bullet points mentioned above – go ahead!

However, if you want students to write complete phrases, for instance to test their knowledge of syntactic structures or their reading comprehension, you cannot be sure that an incorrect answer means your students do not have a grasp of the subject matter.

Maybe they just spelt one of the words incorrectly, or perhaps they accidentally typed two spaces instead of one. Another possibility is that the student’s answer is different from the answer you have defined as acceptable. Maybe there was another solution to your question, or your students are just more creative than you had imagined…? Or maybe the question you posed was not as unambiguous as you thought.

So in the end it turns out you did not actually test what you wanted to test – or you tested a lot of other things not necessarily connected with your actual focus.

What to use instead

If you use Short answers for testing your students’ reading or listening comprehension or their command of syntactic structures, other question types may be more appropriate.

  • For syntactic purposes, I recommend Gapfill questions. They allow you to split the sentence into its elements and define the correct word order. The student can concentrate on the word order and does not have to worry about spelling, spacing, or vocabulary.
  • If you want to check whether your students have comprehended a text correctly, use Multiple choice questions instead. The student knows the options he/she can choose from, and you avoid bad quiz scores due to answers you had not anticipated in your quiz setup. This kind of undeserved errors can cause a lot of frustration among students. Another possibility is a True/false question.
  • If students have to choose between pairs of words (e.g. in vs. into), drop-down questions reduce the risk of spelling mistakes. You could for instance use Embedded answers (Cloze), Drag and drop into text, Select missing words, or Gapfill.

If you decide to use Short answers anyway, try to reduce the risk of exercise-unrelated mistakes by

  • analysing unintended “traps” beforehand and
  • giving as clear and unequivocal instructions as possible…

…when setting up your quiz.

Ruth Horak

Ruth Horak

Based in Denmark since 1998, Ruth is an Innovation & Educational Technology Consultant and has been a teacher of Danish as a 2nd Language at Københavns Sprogcenter (although she is a native German speaker, and also proficient in English and Norwegian). Her specialties and areas of interest include alternative pathways of learning, method development, adult education, ICT, Moodle (of course!), gamification, teaching, design & development of teaching material, project development & management.

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