How do you eat an elephant?

“But Mike”, you’ve all screamed*, “we know it would be great to have multiple choice and short answer questions for all our homework, but where are we going to get the questions? We need shed loads!”

Well, I do, of course, have an answer to that.

I know I can easily break down the Maths GCSE into around 200 bite sized topics. I don’t know enough about other subjects so I’m going to take a punt and suggest that at most you might be able to break a GCSE down into around 500 small topics worthy of their own set of questions.

Then you have to consider how many questions each chunk needs to have in the question bank to enable a range of student ability levels to be tested using the bank. DfE breaks down students into Low, Middle and High ability. That would be three categories. I’m going to add another two just to be on the safe side. So five ability levels (overlapping, of course).

Then how many questions in each level. Lets just pick a number out of the air. Let’s use 100. “Why use 100, Mike?” Because it makes the maths easier and sounds big enough.

So, 500 topics, 5 ability levels, 100 questions in each ability level. Crikey, that’s a total of 250,000 questions. For just one subject. That’s way too many for a teacher to create and put into a multiple choice question system. That’s obviously why no-one uses such systems very much.

Then I remembered something I’d heard many years ago about collaboration. It was suggested that if you took all the subject matter that was required for all subjects in the national curriculum and counted up all the resources that you might need to develop lesson plans for them (differentiated, of course), you would end up with a very large number. But if you divided that very large number by the number of teachers in the country you ended up with a very small number of lessons each. I seem to recall the number ‘two’ being commonly quoted. Of course, this would assume a perfect level of collaboration, which would be difficult to achieve, even using modern collaborative tools.

But think about this. Let’s say look at History, for example. How many secondary History teachers are there in the country? Six, seven thousand? That sounds about right. So, if we could crowd-source the questions in a perfect way then that would amount to what, 40 questions each? Even if only 10% of them got involved that’s just 400 questions each, or a 10 question quiz per week for a school year. In a very short period of time it would be possible to create a database of multiple choice and short answer questions.

Just think how useful that would be if it were created as an open resource for anyone to use. Even for commercial providers who were creating question delivery tools (and I’ll declare an interest – if there were such an open database then I would be working on a question tool right now). Creating the database of questions would lower the entry barrier into this market which should end up giving us better tools. The funding required for such a database would, in the scheme of DfE handouts, be peanuts. Assuming, of course, it was given to someone sensible.

These things are do-able. It just needs some organisation and a commitment to collaborate and share.


* Not really, but it’s a good opener.