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The Right Kind of Wrong: Crafting Plausible Incorrect Answers in Training

Several years ago, I took a training on workplace safety. To this day, there’s a question from that training that’s stayed with me:

An unauthorized stranger has entered your workspace. What should you do?

A. Say, “We keep the toxic chemicals over here—follow me!”
B. Spring from your seat and tackle the stranger to the ground.
C. Follow our company’s policy.

It wasn’t the question itself that left an impression. It was the possible answer choices that made this question so memorable…and ineffective.

As content writers, it’s vital that we ask good questions. They’re our way of assessing what learners know and where knowledge gaps and potential risks lie. However, even the best questions are ineffective if the correct answer is obvious.

Coming up with plausible and challenging incorrect answer choices is one my favorite parts of course-writing. Here are three things to try when crafting wrong answers:

1. Cover Up The Questions

After writing a question and coming up with possible answers, try covering up the question so you’re only looking at the answer options. Can you answer the question correctly without having to read it?

Look for:

  • Obviously wrong answer choices (like showing a stranger where toxic chemicals are stored)
  • A correct answer that’s drastically different from the incorrect ones (e.g., it’s significantly longer or shorter than the wrong answers)
  • Biased wording that gives away correct or incorrect answers (for example, “always” and “never” are typically associated with wrong answers and “follow our organization’s policy” is always right)

If you’re able to correctly answer a question based on the answer choices alone, you’re not gaining insight into what learners know or don’t know. You’re testing their ability to distinguish plausible answer choices from implausible ones.

2. Get Into Character

Someone once told me that if you want to craft good wrong answers, you need to take your compliance hat off. Writing a course on phishing? Think like a hacker. Writing a course on reporting misconduct? Look up actual cases where people didn’t report and understand what drove them make the decisions they did. Struggling to come up with convincing wrong answers? Talk to Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) about actual misconceptions employees have.

Getting into character can help make your wrong answer options more realistic and believable. It can also help uncover the gray areas where right and wrong aren’t clear-cut. Those gray areas are where employees are more susceptible to doing the wrong thing or making the wrong decision.

3. Reverse Engineer It

Typically, we write the question first and the answers second. But what if we flip this on its head?

Knowing upfront the misconceptions you’d like to address or behaviors you’re looking change can help ensure that there aren’t any throwaway wrong answers. As an added bonus, reverse engineering your questions can lead to more cohesion between the question you’re asking and the possible answer options.

The Right Way to Be Wrong

In general, wrong answer choices don’t receive a lot of attention. But to me, they’re one of the main things that help distinguish effective training from check-the-box training.

Plausible wrong answers require learners to think critically and be active participants in what they’re learning, which can lead to more resonant training experiences. They also yield richer insight into exactly what learners know and don’t know, which can contribute to a more robust overall training program.

Maybe it’s just me, but there’s something about coming up with a good wrong answer that feels satisfyingly right.

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