How to control the difficulty of questions

Instructors ask about 100 questions per hour in a typical classroom setting. As instructors, we use questions when we teach and assess apprentices. If you think about it, apprentices can pass or fail courses depending on their ability to answer a set of questions. It’s surprising how much depends on an aspect of teaching that is often taken for granted.

Questions hold a lot more power than we realize. For a long time, questions have been considered less important than answers. Questions are overlooked because it’s the answer that we’re after. Research in the last 20 to 30 years has brought new understanding to question structure. As it turns out, it’s actually the question and not the answer that determines the level of difficulty.

Researchers were able to determine what it is about questions themselves that make them easy or difficult. The research was based on bringing together findings from literacy instruction, psychometrics and the neurosciences.

What they found was that a question’s level of difficulty can be attributed to these four factors:

1.   The type of requested information

  • What is being requested?
  • Is the question asking for the name of a person or is it asking for the main idea?

2.   The type of match

  • How does the apprentice match the given information in the question to the requested information?
  • Does the apprentice need to locate one or more than one piece of information from the information source (textbook, manual, video, etc.)?
  • Do they have to integrate more than one piece of information to come up with the answer?
  • Is specialized knowledge required because not all the information needed is in the information source?

3.   The type of processing

  • What does the apprentice do with the found information in order to complete the task?
  • Is the question asking apprentices to identify, sort, describe, compare and contrast, or explain information?

4.   Competing information

  • Is there information in the information source that could be mistaken for the answer?

These are the underlying factors at work in every question that make a question more or less complex. If we understand how these factors affect the complexity level of questions, then as instructors, we have the power to control how easy or difficult our questions are. We can adjust our questions to work with apprentices at the level they are at and guide them towards higher levels of learning. We can develop tests that can more accurately assess the level of our apprentices. We can use our understanding of question complexity levels to bridge learning gaps. That is the power of questions.

If you are interested in learning more about how to control the difficulty of questions, Controlling Complexity is a publication available for purchase at

SkillPlan - Controlling Complexity

RSS Feed