The importance of a good opening line

This post asks the question,

How does the order of questions in a test affects how well students do?

The answer is “significantly.”

The post points to a paywalled study that shows, fairly conclusively, that starting with simpler questions in a typical academic quiz (on average) improves the overall results and, in particular, the chances of getting to the end of a quiz at all.  The study includes both an experimental field study using a low-stakes quiz, and a large-scale correlational study using a PISA dataset. Some of the effect sizes are quite large: about a 50% increase in non-completions for the hard-to-easy condition compared with the easy-to-hard condition, and a about a 25% increase in time on task for the easy-to-hard condition, suggesting students stick at it more when they have gained confidence earlier on. The increase in marks for the easy-to-hard condition compared with the hard-to easy condition is more modest when non-completions are excluded, but enough to make the difference between a pass and a fail for many students.

I kind-of knew this already but would not have expected it to make such a big difference.  It is a good reminder that, of course, objective tests are not objective. A quiz is a kind of interactive story with a very definite beginning, middle, and end, and it makes a big difference which parts of the story happen when, especially the beginning. Quizzes are like all kinds of learning experience: scaffolding helps, confidence matters, and motivation is central.  You can definitely put someone off reading a story if it has a bad first paragraph. Attitude makes all the difference in the world, which is one very good reason that such tests, and written exams in general, are so unfair and weak at discriminating capability, and why I have always done unreasonably well in such things: I generally relish the challenge. The authors reckon that adaptive quizzes might be one answer, and would especially benefit weaker students by ramping up the difficulty slowly, but warn that they may make things worse for more competent students who would experience the more difficult questions sooner. That resonates with my experience, too.

I don’t give marks for quizzes in any of my own courses and I allow students to try them as often as they wish but, even so, I have probably caused motivational harm by randomizing formative questions. I’m going to stop doing that in future. Designated teachers are never the sole authors of any educational story but, whenever they exert control, their contributions can certainly matter, at small scales and large. I wonder, how many people have had their whole lives changed for the worse by a bad opening line?

Source: It’s a question of order – 3-Star learning experiences


I am a professional learner, employed as a Full Professor and Associate Dean, Learning & Assessment, at Athabasca University, where I research lots of things broadly in the area of learning and technology, and I teach mainly in the School of Computing & Information Systems. I am a proud Canadian, though I was born in the UK. I am married, with two grown-up children, and three growing-up grandchildren. We all live in beautiful Vancouver.

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