Reimagine Learning

Complex Question Types

While multiple choice questions and other traditional question types are often very useful, they can feel artificial. When you’re taking them, you can always tell that you’re “taking a test,” and that process always feels different from anything you’d have to do outside of the testing environment. Complex question types address this problem by simulating the kind of task you would have to perform in a realistic scenario. In this way, they make assessment more proximate to the discipline while allowing learners to get instant feedback. For example, complex question types could ask you to:

  • Draw a chemical structure using a graphical interface. In chemistry, students need to draw structures to demonstrate that they know what the products of a reaction might be. Learning technology can automate the evaluation of these drawn objects, which is also applicable in math and other quantitative fields.
  • Construct or complete a financial statement. Based on data, the learner could decide what goes where, perform calculations, and draw conclusions based on that data.
  • Create a Gantt chart for a virtual project. The learner could identify tasks, choose start and end dates for them, and drag them to appropriate place so that dependencies are accounted for.
  • Design a plan for resource allocation given realistic constraints. The learner could decide where to put financial resources, where to assign key personnel, and how much time to devote to different tasks.


Complex question types help bridge the gap between the testing experience and the real-world skills that we want to measure. They can have multiple parts, data to analyze, and can even be combined with traditional question types when appropriate. They are usually more engaging, than typical testing experiences, and can therefore provide valuable practice in addition to playing a role in high-stakes exams. While they are often technology-based, they don’t have to be. You can include complex question types in a paper-based assignment. When they are technology-based, though, they can be made algorithmic, which allows greater flexibility and potentially unlimited practice on key skills. In the right context, they can make assessment more authentic and more valid.


Complex question types, are, well, complex. They are harder to write than other questions, require sophisticated technology if they are to be graded automatically, and can be confusing for some learners if the interface is not clear. Multiple choice questions don’t usually require instructions, but a complex question type might need a tutorial to make sure that learners understand how it works.

When to use them

Complex question types are most useful when there is a gap between the testing experience and real world applications. They can place the learner in a realistic role and help illustrate how the skills they have been learning would be used to solve real problems. Sometimes, as in the examples above, complex item types can provide a more authentic way to test a skill. However, they can also be used to demonstrate the applicability of abstract skills such as adding fractions and even critical thinking.

Complex question types can also be used for practice, and even as a primary learning experience. There is no reason why we have to split learning experiences and assessment experiences. A good assessment can provide opportunities to learn, as well, and complex question types can be a part of that effort.