Is this a good page? (a) Yes (b) No (c) Maybe

Multiple choice questions have a bad reputation. They are seen as being simplistic, easy and aimed solely at creating grades rather than testing understanding. I disagree. Those things are all true, but multiple choice questions can be a very useful tool when they are done well.

I recently came across this site which gives advice for writing good multiple choice questions. The best thing is that these principles are easily understood, so students can be given the task of writing the questions. Furthermore, by writing good multiple choice questions about in-class topics, students are practicing that essential fieldwork technique, questionnaire writing.

The techniques for writing good questions can be split into the stem (the ‘question’ part) and response.

Writing good stems

A good stem should not require a multiple choice response. It should be answerable without seeing the potential responses. This means that rather than choosing the best fit, the student will instead identify their response and then select the most closely matching choice.

It’s possible to write good stems that have more than one ‘correct’ answer in the responses, but there is a best choice of answer. For example: Where is the Eiffel Tower? The responses could include: (a) In France (b) In Paris (c) South of London. Clearly, the best response is (b) Paris, because it is the most specific. A good stem will make the criteria clear. The question should be: What is the most specific location of the Eiffel Tower from the list provided? Alternatively, students could be asked to select all the correct answers that apply.

Some students will want to reference a resource, such as a graph or map, as part of their question. If so, they should make sure that the resource is directly relevant. It is useless to give a map of London and ask ‘If a map of Cape Town was at a similar scale to this one, what would be the distance in km of 3cm?’. Any graphics should also be extremely clear – and fully referenced, of course!

Finally, questions should be based on objectively verifiable information, and not be opinion based. Naturally, the exception is when you are canvassing student opinions – but in this case, there is no wrong answer!

Writing good responses

There are two types of response: the answers, and the distractors. The answer is the correct response, while the distractor is the incorrect response.


Good answers are specific, and roughly the same level of detail and length as distractors. They should be the only plausible answer to the question, unless the question specifically states that more than one answer is to be chosen. A bad set of answers would be ‘What is your favourite colour?’ (a) Red (b) Green (c) Yellow, because it doesn’t allow the possibility of the correct answer being not on the list. However, it’s best to avoid the answer being ‘none’ or ‘all’ of the options, because again this doesn’t challenge the student – they can likely work it out.

It’s not quite needless to say that the answer should always be correct. It should never be a ‘close enough’ approximation to the real answer. If a margin of error is factored in to the answer, this should be made clear in the question.


Distractors should always be potential answers. Silly responses such as “‘Where is the Eiffel Tower’ (a) Paris (b) The Moon (c) Jupiter (d) Mars” are not going to help anyone. Nor does including one obviously false choice, as students are not being challenged.

A good distractor can be something that students often get wrong. For example, many students are unclear about the difference between a model and a theory – and this isn’t helped by the incorrect use of the terms in some academic models and theories. Distractors can also be sensible ideas, but ones that don’t actually answer the question.


Shank, n.d. Origins and Purposes of Multiple Choice Tests. San Francisco State University: The Center for Teaching and Faculty Development. Accessed 15 May 2018.

Everybody hates marking

I hate it. You hate it. And when the students receive their work, two months after they wrote it and with every failure highlighted in red ink with a full page comment on what they did wrong, they hate it too.

Everybody hates marking.

So how can we get through our pre-university Geography course without doing any? Well, the answer is: we can’t. But we can make our marking less time consuming, more positive and more impactful. I came across this blog post from Robin Neal about a year ago, and have found the advice to be excellent. My favourite suggestions from the page are:

  • Don’t mark entire essays all the time; choose a focus such as paragraphing, use of evidence, or introduction construction, and focus on that
  • Insist that the students do something with your feedback
  • Hold the grade ‘captive’ from the student until they give feedback that matches yours

I have a couple of extra tips of my own for getting through a big pile of marking, especially if that pile seems to keep on growing:

  • I never have more than two items of marking (e.g. a Year 9 test and Y12 essay) at any time. I plan not only when I’ll set the work and receive it in, but also when I will give it back to the students – I literally made a Google Calendar for this purpose. Having a limited number of things to mark can help me to focus and I often end up getting the work back before my personal deadline.
  • I give myself a deadline of two working weeks for marking a class set of work. As I say, it’s often just two or three days in reality.
  • I mark four or five pieces in a marking session, then switch to something else. I physically put the work into small piles and then take a break when I reach the end of the pile. It keeps me alert and helps me to keep going when I may otherwise give up.
  • I use lots of different coloured felt tips (markers) to mark, rather than the same colour pen. Who cares if it’s red, green, purple, orange – whatever, as long as it’s readable. By switching colours after each mini pile, or even after each student, I keep myself more focused. If I’m feeling inclined I sometimes even choose the colour depending on the student – orange for warm and friendly students, red for boisterous students, green for calm students and so on – but I never tell them what I’ve done, it’s just a bit of fun for me.

Everybody hates marking. But I hate it a little bit less than I used to now that I follow the rules above.

Sustainable Development Goals: A Balloon Debate

A good activity to get students to think about the SDGs is a balloon debate. A balloon debate is commonly done in History where students take on a historical figure to argue for the importance of their role in history. The exercise imagines that the people are in a hot air balloon which will crash into a mountain so they must increase their height by throwing weight out of the balloon – and they do this by throwing out the least influential historical figure.

For the SDGs we can use a balloon debate to more deeply consider the strengths and weaknesses of each Goal, while adding an element of fun and competition to the classroom. Balloon debates are also great opportunities for cross-curricular integration with languages, as persuasive speech is an important aspect of the activity.

To do this for the SDGs,

  • Each person finds out about one SDG (for a smaller class you may want to select the SDGs that are most pertinent to your students)
  • They present the reasons why that SDG is the most important one
  • After all the goals have been presented, the group votes and throws out the least important goal
  • Repeat the presentations, eliminating the least important goal each time until there is one goal left

Alternatively, hold rounds of four goals at a time, or eliminate more than one goal at each stage – e.g. cut from 17 goals to just the top 5 in the first round, and allow more in-depth argument for the remaining goals.

Set the criteria first

The most important element of the balloon debate is the criteria used to judge the arguments for each SDG. While persuasive speaking and connecting with the audience are important, the debate should also have clear links to the area of study. Criteria for this balloon debate could be:

  • The goal statement should be realistic; vague or overly ambitious goals will be thrown out of the balloon
  • The indicators used for the goal should be clear, specific, easy to collect appropriate data etc.
  • The goal should be fundamental to other aspects of human development, i.e. it should be key to multidimensional development. For example, SDG 8 (Decent Work and Economic Growth) would be hard to achieve without SDG 5 (Gender Equality).

This last goal is perhaps the most important because it helps to develop synthesis. As students make links to other SDGs, they are really making links to other areas of Geography, and the syllabus can be used to reinforce these links.

Students write the mark scheme

This is a good way to get students to think not just about what a good answer will include, but the range of possible good answers. When they have to put themselves in the position of examiner, students can begin to develop better habits as they think about how their own answers will be received.

An example is shown below (full version here). Each question has two boxes below it, one for the mark scheme and one for the answer. It helps to have one question done for the students first. I ask students to do both at the same time, but you could vary it by asking them to just do one side and have another student complete the other, then return to the original person for further discussion.

Describe the expected growth in tourism between 2010 and 2030. [3]

Overall growth [1]

Any two appropriate points for remaining marks such as:

All regions experience growth [1]

Biggest growth in Asia [1]

Smallest amount remains in Africa [1]

Largest amount remains in Europe [1]

Smallest rate of growth in Europe [1]

Must have quantifiation for full marks. No quantification allow max 2 marks.

There is predicted to be a growth in international tourism in all regions, with the greatest rate of increase in Asia from 200m in 2010 to over 500m in 2030. However, the greatest total will remain in Europe with an increase of just 150m taking the total to 650m by 2030. Africa remains the smallest contributor despite an increase of over 50m.

Identify three impacts this is likely to have on the world economy. [3]


Students continue….


To prepare, make sure students have done a few practice tests and have access to the mark schemes. This is essential, otherwise students won’t have enough exam awareness of build on. I use the questions on this site as the source for these, and always provide the students with the link to the relevant page so they can see the various possible answers to the questions.

The most important aspect of a lesson like this is to monitor the student responses to check the mark schemes that are being written are on the right lines. It’s a great way of seeing what they expect a good answer to look like – and allows for quick and early detection of any misconceptions about what the mark scheme is looking for.

How do you know that? (A TOK-able moment)

What’s the world’s population today?

If you said 7.5 billion, you’d be about right (at the time of writing)*. How do you know that?

But, it’s not necessarily the correct answer.

When I start a new unit or even a new subtopic, I often begin by asking my student what they already know. This is important so I can establish the level of grounding required before we get into more complex ideas.

A great way to encourage students to think more deeply is to ask ‘how do you know that’? Often, the response is “I don’t know” or “I just heard it”. This is a good opportunity to establish all the different ways of knowing. Many students will have been studying a course in the theory of knowledge, and will be aware of the different ways in which they encounter knowledge.

In the IB Diploma Theory of Knowledge course, there are eight ways of knowing that students are expected to engage with (Goulder and Mitchell, n.d.):

  • Language
  • Sense perception
  • Emotion
  • Reason
  • Imagination
  • Faith
  • Intuition
  • Memory

As Geographers we can go even further and investigate problems with ‘what’ the students claim to know. For example:

  • Does your knowledge of this issue change with time?
  • Is it ‘correct’ right now? Will it be different in a few minutes/days/months/years?
  • Would the answer be different if you were someone else? (Think nationality, gender, race, class, political beliefs and so on.)
  • Would the answer be different if you were somewhere else?
  • Does your answer depend on someone else’s methodology, and could that be flawed?
  • How precise does your answer need to be to be ‘correct’?
  • Is your answer fact or opinion?
  • If an opinion, how are you justified in believing that?
  • If a fact, how can you be sure?
  • Can you confirm this knowledge?

These questions are always useful at the beginning of any inquiry as a way to focus students on using appropriate evidence, and having the ability to support their argument with a list of sources.

* At the time of writing in January 2018 the latest estimate from the United Nations Population Division was 7,550,262,101 (UNPD, 2018).


Goulder and Mitchell, n.d. What are the ways of knowing? Accessed 30 January 2018.

UNPD [United Nations Population Division], 2018. World Population Prospects 2017. Accessed 30 January 2018.

Simple simulations

Simulations are often left out of post-16 teaching because they are perceived as taking too much preparation on the part of the teacher, too much time out of the lesson, and giving too little knowledge to the students compared to a ‘regular’ lesson.

But simulations have some huge benefits. They are memorable, flexible, fun, stimulating and allow synthesis to develop. Here are some ways to get simulations into lessons more effectively.

Simulations aren’t real

There’s no need to make the simulation life-like. Just because you’re trying to study how different development issues are prioritised doesn’t mean you have to simulate the entire process that led to the Sustainable Development Goals. Just make sure the students experience a little bit of the real thing by, for example, using the correct terms for the Judge / Chair / Chief Executive / etc, and if possible use the person’s real name.

Keep it simple

Simulations can be very simple. Get students into teams; tell them they are competing against the others, and that they will win depending on simple criteria. Unless the simulation is meant to be about a process e.g. the workings of the European Union, you can reimagine it to fit your needs.

Visuals are important

If it looks like a classroom, and sounds like a classroom, it probably is a classroom. Make it look different – arrange the tables, print out some flags, wear a costume, anything to make it look more like a different experience.

Sound is important

If you have different countries participating, play the national anthems (they’re easily available on YouTube) as each country steps up. It’s fun, changes the dynamic of the room, and gives the students a minute or so to get ready.

Don’t let it take too long

A single lesson for preparation (plus homework), and less than a single lesson for the simulation itself, should be sufficient. Ensure students don’t go over their allotted time for any presentation or discussion – be ruthless, and this problem will disappear over time as the students learn to match expectations.

Use existing resources

Simulations can take minutes to organise. For example, you could simulate the decision of where to hold the 2024 and 2028 Olympics by reopening the bid process from 2015; the bids have all been presented and published, so the resources are already there. Make it more focused by asking cities to present on just three criteria e.g. organisational capability, economic impact and social development.

Use real-life opportunities

Most geographical topics have a world summit each year which will give the simulation an extra relevance. For example, the World Cities Summit is an annual event. In 2018 the venue is Singapore.

Reverse essays 

A great technique to focus students is to give the final assignment well in advance of the deadline, and even before the teaching for it has occurred.

By asking students to consider the question without prior knowledge, we encourage creative responses – precisely the sort of original thinking loved by examiners. The main pitfall of such creativity is an irrelevant response, or even ideas that are just plain wrong. However, because the student goes on to study the issue before writing their response, they are encouraged to remain flexible and reconsider their original response frequently. Ultimately this contributes to the development of what our parents often claim we lacked as teenagers – common sense.

Common sense is simply the application of prior understandings into a new context. Young people are still establishing these understandings and so they sometimes land on a misconception through no fault of their own. When this happens after a round of instruction it can make students feel stupid and a failure. It’s precisely the lack of any prior learning that allows them to be flexible and confidently let misconceptions go.

A good example is an in-class essay. The essay title can be shared, and students create possible responses. The teaching then frames the essay, resulting in a clearer essay plan that will incorporate the clearly important ideas (they were taught in class so they must be important, right?). Meanwhile, as ideas are taught in class, students will be checking against their own ideas to develop more complex responses.