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Randomizing Questions in an Online Exam

Most course management systems include a feature that allows instructors to randomize the delivery of questions during an exam. This is especially useful when exams are administered in a classroom or lab setting where "wandering eyes" or "collaborative efforts" can be a problem.

Each course management system calls this question randomization feature by a different name (WebCT uses the term "Question Set," Blackboard uses "Random Block," and eCollege calls it a "Question Pool") but the end result is essentially the same. For the sake of simplicity, this article will use the term "random blocks" since the terms "pools" and "sets" have a variety of meanings in e-learning.

There are two general approaches to using random blocks. First, the exam can be designed so that each student is shown the same set of questions but in random order. In the second approach, questions within the exam can be randomly selected from a larger set of questions. For example, the first question in an exam could be randomly selected from a group of four potential questions; the second question randomly selected from yet another group of questions, and so on. If enough questions in an exam are set up this way, it becomes unlikely that any two exams will be identical in terms of the questions that are presented. This second approach is ideal if you want to allow students to take an exam multiple times, but you don't necessarily want them to get the same set of questions each time.

Respondus makes it easy to create random blocks of questions for use in online exams. Here's what you do:

  • Organize the Respondus file so that all questions included in a random block are grouped together. For example, if the fifth question in the exam is going to be randomly selected from a set of four questions, then those four questions should be grouped together at 5, 6, 7, and 8 in the file. (If you want all questions displayed in an exam — just in a random order — there is no need to place the questions in a particular order.)
  • Go to the "Settings" tab in Respondus and select the first tab at the left (the name on the tab will depend on the terminology used by your course management system).
  • Select the button that now appears on the screen to start the one-step wizard.
  • Select the option "Add New Set" and enter the first and last numbers — that is, the range — of the questions that will comprise the random block. For instance, if you want questions 5, 6, 7, and 8 to be the basis of a random block, you would enter 5 as the first question in the set and 8 as the last question.
  • Determine how many of the questions in the random block should be shown during the exam. Select "All" if you want all the questions in the block to be included in the exam (if so, the questions will be shown in random order). If, however, you want a smaller number of questions to be randomly selected from the block during an exam, choose the "Select Number" option and provide the desired number. For example, if you want only one question from questions 5-8 asked during the exam, you would enter the number 1.
  • Enter the point value for the questions in the random block. (All questions in a random block must have the same point value.)
  • Finally, click the "Add New Set" button to finish the creation of the question block.

In the list at the bottom of the screen, a letter representing the random block will appear next to each question contained in it. This allows you to easily see which questions are grouped together.

In order for random blocks to be included with the exam when it is published to your online course, you must select the checkbox "Add Random Blocks to Exam" during the publishing step. Conversely, if you want the random block designations ignored when the exam is published to your online course, leave this box unchecked.

By the way, if you use Respondus to retrieve an exam from your online course and it contains random blocks, this information is maintained by Respondus. That is, you can turn around and publish the exam to another online course without losing any of your random blocks.

Source: Respondus, Inc. (
Originally Published: April 18, 2002
Revised: January 29, 2003

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