How to design short answer word questions (150-300 words)

Maria Kozlovskaya, Aston University
Published September 2020

I have been teaching on a fully online Master’s programme for three years. The module I have been delivering is called the Economic Environment of Business, which introduces Economics to non-economists. It is a small module with 30-50 students based all around the world, most of them doing the online Master’s degree alongside a full-time job.

The most appropriate final assessment for this module was a portfolio of coursework, rather than a time-restricted examination, for the following reasons:

  • The cohort was spread across different time zones;
  • Many students had work and family commitments;
  • The background knowledge of Economics was highly heterogeneous; most of the students expected the module to be to be the most technical and challenging in their whole programme, hence an examination would have created unnecessary anxiety.

In addition, a coursework assignment was easier to administer than a time-restricted examination.

The assessment consisted of six short-answer word questions, corresponding to six weeks of module content, such as Supply and Demand, Production and Cost, etc. (hence the name “portfolio”). Each question had a word limit of 200 words. The questions were available from the start of the module and answers were due at the end of the 7-week term. However we encouraged students to build up the portfolio by completing tasks on a weekly basis, as they were studying the respective topic. The bite-size nature of the assessment meant students could build up their confidence by attempting successive questions. Building confidence is especially important for online learners whose progress relies much more on intrinsic motivation, compared to campus-based students. In particular, it is critical that online learners develop self-efficacy, i.e. the belief in one’s ability to succeed in a task (Stavredes, 2011).

The coursework counted towards 80% of the final mark, the other 20% coming from weekly online tests which also helped build student confidence and ensured they had basic knowledge of Economics. The total word count for the coursework was 1200 words; hence questions had to be reasonably challenging to justify the high share of that assessment in the total module mark. In particular:

  • Questions were original, so that students could not copy and paste the answers from lectures and other sources. This seemed to be effective since no plagiarism was detected by Turnitin.
  • Questions aimed to test students’ higher cognitive skills (analysis and application) rather than simple understanding of the material (Bloom, 1956).

A format which I found could fulfil both goals was a “real-life scenario” structure, where a recent economics- or business-related news story was quoted, and students were asked to analyse it from the point of view of Economic Theory. For example, one question asked to evaluate the US President’s plan to make Mexican producers “pay” for the construction of a border wall through higher import tariffs (a full-mark answer used the supply and demand diagram to show that both American consumers and Mexican producers would be “paying”). The rest of the questions for the 2017-2018 academic year can be found in the Appendix.

The “real-life economic scenario” format also meant students could draw on their existing knowledge of socio-economic phenomena. This familiarity of context made students believe that they can succeed through effort, that is, it promoted internal locus of control – another trait of successful online learners (Stavredes, 2011). Finally, the applied nature of questions helped students see the relevance of what we were learning to the real world, which built internal motivation. Similarly to self-efficacy and internal locus of control, internal motivation is essential for successful independent study which fully online modules rely on.

Students appreciated these features of the coursework, saying that the portfolio structure helped them “keep on top of the workload” and “provided room to work and complete tasks at the same time”, the early release helped “fit everything in a busy schedule”, while the applied format of the questions “made it easy to relate tasks to current situations”.

Bibliography

Bloom, B.S., 1956. Taxonomy of educational objectives. Vol. 1: Cognitive domain. New York: McKay, pp.20-24.

Stavredes, T. (2011). Effective Online Teaching: Foundations and Strategies for Student Success. (p. 60-64)

Appendix: a portfolio of coursework (six short-answer questions) for the Economic Environment of Business Module

Unit 1: Demand & Supply

Unit task: In January 2017, The Telegraph reported disapprovingly on the recent rise in train fares, arguing that “the ticket prices were increased despite overcrowding getting worse last year”. Evaluate this statement (in particular, the use of the word “despite”) from an economic standpoint, using your knowledge of how changes in demand affect equilibrium prices. Illustrate your answer with two diagrams of supply and demand for rail travel: 1) before overcrowding happened (market in equilibrium), 2) during & after overcrowding (during overcrowding: an out-of-equilibrium point in the diagram; after overcrowding: the equilibrium point in the same diagram denoting the rail companies’ pricing response).

Word limit: 200 words maximum, not including the diagram.

Marks: 20

Unit 2: Production & Cost Theory

Unit task: European farmers grow three times more wheat per acre than their American counterparts, even though they use similar technology. The reason behind this discrepancy is the fact that European farmers employ much more labour per acre; consequently, their costs per acre are also much higher. Explain why European farmers decide to incur much higher costs than their American counterparts, using your knowledge of a profit-maximizing rule and the fact that European farmers also receive a much higher price for their wheat owing to government subsidies.

Word count: 200 words maximum.

Marks: 10

Unit 3: Market Structure

Unit task: 1) Complete the matrix below by writing three numbers in each cell of the two tables. The three numbers should be the profits of Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Asda for a given combination of their pricing strategies. Pricing strategy here means how much they charge for a generic good such as a box of eggs. For example, if they all charge £1 for a box of eggs (top-left cell in the left table) they will split the market equally and earn the same profit of 3. However, if Tesco and Sainsbury’s charge £1 for the good while Asda charges 50p for the same good (top-left cell in the right table), then Asda will win over most of its competitors’ custom, hence ending up with a very high profit of 4 (higher than its profit in the previous case), while the other two shops will end up with a small profit of 1 (lower than their profit in the previous case).

2) Using best-response analysis, solve the game table you have just completed for Nash equilibrium. Is the Nash Equilibrium you obtained a realistic prediction of these supermarkets’ pricing strategies?

Tip for part 1) of the task: Remember you don’t need to calculate the exact profit each firm gets in each case; it is only the order of the numbers which matters. So, use any numbers in the cells provided their relative size makes sense. For example, in the cell where Sainsbury’s charges a low price while Asda and Tesco charge a high price, Sainsbury’s payoff should be bigger than in the cell where all three supermarkets charge a high price, etc.

Asda

 

£1

50p

Sainsbury’s

 

Sainsbury’s

£1

50p

£1

50p

Tesco

£1

3, 3, 3

 

Tesco

£1

1, 1, 4

 

50p

            

50p

            

Word count: 200 words maximum, not including the table.

Marks: 20

Unit 4: Markets, Efficiency and the Public Interest

Unit task: The retail price of Windows 10 Home is £119.99, even though it costs Microsoft almost nothing to provide one extra customer with a copy of the software. Why is Microsoft charging a non-negligible price for a product with zero marginal cost? Illustrate your answer with a diagram of demand, marginal revenue and zero marginal cost of a monopolist. Can Microsoft do anything to decrease the deadweight loss, while ensuring they do not lose profit?

Word count: 200 words maximum, not including the diagram.

Marks: 20

Unit 5: The National Economy

Unit task: In November 2017 Bank of England raised the base rate for the first time in a decade. Describe the likely effect of the base rate increase on the UK economy and explain why the Bank made this decision.

Word count: 200 words maximum.

Marks: 10

Unit 6: The Global Business Environment

Unit task: President Trump proposed to impose a 20% tax on imports from Mexico and use the tax revenue to fund the building of a wall between the US and Mexico. Who is this tax going to harm: Mexican producers, or American consumers? Illustrate your answer with a diagram showing the supply and demand for imported Mexican goods, before and after the tax is imposed. On the diagram clearly mark the equilibrium price and quantity before the tax is imposed and the equilibrium prices and quantity after the tax is imposed. Who is going to pay for the wall?

Word count: 200 words maximum, not including the diagram.

Marks: 20

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