In which I assume the role of a design critic

Some students have problems in exams because they don’t answer the question. It drives teachers nuts, and typically we blame the student for not reading carefully enough. Here I’d like to make the case for the defence, and argue that a share of the blame often lies with poor exam design.

Bad Design

This is a stovetop:


Which dial controls which burner?

This is another stovetop, with the controls arranged more logically:


I got this example from The Design of Everyday Things, by Donald A Norman. Writing in 1988, Norman argues that a large amount of everyday design does not take the end-user into account. As a result, we constantly make minor mistakes. We light the wrong gas burner. We hit a light switch not knowing which light it is going to turn on. We push a door which we are supposed to pull. Norman puts a hand on our collective frustrated shoulder and tells us to stop blaming ourselves. “To err is human,” he says. Not only are we forgiven, but we have a hate figure at which to direct our anger: Bad Design.

Applied to education

I’ve noticed for a long time that resources created by teachers often look ugly – Comic Sans etc. – but I’ve only recently started noticing the deficiencies many teachers have when it comes to information design. Instructions are not as clear as they could be. Important information does not stand out. You see this in exams, but also worksheets, posters and webpages. All it takes is consideration of how the resource could be misunderstood, followed up with corrective action.

An example from last week: in a grammar test taken by new students, one student had filled a blank with “a lot of” when the correct answer should have been “many”. In this exam, the instruction to complete the blank with one word was there, embedded in the question in the same 10-point Times New Roman as the words around it. It was begging to be missed.


This term I want to get information and instructions across in such a way that they are impossible to misinterpret. That’s a good unachieveable goal.

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