Wisdom Wednesday: The problem with true-false questions

I recently took two genealogy courses with the National Institute for Genealogical Studies (NIGS) (because after my full-time job, caring for my 3 year old, doing my research, and training for a marathon I really have nothing better to do with my time ::cough::).

I have some experience with research in genealogy (my hobby), as well as experience with research in my main field of study, but I am painfully aware of how far I have yet to go if I want my genealogy research to be of professional quality. Thus the NIGS booth at a conference I recently attended caught my eye.

These courses are fully online, with no interaction with the instructor save for some optional Live Meetings that are scheduled once or twice during each session. My comments below are primarily about the Methodology I (M1) course, since this is the one that created so much turmoil for me. For the most part the courses were positive experiences, but there is room for improvement.

The good:

Re-created family group sheets:

Although I complain about this below, the benefit to re-creating the family group sheets manually was that I had them as traveling companions. It turned out to be easier than trying to pull up the electronic copies from my family tree software when I wanted to ask my relatives a few questions. It came in really handy when the power went down during a bad storm. No power?! What else is left to do other than review family history?

The exams:

The exams were a good representation of the material covered in the course and really helped me to see what I had gained from taking the course.

The Live Meetings:

It was great to have the ability to chat with the instructor through the Live Meeting facility.  A suggestion for anyone considering a course with NIGS in the future: plan ahead. Find out when the live meeting will be. Do your best to work ahead and get as many of your readings and assignments done before the meeting date so that you can have most of your questions available during the live meeting. You won’t have another chance until the next live meeting, which will most likely not be scheduled until after your course is over.

The flexibility — If you’re a busy person, then this one’s for you: 

It is very important that I have the flexibility to proceed with the course materials at my own pace and at a time that is convenient for me. All of the material for the week was available at the beginning of each week (or as soon as I finished the prior week’s assignments, if I was working ahead) so it was a simple enough task to plan out how much time it would take and where it would fit into my schedule. The only pieces that aren’t flexible are the Live Meetings (for obvious reasons) and the course start and end dates.

The not so good:

The M1 course started out a bit slow for me. 

In conversing with the spokesperson at the NIGS booth, she suggested that, although I do have experience, I should start with M1 since all of the following Methodology courses build upon what is learned in M1. That made sense to me, so I signed up. However, rebuilding my family tree from the ground up (pun intended) was somewhat repetitive and left me thinking that I was wasting my time taking M1 and should have skipped right to M2 which is about organizing and if you know me well you know I should probably take M2 at least 3 times. This year. And twice more next year.

No direct instructor-student feedback:

There are a couple of practicals after which you receive a pop-up window with the instructor’s pre-written answer. It is nice to have the immediate feedback with the answer, however there were many situations in which I would have liked to be able to ask the instructor a question before submitting my assignment.

If the assignments are not crystal, then it is difficult to know what the instructor was thinking. There were too many occasions in which I had to ask myself “What is it the instructor really wants to know?” — or if it was really late and I was really exhausted, it came out more like “WTH?” (trying to keep it G-rated here).

Live Meetings not for Mac?

I could not get the Live Meeting to run properly on my Mac. Thankfully I have a netbook, and I was able to set it up there. One cheer for netbooks (that’s about all of the cheer it will get from me, but that’s another story altogether).

True-false questions are just plain trouble:

There is an exam at the end of each of the courses. The exams were a good representation of the material covered in the course. However, there were quite a few questions in which I ran across the same “WTH?” problem as with the assignments.

As a teacher, I know that TF questions can be painful for both the instructor and the student. The instructor, when writing the question, must be a psychic, determining the myriad ways that any given student might interpret the question, and considering all of the potential responses. Yet even if the instructor spent a good portion of their life on that one question, there is bound to be a student that says “WTH?!”  I’m usually that student.

Of course I can’t give you the exact question from the exam I took, but here’s an attempt at an analogy:

True or False:
Yesterday’s newspaper (8/9/11) contains an article describing an identity mixup in which a family was incorrectly told their daughter had died in a car accident.


So what’s the problem with this question?

Answer: It is not specific enough. Which newspaper? The Wall Street Journal? The NY Times? The Arizona Republic? Online, or in print?

The point is — without knowing which newspaper, I could answer True and be correct, or answer False and also be correct.  Now imagine being the student and staring at the question for 15 minutes trying to determine which time-bomb to pick: T or F?

To the credit of the NIGS, I did email them and here is a copy of the response:

Thank you for your email and comments regarding question [# deleted] of the Methodology-Part 1: Getting Started course exam. You have made a valid point and will be given credit for this exam question. (Please note that the adjustment will be reflected in your grade after the course completion date.) We are also passing your comments on to the instructor for review.
Your input is very much appreciated. It is with the assistance of our students that we are able to improve our courses.
Good luck with your studies!


Kudos to the NIGS for wanting to improve their course experience. As for M1 I give it an overall rating of 4 out of 5 stars. Despite the kinks, if you’re looking for some genealogical education, and you’re willing to pay for it, then this is a good option. Just watch out for those true-false questions.

If you’ve taken other courses (whether NIGS or not) and blogged about it, let us know in the comments (Leave a comment).

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  1. Eftychia

    This was a very well written post!

  2. Dana

    Great post. I really enjoyed reading this, and it’s given me more to think about with my internal debate with myself – do I start the NIGS courses or do I go for the NGS Home Study course? I have really been waffling on this for a while. Of course, I’d love to just take Boston’s online certification course, but I’ll need to dream on that one for a good while longer. Regarding NIGS, though, it really does make me think I ought to just jump right to M2; I tend to ignore coursework if I’m bored, and I’d hate to start off on the wrong foot. >.>

    • 1ancestry2littletime

      I’ve gone through that internal debate myself, but the NIGS booth put an end to it, at least temporarily. Ahhhh — dreaming about the Boston course — one of my favorite things to do!!

  3. Cheryl Palmer

    What a great article! I know it is exactly how you feel, and with merit. As you know I have taken the same two courses with you and have given you my feedback, a bit. The yes and no questions actually stopped me quick, trying to figure what answer was being looked for also. If I hadn’t taken these courses I believe after reading your post, I would want to do so. I had been debating what classes to sign up for. Lucky for me I am now in my third class, oh…and I am suppose to start that when? Today, was it? I am so tired, looking for good sleep by Sat night, but after reading your post I am totally begging my husband, grandchildren and four (one left today) dogs for a nap, to no avail. I am double worn out following you! Keep your energy going and good luck in the race!

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