Clairissa Simmons

Sapling Learning Questions - Template Creation Process

Blog Post created by Clairissa Simmons on Jul 20, 2016

Suppose your textbook asks the following question.

What happens in the market for oranges when there is a freeze in Florida?

This question could, and most likely does, exist in question banks written for every principles of economics text in North America. However, not all questions work with all textbooks. Set two texts side by side, and you'll quickly see that the differences run deeper than just the order in which topics are covered. Those differences are exactly what we look for when we create our templates.


So, how do we go about creating a template for Sapling Learning courses? Very carefully, going chapter-by-chapter. It can take between 20 and 80 hours to create a template, depending on how different the textbook is from its previous edition or market leaders.


Step 1: Read the Chapter

As we read textbooks, we pay close attention to what makes that particular text different from other texts for the same course.


What topics are covered?

Authors pick and choose from an incredible number of potential topics when writing a text, and it is important that every facet of every question is actually covered in the text at hand. Questions covering information the student cannot find in the text are frustrating for both the student and the professor who must deal with the complaints.


What order are the topics covered in?

Some topic sequences are can be very standardized, such as the developmental stages of an insect. But others can be presented in any number of sequences or groupings. Therefore, all the ideas or data in each question must have been presented by the time the student arrives at that particular question. Asking about a concept using background knowledge from chapter 15 in the homework for chapter 8 can be frustrating for the student.


What vocabulary is used?

The names and symbols in the periodic table of elements are the same in every chemistry text, but other fields are not so highly standardized. Those who know the synonyms and are comfortable using terms interchangeably might scarcely notice when an author uses one or the other, but less well-informed students will be confused by the use of different terms for the same concepts.


Step 2: Search the Library

Next, we scour our library for questions which are appropriate in both topic and language. Every distractor, every example, every term must be vetted as appropriate for the text, not just the question stem. Even the solution should be compatible to the text.


We also make note of the questions that we cannot find. The text might include an unusual topic or use unconventional vocabulary. Existing questions might include some detail this text omits, and so are unusable.


Just because we have questions about the terms a text uses does not mean we have questions suitable for that text. For example, in one case the term “binary fission” was presented in bold type in a biology text. Our biology team had authored several questions on binary fission, and so were not anticipating having any trouble covering this vocabulary term.


However, this particular text gave only a cursory definition of the binary fission and said nothing about the actual process. Now, the process questions are much more engaging than simple definition questions, so that is what our team had available. However, this meant that not a single existing binary fission question was usable for this text’s depth of knowledge.


Step 3: Edit Existing Questions

Often, we can fill content gaps by duplicating and then editing an existing question. This works well for small changes in vocabulary, or when only one example or distractor is inappropriate in what would otherwise be a good question for the text.


Here is an example from our general chemistry courses. These two questions are almost identical. The only difference is the vocabulary used. One asks for the “change in energy” while the other says “heat of reaction.” The data and the calculation are the same. Since textbooks vary on which nomenclature they use, both questions need to be available.




We often include two sets of terms in our questions so that one question can be used by different styles of textbooks. For example, many Sapling economics questions refer to “perfect, or pure, competition”. In other cases, we might have two, or even three, versions of the same basic question, each using a different set of terms. In this view of a section from our economics library, most of the externality graphs found under the different topic headings are the all same basic graphs with different labels.

Screen Shot 2016-07-20 at 9.45.37 AM.pngStep 4: Author New Questions

If a question cannot be found to edit, we author one specifically for the text. The template reviewer writes a detailed description of what is needed, sometimes even specifying which question type should be used.


This description is then taken by an author, who could be a member of our content team, a tech TA, or a contractor. While seeing to the needs of their instructors always comes first, most tech TAs are also highly experienced authors who enjoy helping the content team create questions when time allows.


Each question is reviewed by members of our content team for accuracy, clarity, appropriateness for the text, style, and grammar. Questions are typically reviewed by at least two people before being cleared for use. You can find more details on the authoring process in the article on the Authoring Process.


These new questions are then added to our library for use with other texts or by professors who want to customize their courses. We try to make sure all of our questions are written in a way which makes them broadly usable by avoiding references to specific statistics or examples, as these differ widely from text to text.


Once the newly authored questions are added to the appropriate assignments, the template is ready to go, and will be duplicated as the first step in creating a customized course according to the professor’s instructions.