Challenging students to provide free text answers has the advantage that students are encouraged to come up with answers themselves rather than choosing from a predefined list. Another benefit is that educators gain the sort of insight into a student’s thinking that they would if the question was posed and discussed during an in-person tutorial session. The variety of correct responses that can be returned by students make utilising free text responses slightly more complex to set up and mark. Dr Muhammed Yakin, from Charles Sturt University has taken on the challenge and shares how he uses free-text responses in his tutorials to complement his face-to-face teaching along with tips for setting up your own free text responses.

The study of oral pathology requires students to understand the microscopic features of human tissues, both normal and diseased. Dentistry students at Charles Sturt University learn this practice using a combination of physical microscope slides and digital slides contributed to and accessed from the Slice image bank (See the collection here). As part of his teaching, Dr Muhammed Yakin has focused on delivering interactive lectures and has extended the learning experience he creates by developing optional online modules that are completed by students wishing to extend their learning in their own time. The modules created provide students with multiple opportunities to revisit material, slowly reducing the amount of support offered while students are answering questions to help solidify their learning.

While incorporating some multiple-choice questions, as well as image-based drag and drop feature identification questions that make use of Slice, Dr Yakin has made a point to include free text responses to better test his students’ knowledge. Dr Yakin, together with Professor Hawkins, BEST Network Director and Merwan Stevens from Smart Sparrow, has kindly provided the following recommendations for using free text responses in these kinds of formative lessons.

Recommendations for using free text responses in lessons

Watch the setup of a worked example of a free-text response in our short video below or scroll for our written guide.


Question design:

1: While you are becoming comfortable with this style of question, try to make the questions simple. Request a response of a few words or a short sentence, to limit the number of options that you need to add as correct.

Designing the trap states:

2: Add as many correct responses as applicable in the trap states and then provide the most accurate answer with the feedback pop-up to students to allow for self-revision.

3: Plan ahead for the likely incorrect responses you might receive and tailor feedback to that using keywords.

4: Consider whether the conditions needed to trigger the feedback are ALL or ANY type conditions.

5: In some cases, it may be appropriate to set an “incorrect” trap state that says, “your answer is too short”. This can be done for single word answers by making the required character length greater than 2 or 3 characters. Where the correct answer is a sentence, set the limit at greater than 10 or 20 characters. In both cases, it will encourage a serious attempt before students can progress.

6: Use a words prefix only to allow for multiple ways of phrasing an answer without needing to add all possible alternatives e.g. “examin” for examination or examine.

7: Ensure there is a generic incorrect or too many attempts trap state to allow students to progress with remediation if they are unable to submit the “correct” response.

8: Guide students to provide more information if they are missing keywords. For example, a word like “biopsy” without keywords related to a specific location can be an opportunity to encourage a longer, more thorough second attempt at an answer.

Giving feedback:

9: Phrase the feedback gently, using phrases such as “It looks like you…” or “We were looking for…” which supports the learners who were on the right track but used phrases/words that weren’t anticipated.

10: Consider providing feedback on a subsequent screen and placing a student’s response next to the expert response for self-reflection. Review our help video for using an input from another screen.

11: Trap state feedback can be used to direct students to further resources. For example, Dr Yakin takes the opportunity to tailor his feedback to provide links to the specific textbook his students are studying from, identifying the pages and content to help speed up their revision process, or by providing links to relevant online information.


12: Manually review student responses to determine whether any other responses could be considered correct and update your trap states for the next deployment.

13: Look for common misconceptions that you hadn’t anticipated and add additional incorrect feedback states that provide remediation.


Thank you to Dr Yakin, Professor Hawkins and Merwan Stevens for sharing their tips. Dr Yakin would like to acknowledge the students in his Oral Anatomy and Histology and Oral-Maxillofacial Pathology classes for their feedback that helped improve the lessons.

Let us know if you have any additional suggestions for working with free text responses that we’ve missed here. If you have any questions about setting up a free-text response you can contact me at and I’ll be happy to help.