Charles Sturt University
Charles Sturt University

Short answer questions (SAQs)

Short answer questions (or SAQs) can be used in examinations or as part of assessment tasks.  They are generally open-ended questions that require students to construct a response. Short answer questions require a concise and focused response that may be factual, interpretive or a combination of the two.

Short answer questions can be delivered in the following ways during the COVID-19 situation as an alternative to a paper-based final examination:

  1. Time limited, non-invigilated online exam—the task is undertaken online under ‘exam-like’ time constraints (typically 1-3 hours) but is open book, allowing students to refer to any material they can access. DSA can assist with the scheduling of this task.
  2. Invigilated online exam—the task is undertaken online under ‘exam-like’ time constraints (typically 1-3 hours) and invigilated remotely.  This category should only be pursued if, in consultation with your Head of School, the above two categories are not viable. DSA will assist with the scheduling of this task.

Please note that SAQs can also be used in a non-examination situation. A series of SAQs can comprise a larger assessment task that is completed over time.

Pros and cons of short answer questions

Some advantages:

  • Questions can be written to reveal a student’s ability to describe, explain, reason, create, analyse, synthesise, and evaluate.
  • Gives opportunities for students to demonstrate higher level skills and knowledge.
  • Allows students to elaborate on responses in a limited way.
  • Provides an opportunity to assess a student’s writing ability.
  • Can be less time consuming to prepare than other item types.
  • Can be structured in a range of different ways that require a range of responses from a few words to a paragraph.

Some limitations:

  • Can limit the range of content that can be assessed.
  • Favours students who have good writing skills.
  • Can be potentially difficult to moderate.
  • Can be time consuming to assess.
  • Need to be well written for the standard of answers to be able to be differentiated in terms of assessment.

Guidelines for constructing short answer questions

  • Effective short answer questions should provide students with a focus (types of thinking and content) to use in their response.
  • Avoid indeterminate, vague questions that are open to numerous and/or subjective interpretations.
  • Select verbs that match the intended learning outcome and direct students in their thinking.
  • If you use ‘discuss’ or ‘explain’, give specific instructions as to what points should be discussed/explained.
  • Delimit the scope of the task to avoid students going off on an unrelated tangent.
  • Know what a good response would look like and what it might include reference to.
  • Practice writing a good response yourself so you have an exemplar and so you are aware of how long it may take to answer.
  • Provide students with practice questions so they are familiar with question types and understand time limitations.
  • Allocate marks based on the time required to answer.
  • Review the question using the following questions:
    • Does the question align with the learning outcome/s?
    • Is the focus of the question clear?
    • Is the scope specific and clear enough for students to be able to answer in the time allocated?
    • Is there enough direction to guide the student to the expected response?

Examples of SAQs that access a range of cognitive skills/action verbs  

List/identify :

This SAQ requires students to simply identify or list. The question may indicate the scope of requirements. e.g. List three, List the most important.

For example:

“List the typical and atypical neuroleptics (anti-psychotics) used to treat schizophrenia.”


This is a SAQ that asks student to define a term or idea.

For example:

“What is the capital gains tax?” 

“Define soundness as an element of reasoning”.


This is a SAQ where students are asked to provide an explanation. The explanation may address what, how or why.

For example:

“Why does the demand for luxury goods increase as the price increases?”

“What are the important elements of a well-presented communication strategy?”

“Why does an autoantibody binding to a post-synaptic receptor stop neuron communication?

“Explain the purpose of scaffolding as a teaching strategy”.


A SAQ that includes a requirement to justify or support can ask students to provide an example of one or several specific occurrences of an idea or concept.

For example:

“Use 2 examples to show how scaffolding can be used to improve the efficacy of teaching and learning”.


For this kind of SAQ, ask students to discuss how two or more concepts or objects are related. Is one different from the other? If so, how? Are they perfectly alike? Does one represent the other in some way?

For example:

“Why would a rise in the price of sugar lead to an increase in the sales of honey?”


Types of questions can be combined in SAQs.

For example:

“List the three subphyla of the Phylum Chordata. What features permit us to place them all within the same phylum? “

“What benefits does territorial behaviour provide? Why do many animals display territorial behaviour?”

“Will you include short answer questions on your next exam? Justify your decision with
two to three sentences explaining the factors that have influenced your decision.”

Additional resources

Short Answer Questions- Assessment Resource Centre - University of Hong Kong