Multiple Choice - What Is It Good For?

May 12, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

Multiple-choice tests are
a. a convenience for students
b. a convenience for teachers
c. a quick way to test knowledge of facts
d. a travesty of education

It’s All of the above. Students often do prefer multiple-choice items. Less time and effort – circling a letter or blackening a Scantron box as a opposed to writing an essay.

For the teacher, they are easier to grade (the computer does it for you), and you don’t even have to compose your own test. Most textbooks come with prepackaged “test banks” of questions. The questions are often bad. They ask about unimportant things, and they often violate rules of good test construction. Some have more than one right answer
  • A and C
  • B and D
  • A, B, and D but not C
Others have non-parallel choices:
It’s hotter in
a. the summer

b. the city.

It’s tempting for students and teachers to collude in this conspiracy and act as if some body of ideas and evidence, a set of complex thoughts, can be represented in a few dozen smudge marks. It reminds of the old Soviet factory workers’ joke: “We pretend to work, and they pretend to pay us.”

Once, many years back, as I began the intro to the unit on Freud, a student asked, “Hasn’t Freud been pretty much disproved?” I don’t remember what I answered, but later it occurred to me that perhaps what the student wanted was to reduce the entirety of Freudian thought to a single question: Freud – True or False. Answer: False.

There is a use for these items – as teaching tools. I used to make the test bank available to students so they could check on their reading of the textbook. But I would add that more important than getting the right answer was understanding why it was right, why the others were wrong, and why the question was at all important. What more general ideas did it relate to?

I’ve also used multiple choice quizzes as a teaching device in class. After I give the quiz, I don’t collect it but let the students get together in groups to figure out the right answers. It’s encouraging how thoroughly they will parse the answers, exploring the implications of each choice, going back and checking in the reading. These discussions also alert me to problems with the questions – ambiguous wording, more than one valid choice, etc. – so that I can correct them if I ever do decide to use them on a real exam.

I do use them – to accommodate student preferences and to avoid complaints about subjective grading. But for the most part, I dislike the idea of multiple-choice tests. I also find it ironic that the teachers who rely on them are also often the teachers who see education as preparing students for the real world. What in the world (the real world) will students ever be asked to do that resembles a multiple-choice test?


Corey said...

Good post Jay.

I hate multiple choice tests and I hate grading essays (of any length). At WVU a small class has 50 students and a regular class has 100. (And our intro curriculum, delivered by lecturers, is delivered in auditoriums of 200 - 400). Thus, our students are tested almost exclusively through multiple choice tests.

In my advanced classes, I have opted to test using short answer (1 to 2 sentence) and short essay (1 to 2 paragraphs). But, few of my students do well on these without an explicit study guide. The mass education model that many of our institutions perpetuate prepares students to identify discrete factoids which can be discerned through the process of elimination. Many of these students are out to sea when tasked with preparing a synopsis of some idea followed by a critical assessment of its pro's and con's.

I've turned to _Teaching Sociology_ and other pedagogy resources to see how I might improve preparing students to do well at the later. Unfortunately there seems to be little out there to instruct the instructors.

Jay Livingston said...

Corey, I've had the same situation and the same frustration. I wish I knew the solution. But at least in a small class, you have a chance.

Unbalanced Reaction said...

As a student, I hated multiple-choice exams (GRE excluded). As a professor, I've hesitated to use them. Faced with much bigger classes in the upcoming semester, it's heartening to read about your positive experience with mixing group work with multiple choice quizzes.