You’re back in the classroom (bear with us here) taking your end-of-term modern history exam.
The first section?
Short essay response (urgh).
The clock seems to be ticking at breakneck speed as you formulate your thesis, desperately digging deep for facts and references that help support your argument about the role that charisma played in the establishment of Hitler’s regime.
After what feels like an agonisingly long time, you hit the second and last section: multiple choice.
Yassssssssss! Here we goooo!
You move fast. The process of elimination serves you well and you’re (admittedly somewhat mindlessly) powering through each question like a steam-train and you finish the test with a good few, very smug minutes to spare.
But here’s the thing.
While multiple-choice questions might be a crowd favourite among students, the disadvantages of multiple-choice questions have long been the source of countless, passionate debates among academics.
As The Knowledge Hub explains in ‘The Pros and Cons of Multiple-Choice Questions used as a Means for Evaluating the Child’s Knowledge’, there are three key disadvantages of multiple-choice questions.
The first is that it encourages guessing.
“Since there are defined options and one has to be the correct answer, students might resort to guessing or tic tac toe technique to tick the right answer. If the teacher prepped further and maybe took a follow-up oral exam later, it would be rather shocking to find out that the student actually doesn’t know anything and was just good at guessing.”
The second is that multiple-choice questions can create confusion, even if the student knows the right answer.
“When the examinee sees multiple options to the same question, he may be subject to confusion and suddenly the correct answer blanks out. Especially in Math, where there are many ways of solving a problem and calculation that the student might come to and the options that are enlisted, might be different and mislead one further.
The third, The Knowledge Hub argues, is that multiple-choice questions only test part of the concept.
“In subjective questions, the answer is written in sentences and explained by the learners in proper paragraphs. There is scope to express one’s thoughts freely and the teacher thus is able to gauge the level of understanding. This is amiss when it comes to multiple-choice questions. Often Historical events, scientific explanations, and maths theorems are best tested when in subjective format.”
So what can educators do to ensure that multiple choice questions serve well as a learning exercise?
Kate Jones from Evidence-Based Education has a few suggestions.
The first thing to consider is the design of the multiple-choice questions.
“If multiple-choice questions are not designed well they won’t require effortful or meaningful retrieval but instead it is more likely to involve low-level recognition or power of elimination,” she said.
“Distractors must be plausible and this can be a challenge for teachers to think of plausible distractors. Two plausible distractors and the correct option is sufficient.”
Another approach is to use multiple-choice questions to support ‘responsive teaching’ in the classroom.
“Carefully designed multiple-choice questions can address potential misconceptions that may have developed in previous lessons, this is very useful for the teacher to be aware of and respond to.”
Using the results of multiple-choice questions for students’ self-reflection, Jones said, is also a great way to improve the effectiveness of the learning approach.
“Students don’t always check their answers and reflect on their progress, preferring to view scores rather than identify and address the gaps in their knowledge but this is a vital element of the learning process to continue to move learners forward,” she said.
“If a student has scored 15/20 on a multiple-choice questions quiz they should be encouraged to check and be aware of which answers were correct and incorrect so they can learn from their mistakes and avoid repeating those mistakes.
And finally, get inspo from colleagues!
“View other teachers’ quizzes and use or adapt questions… or alternatively, a great idea is to work together within a department or phase to design multiple-choice questions quizzes.”