September 22nd, 2015

Advantages and Disadvantages of Different Types of Test Questions

By:

multiple-choice test

It’s good to regularly review the advantages and disadvantages of the most commonly used test questions and the test banks that now frequently provide them.

Multiple-choice questions

Advantages

  • Quick and easy to score, by hand or electronically
  • Can be written so that they test a wide range of higher-order thinking skills
  • Can cover lots of content areas on a single exam and still be answered in a class period

Disadvantages

  • Often test literacy skills: “if the student reads the question carefully, the answer is easy to recognize even if the student knows little about the subject” (p. 194)
  • Provide unprepared students the opportunity to guess, and with guesses that are right, they get credit for things they don’t know
  • Expose students to misinformation that can influence subsequent thinking about the content
  • Take time and skill to construct (especially good questions)

True-false questions

Advantages

  • Quick and easy to score

Disadvantages

  • Considered to be “one of the most unreliable forms of assessment” (p. 195)
  • Often written so that most of the statement is true save one small, often trivial bit of information that then makes the whole statement untrue
  • Encourage guessing, and reward for correct guesses

Short-answer questions

Advantages

  • Quick and easy to grade
  • Quick and easy to write

Disadvantages

  • Encourage students to memorize terms and details, so that their understanding of the content remains superficial

Essay questions

Advantages

  • Offer students an opportunity to demonstrate knowledge, skills, and abilities in a variety of ways
  • Can be used to develop student writing skills, particularly the ability to formulate arguments supported with reasoning and evidence

Disadvantages

  • Require extensive time to grade
  • Encourage use of subjective criteria when assessing answers
  • If used in class, necessitate quick composition without time for planning or revision, which can result in poor-quality writing

Questions provided by test banks

Advantages

  • Save instructors the time and energy involved in writing test questions
  • Use the terms and methods that are used in the book

Disadvantages

  • Rarely involve analysis, synthesis, application, or evaluation (cross-discipline research documents that approximately 85 percent of the questions in test banks test recall)
  • Limit the scope of the exam to text content; if used extensively, may lead students to conclude that the material covered in class is unimportant and irrelevant

We tend to think that these are the only test question options, but there are some interesting variations. The article that promoted this review proposes one: Start with a question, and revise it until it can be answered with one word or a short phrase. Do not list any answer options for that single question, but attach to the exam an alphabetized list of answers. Students select answers from that list. Some of the answers provided may be used more than once, some may not be used, and there are more answers listed than questions. It’s a ratcheted-up version of matching. The approach makes the test more challenging and decreases the chance of getting an answer correct by guessing.

Remember, students do need to be introduced to any new or altered question format before they encounter it on an exam.

Editor’s note: The list of advantages and disadvantages comes in part from the article referenced here. It also cites research evidence relevant to some of these advantages and disadvantages.

Reference: McAllister, D., and Guidice, R.M. (2012). This is only a test: A machine-graded improvement to the multiple-choice and true-false examination. Teaching in Higher Education, 17 (2), 193-207.

Reprinted from The Teaching Professor, 28.3 (2014): 8. © Magna Publications. All rights reserved.