multiple choice tests
The goal of any well-constructed test is to test students’ expertise on a topic and not their test-taking skills. We need to eliminate as many flaws in our questions as we can to “provide a level playing field for testwise and not-so-testwise students. The probability of answering a question correctly should relate to an examinee’s expertise on the topic and should not relate to their expertise on test-taking strategies.” (NMBE, 2001, p 19)
I remember with horror and embarrassment the first multiple-choice exam I wrote. I didn’t think the students were taking my course all that seriously, so I decided to use the first exam to show just how substantive the content really was. I wrote long, complicated stems and followed them with multiple answer options and various combinations of them. And it worked. Students did poorly on the exam. I was pleased until I returned the test on what turned out to be one of the longest class periods of my teaching career. I desperately needed the advice that follows here.
As Ron Berk (known for his pithy humor) observes, the multiple-choice question “holds world records in the categories of most popular, most unpopular, most used, most misused, most loved and most hated.” According to one source I read, multiple-choice questions were first used around the time of World War I to measure the abilities of new Army recruits. As class sizes have grown and the demands on teacher time expanded, they have become the favorite testing tool in higher education.
Multiple-choice questions are not the pariah of all test questions. They can make students think and measure their mastery of material. But they can also do little more than measure mastery of memorization. Memorizing is usually an easier option than thinking and truly understanding.
Stronger than multiple choice, yet not quite as revealing (or time consuming to grade) as the essay question, the short answer question offers a great middle ground – the chance to measure a student’s brief composition of facts, concepts, and attitudes in a paragraph or less.
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Multiple-choice tests are commonly used to assess achievement of learning objectives because they can be efficient. Despite their widespread use, they’re often poorly designed. Poorly written multiple-choice tests are equally damaging in classroom-based and online courses, but in online courses learners often have to contend with more challenges, and poor assessments can add insult to
Helping students develop critical-thinking skills and discipline-specific knowledge remain at the forefront of faculty goals for undergraduate education, with 99.6 percent of faculty indicating that critical-thinking skills are “very important” or “essential” and 95.1 percent saying the same of discipline-specific knowledge. Other top goals include helping students to evaluate the quality and reliability of information (97.2 percent) and promoting the ability to write more effectively (96.4 percent).
If you think multiple choice tests are only good to assess how well students memorized facts, it may be time to rethink your testing strategy. Although they are not appropriate for every situation, when properly developed, multiple choice tests can used to assess higher levels of thinking, including application and analysis.