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.
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The relatively new Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Psychology journal has a great feature called a “Teacher-Ready Research Review.” The examples I’ve read so far are well organized, clearly written, full of practical implications, and well referenced. This one on multiple-choice tests (mostly the questions on those tests) is no exception. Given our strong reliance on this test type, a regular review of common practices in light of research is warranted.
Given class sizes, teaching loads, and a host of other academic responsibilities, many teachers feel as though multiple-choice tests are the only viable option. Their widespread use justifies a regular review of those features that make these tests an effective way to assess learning and ongoing consideration of those features that compromise how much learning they promote.
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)
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
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.