Why I hate multiple choices

I’ve just (finally) finished writing the third exam for the cyberporn class. I hate writing and giving multiple-choice exams. (Ironically, I don’t mind taking them, but I don’t really get much opportunity to do that.) Here are some of the reasons:

They test superficial knowledge.

You can get them to probe deeper knowledge and comparisons, but such items are really, really difficult to write. It’s easy to find out if students know who started Esquire, but it is a lot harder to write a question that can tell me if they have an understanding of the political and cultural context in which this occurred. In a blue book exam, I can write “What was the political and economic context in which… [etc.].” And then, students actually get to demonstrate not that they can identify a more correct response when presented with it, but that they can think and write intelligently about the matter.

They encourage superficial knowledge.

Because they test superficial knowledge, this is what students try to get out of the lectures. Can’t blame them. Messed up, though.

They encourage students to think quantitatively about learning.

In an essay exam, the different between an A and a B is subjective, and really that makes sense. Is it true that someone that gets 90% rather than 80% on a multiple-choice exam really knows a specific amount more. I don’t just mean that the questions sample the possible space of learned material — I have little difficulty with sampling. What I mean is that the student who forgets a piece of vocabulary, but who could actually say something intelligent about the material, receives a lower score. And he or she then gets a lower grade and thinks that they are somehow “dumber.” The really bright ones catch on and realize that the grades don’t reflect their knowledge, and many of these manage to fake it and train themselves to learn to the test. But many actually believe that they are not very bright because that is what the test says.

I should note that few actually think the final grade in the class represents what the student knows about the material. As faculty we complain that students see the grade as something to be “won” or “granted.” Unfortunately multiple-choice exams feed into this mentality.

They are hard to write.

I know: whine, whine, whine. Bubble tests don’t have to be graded, so what’s the fuss. It takes at least 10 times the amount of effort to write a decent multiple-choice exam as it does to assign a paper or create a blue-book exam. Yes, I know it takes a lot longer (approaching infinitely longer) to grade, but at least that grading is telling you something about the students and what they know.

Cheating is easier.

I do a lot to try to stop this, but I already suspect a pair of people in this class of cheating. Hard to catch them red-handed, though, since the amount of information that needs to be conveyed is so small and discrete. A lot harder to cheat on an essay exam, particularly when it is open book.

But, despite all of this, until they assign me more than a single TA for a class of 400, and until they consider teaching as a serious part of the promotion process, multiple-choice exams are going to be where it’s at.

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9 Comments

  1. Posted 3/24/2005 at 9:02 pm | Permalink

    I’ve never used scantrons. Would it be practical to have multiple versions (same questions sorted in a different order) of the same test to prevent cheating?

  2. Posted 3/24/2005 at 10:08 pm | Permalink

    Marcia: Yes, you can. In fact, that’s pretty common. I do several versions of my exams. But in a class this size, people still to get away with things.

    The first semester I was here, I found someone had created a cheat sheet on the brim of their cap. I felt dumb for not thinking of this and enforcing a “no hat” rule.

    Because of that, I got the best feedback on my first test in this class: “The rules are rediciulus. In my 5 years at UB I have never had rules like this for an test.”

  3. Posted 3/24/2005 at 11:00 pm | Permalink

    1) oh, so you can encourage deep knowledge? And you can test deep knowledge? Summative evaluation is always problematic. Go for mastery based learning, dood. It works, and takes an eternity to evaluate.

    2) Students do what they’re taught. If marks are required to keep funding, they’ll care. You want critical reflection? Kill the summative eval, and go for projects. Pain in the ass to mark.
    3) Hard to write? Only if you want to write them well. And that goes against the whole spirit of multiple choice questions.
    4) Cheating is what it is all about… if you want to avoid cheating give the exam with questions like: “Dracula…”

    don’t even be so lame as to add “discuss”.

  4. Posted 3/24/2005 at 11:23 pm | Permalink

    Yes, I do think you can test deep knowledge. I think we do it every day in our conversations and our interactions. I see no reason that asking people to write about it is any different.

    Hm. I may use “Dracula…” My most recent favorite for my grad exam is “What do things mean and why?” which was stolen from a colleague.

  5. Posted 3/25/2005 at 5:49 am | Permalink

    you have a very interesting blog. sorry that multiple choice exams are so difficult to grade. i can always write them instead. i’m looking forward to completely owning this exam. hopefully.

  6. Posted 3/25/2005 at 12:06 pm | Permalink

    Some of the toughest and best tests I took during undergrad were some open-everything Philosophy exams. You could do anything: talk to anyone, go anywhere, get on the Internet, etc. I took half of one test one the john.

  7. Tom Sparks
    Posted 3/26/2005 at 7:40 am | Permalink

    Your issue shouldn’t be multiple choice or essays, but rather the idea that in any form knowing who started Esquire is worthy of being tested much less in the content of a college course.

  8. Posted 3/26/2005 at 10:53 am | Permalink

    Hmm. That’s an interesting comment. Luckily, I do think most of the students in the course could explain to Mr. Sparks why Esquire matters.

    Of course, I teach in a program (communication) that is routinely dismissed as being not high brow enough for critics. The claim that culture, business, and media don’t really matter no longer surprises me.

  9. Sarah
    Posted 3/26/2005 at 7:42 pm | Permalink

    I don’t suppose you heard the comment from student as he left “Thanks for the hardest test I ever took in my whole life.”

2 Trackbacks

  1. By Happy Together » Necessary evil?? on 4/22/2005 at 3:30 am

    […] ed under: General — rolcoco @ 11:30 pm Alex had provided his opinions about why he hates multiple choice exams. In his opinion, it only tests superficial knowledge. I totally […]

  2. By Happy Together » Necessary evil !? on 4/22/2005 at 4:00 am

    […] d under: General — rolcoco @ 12:00 am Alex had provided his opinions about why he hates multiple choice exams. In his opinion, it only tests superficial knowledge. I totally […]

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