Why I Don’t Do Multiple-Choice Tests

“Will the midterm be multiple choice?” asks a hopeful student in the third row.

A few chuckles greet her question; those who have taken a few classes with me know the answer already.

“No, it’s short answer and essay questions,” I explain. “I want to see your thinking process, not how well you recognize the least wrong answer or guess.” The student slumps back in her chair, clearly disappointed.

Now, on occasion, I do give a few multiple-choice options, mostly because my English program administers a massive multiple-choice comprehensive examination that looks to see whether students recognize major dates, themes, authors, works, and sentence errors. I want to prepare students for this format and the kinds of information they need to know.

And I do have the luxury of courses with enrollments under 40 — in a section of 200 with no TAs to handle the grading, giving students 5 critical-thinking essay questions is a huge burden on the instructor. Even the explain-your-multiple-choice, where students briefly discuss how well every answer choice meets the question prompt, takes time to mark.

But my core reasons for eschewing the Scantron are based in the belief that real life is almost never multiple choice, and I was pleased to see the following quote from Bard College’s President Leon Botstein in Salon Magazine article about the myth of meritocracy underneath America’s testocracy obsession:

The essential mechanism of the SAT, the multiple choice question, is a bizarre relic of long outdated twentieth century social scientific assumptions and strategies. As every adult recognizes, knowing something or how to do something in real life is never defined by being able to choose a “right” answer from a set of possible answers (some of them intentionally misleading).

More often than not, we get stuck at the first step: figuring out the best questions to ask. If “real life” even presents us with neatly-turned prompts, we still have to come up with the choices and then determine a course of action.

At the end of the day, my boss doesn’t want to see that I can answer a question about outcomes-based assessment. I need to DO the assessment properly, crunch the results, figure out the best way to present the results to different audiences, and then perhaps write a report or give a talk.

The best academic assignments, in my mind, are project-based learning at its finest. They demand the kind of real-world, hands-on, practical and inevitably messy experience that students often plead for in the same breath that they wish for a multiple-choice midterm.

They involve collaboration:

And they involve DOING rather than guessing, parroting back, or recognizing:

Multiple-choice exams may seem to be the easier path, but in the long run, students need to struggle a little with the real work that the real world demands.


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