Multiple choice or short answer?
© 16 Feb 2012 Luther Tychonievich
Licensed under Creative Commons: CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
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The intellectual impact of question format.


Several recent papers have emphasized the value of using multiple-choice questions in class. While the practice of interspersing lectures with what most students call “‍clicker quizzes‍” has been around (principally in Physics classrooms) for at least a decade and much has been written The University of British Columbia has a nice overview of these resources. about how to use them effectively, I have seen little discussion of why multiple choice is useful beyond it’s technical simplicity.

Any skilled test-taker quickly learns that most multiple choice tests contain in their wording most of what you need to know to get a good score. Many answers are easier to verify than to derive. Options will typically “‍surround‍” the correct choice so go for the conceptual middle ground. Incorrect answers are often less carefully edited, so go for the tightest wording. And so on.

Of course, a good test taker also learns how to do well on open-answer questions. The objective here is to state only what you actually know in a way that suggests you know more than you state. You want to capitalize on the grader’s intellectual context, hoping it will cover the gaps in your own knowledge.

But if we consider questions in a pedagogical rather than evaluative setting the story changes somewhat. When a concept is not yet internalized, open-ended questions can lead to to vague or confused answers; these may highlight that a concept is not yet internalized, but provide little additional aid. Multiple-choice questions, on the other hand, can catalyze learning by their very concrete nature. They are, in some ways, the “‍therefore, what?‍” of the classroom.

There is another benefit to multiple-choice questions over open-answer questions in class. Because the set of potential answers provides information, you can actually teach and present new material using the question itself. You can always do this, of course, using leading or Socratic questions, but the wrong answers on a multiple choice question are one of the best ways I know to teach the limits of truth, the “‍…and the rest isn’t true‍” element of correct understanding.

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