University courses should challenge students to move away from the standardized test-taking skills of high school to enhancing critical thinking skills in and outside of the classroom. Perhaps the greatest inhibitor to achieving this goal, however, is the use of multiple-choice exams in many lecture and classroom settings here at the University.
Although multiple-choice exams are by no means the University’s uniform exam, they are notorious for their quick, easy and objective nature. Yet, professors constantly ignore the pitfalls of multiple-choice, ranging from a failure to assess students’ understanding of material to the absence of partial credit. Though not every course at the University has the capability to switch to a more free-response or problem-based exam, every professor should strive to de-emphasize the need for multiple-choice and instead promote deeper understanding of material.
Multiple-choice exams are largely at fault because they focus merely on the end product. The process of understanding material being learned, on the other hand, is of equal if not greater importance than the final answer. This is not to say that those students that take multiple-choice exams don’t effectively understand the questions they answer correctly, but multiple choice exams do not provide the opportunity for professors to ensure their students comprehend the information they are learning. Whether students guess the correct answer or actually studied the material is unknown.
On the other hand, open response or problem-oriented questions provide not only an opportunity to assess understanding but also a chance to earn partial credit, an option not available in multiple-choice exams. For an open-response or essay, students can articulate ideas and arguments they could not otherwise offer. Moreover, if they have a different answer than their fellow students, they can back it up and defend their position. For partial credit, if students either botch a fraction of a calculation or fail to remember a specific event, they are not penalized with a completely wrong answer.
A 2011 Northern Arizona University study on short-answer and multiple-choice performance adds that although multiple-choice is a more convenient tool for teachers, it may cause students to “assume that they will recognize the correct answer that is provided"; thus, they will study less, reducing long-term information retention and potentially lessening motivation to learn. This demonstrates that students taking a multiple-choice test may focus too much on the recall aspect of the exam, which would impair their ability to understand the content in the long-run.
The positive aspects of multiple-choice exams include its ability to provide an equal playing field among students in terms of unbiased grading, since an answer is either right or wrong. For large lecture classes with several TAs, there can be some discrepancy among the different grading styles, resulting in varying grades among students with similar answers. Ways to avoid this subjectivity may include clearly establishing a set of guidelines for grading the exams. Nevertheless, this “TA bias,” although avoided with multiple-choice, does not change the fact that the playing field is not necessarily equal among multiple-choice test taking students.
For example, there are various extraneous factors that can influence student performance on multiple-choice exams; these factors include the wording and length of questions that can affect student performances as well as the number of answer options students have to choose from. A study on multiple-choice exams by Maria Olausson at Robert Morris University reveals that when an exam appears to have a more random pattern of answers, the participants perform better. This means that if there happened to be a distinguishable pattern on an exam, it could potentially negatively affect student performance.
Some courses may claim that they are too large to offer anything other than multiple-choice exams. Yet, courses such as Microeconomics that cater to over 1,000 students in a semester prove that it is possible to offer short-response question exams in a lecture atmosphere. Even though not every lecture course will have enough TAs to grade such a large quantity of these kinds of exams, lecturers should strive to gain the necessary resources to do so.
In the end, the quick and easy nature of multiple-choice exams is outweighed by the ability of students to truly express the knowledge they have accumulated through answering free response questions. Rather than only focusing their exams on the right answer, professors should also put an emphasis on understanding the content. In doing so, they will promote a community at the University that produces intellectuals who understand how to articulate their positions and ideas.
Jared Fogel is an Opinion Columnist for The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.