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HARRINGTON: Multiple-choice is the right choice

Multiple-choice tests are valuable teaching tools for large introductory courses

On October 2nd, my fellow columnist Jared Fogel argued University professors should reduce their use of multiple-choice exams. He criticized the test format for preventing professors from effectively judging students’ understanding of the material, eliminating the possibility of partial credit for students whose work is nearly correct and causing students to feel less obligated to study. While these criticisms are valid for some administrations of multiple-choice tests, I disagree that these are inherent drawbacks of the format that recommend against its use. Multiple-choice exams are a valuable feature of many introductory courses at the University.

While I agree with Fogel on the importance of professors promoting a “deeper understanding of material,” I object to his assumption that multiple-choice tests are never a vehicle to achieve that goal. When carefully crafted with plausible-sounding responses that utilize terminology, multiple-choice tests are not simply a practice in answer recognition. Rather, they are a means of forcing students to contrast the relative validity of responses, which is an inherently valuable method of stimulating broader thinking, as found in a 2012 study. Whereas a short-response test allows a student to simply offer his best explanation for why a phenomenon occurs, a multiple-choice test can require a student to determine which response most closely matches his own conception of the answer, consider why that response is preferable and justify why the alternatives are inferior. I am sure I am not the only student at the University who has left a multiple-choice test with a desire to learn more because of the questions asked.

Multiple-choice tests actually are, contrary to Fogel’s argument, uniquely structured to “ensure. . . students comprehend the information they are learning.” While a teaching assistant (TA) may reward partial credit for use of a proper formula or almost-correct answers on a free-response exam, he is unlikely to have the time to provide extensive comments for a student to learn from his mistakes. With a multiple-choice exam, the responses are designed with common student errors in mind, so an answer key with explanations can ensure all students understand the rationale supporting the correct answer and working against the alternatives, regardless of whether they answered the question correctly. Additionally, overworked TAs are unlikely to be effective at aggregating common misconceptions and learning gaps of students when grading free-response exams. With statistical analysis of multiple-choice responses, though, a professor can pinpoint common student errors and explain them in class, preventing insufficient comprehension of subsequent material.

The multiple-choice exam focuses on ensuring student understanding of the material is especially appropriate for the settings in which these tests are often administered: introductory courses in which gaps in understanding can cause difficulty in higher level courses. In introductory chemistry, biology and physics classes, many students undergo and learn from multiple-choice exams with the intention of one day utilizing the same material they contain on the MCAT, yet again in multiple-choice format. On the MCAT, they will be forced to confront the peculiarities Fogel mentioned, such as a pattern of answers perhaps not appearing random enough and a nearly correct answer being equated with an absolutely incorrect one. Therefore, it is never too early for them to learn foolish mistakes are still mistakes and to practice preventing them.

Under-studying for a test due to its multiple-choice format could be a legitimate issue, as it would reduce the extent to which a student learns the class material. However, the fact a student may have been conditioned in high school to expect simple recall multiple-choice questions does not preclude him from feeling obligated to study thoroughly for a multiple-choice exam. Rather, he can still be motivated to learn based on the hope of majoring in the subject, respect for the professor, personal interest or — perhaps most relevant at the University — fear of being unprepared for the test. The resignation that one must guess on a question is, I believe, unpleasant enough that past experience with well-crafted multiple choice questions would prevent students from undervaluing the format as a whole.

Effective articulation of one’s ideas is a valuable skill to practice in college, but, for the professor of a large introductory course, obviously secondary to his wish that students learn the subject material. Therefore, use of multiple-choice tests to assess student understanding is not only practical but also appropriate. Ideally, the student will retain the material and eventually have practice articulating it in conversations, discussion sections or essays in higher-level courses. In the meantime, there is value in requiring students to engage with the material within the confines of a Scantron sheet.

Elaine Harrington as an Opinion Columnist for The Cavalier Daily. She can be reached at