Friday, February 26, 2010

Multiple Choice Tests Suck

I couldn't come up with a better title than 'Multiple Choice Tests Suck' so I thought I would just be blunt.

I think this topic is important because too many people assume that the pitfalls of multiple choice exams are intuitive - well, they aren't. There are WAY TOO many teachers who still use multiple choice exams as their method of collecting summative data.

It's time that changed.

Here is an article that I wrote at the end of the last school year during final exams. If you can think of more reasons why we should never give a multiple choice test again, please comment.

Multiple Choice Tests: Thinking Handcuffs


  1. I certainly think multiple choice tests are overused, but I can't really support banning them altogether. They do a nice job in a choose your own adventure type of way. "If you answered A, you probably thought this, now try this. If you answered B... " If you use them in a formative way, I've found them pretty helpful. is a good example of a site that uses them well.

    I also agree with most of your objections but certainly some of them are the fault of the test designers. It's a tool like anything else. It's how we use it. Unfortunately, we overuse it and don't put enough thought into how and when we use it. As you said, we opt for speed more often than we should.

    I think of it like homework. We use it as the default. We shouldn't. But if you've got a good reason, go for it.

  2. Joe,

    I rarely give tests with multiple choice questions. What always amazes me is how often my students ask me to give multiple choice tests. My students seem to prefer multiple choice tests, but comparing the results don't perform better than on my other tests.

    My theory is that students prefer multiple choice because even if they don't know how to get the answer they can mark an answer on the sheet. Where as in a problem-based tests they must have more patience to see their thinking through.

    I agree with all the criticisms of multiple choice tests. However, most of these apply to all types of assessment and serve as a reminder of how difficult it is to describe an individual level of skill/knowledge/understanding with a letter, number, check mark or 'X'. I think assessment is by far the most difficult part of teaching because it contains so many variables.

  3. In many years of testing, I have found USA exams prefer multiple choice whereas British ones prefer cloze tests, sentence transformations, ordering paragraphs .... any other method. They feel this appeals to different types of learners whereas multiple choice appeals to only one type. In an exam recently a very bright student who finished early wrote four different scenarios where all 4 multiple choice answers to the model question could be correct with a bit of lateral thinking.

  4. As sad as it is...we also give multiple choice tests as preparation for how they will be tested in college and on almost all state level achievement tests. If they don't know how to take this type of test...they won't do well on those assessments either.

  5. What about using well-constructed multiple-choice tests as written or digital formative assessments? Quickly collect data (think: individual white boards, and audience response systems) to figure out common misconceptions to guide further instruction.

    A well-constructed multiple choice assessment could go a long way in this area of assessment for learning.

  6. I think it's important to understand what our purposes are as "assessors" and which assessment types align with them best. While MC tests may not be as enjoyable for students as we might like them to be, the fact is that they provide a certain level of information that other forms of assessment cannot. For instance, if I want to know whether or not a student can fix a car, I ask them to fix the car.....but if I need to know whether or not they can differentiate between the clutch and the brake quickly, I probably need to use selected response. You make a good point though--MC is often overused. Again, it comes down to alignment of skill/target and assessment type. If engagement is what compels your criticism of MC, I wonder if it is possible to assess students using selected response measures via digital tools when it is clear that this type of assessment is warranted (and it is at times).

  7. W. Edwards Deming said once, in a video interview I was watching, that our testing system is all wrong! Rather than asking a question in which one of A, B, C, or D, is correct, we should be asking questions similar to that created by Englishteam's creative student, as mentioned in an earlier comment.

    Deming said the question should be: Under what circumstances would A be the correct answer, Under what circumstances would B be the correct answer, etc.

    The skills Deming's approach illustrates are the skills we all (I believe) agree we need to be developing in our students. The challenge we face is how to deal with the proliferation of tests around us.

    On twitter tonight Joe, you said it starts with your grade 8s. Yes, it does. Your students will have to write MC tests at some point. They don't need heaps of practice to succeed on those tests though, they need to acquire knowledge and develop their ability to apply that knowledge.

    If we don't give MC tests, we will have more time to help them with the knowledge and the application! They are easy to create, administer, and mark, but when it comes to their influence on learning I don't see their true value.



  8. Along the same lines, play (...or at least read about!) the True-False game shared at

    Choosing a form of assessment that is easy to manage and "straightforward" is only useful if we want to be bean-counters and keep track of all the isolated facts that our students remember. It's sad that we still do that...

  9. I have to agree with you on this one, Joe. I hate taking multiple-choice tests, mostly because of the trick wordings (intentional or not), and I hate giving them.

    In the case of exams and other required M/C assessments, I allow students to explain their thoughts on the test if they're confused by the question or have a dilemma deciding. I never use the automatic scoring machine.

    The only value I can see in opting to assess with M/C tests is so students will know how to pass the standardized tests. What an awful reason!

  10. I would agree multiple choice questions should be removed from academic settings. It would be more effective for a final exam to be somewhere between five to eight questions that encompasses all of the objectives that a student should be familiar with at their achieved level. However to keep in track with differentiated learning and assessment, students should be able to choose which format and medium they will use to answer the questions.

    I will say that multiple choices tests have limited appeal and effectiveness, but they are able to to determine a students ability to recall information and their ability to read.

  11. I always like that you put your point of view 'out there' for us to consider. There is a context where I like multiple choice and that is in huge university lecture halls where students are now able to buy clickers to respond to questions during the lecture. The results are instantly tallied for all to see and the professor can reteach or move on as per the results. That is multiple choice assessment for learning. Best wishes. Ingrid


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