Standardized Test, biologycorner

My Relationship with Multiple-Choice Exams

I have a complicated relationship with multiple-choice (MC) questions. Their main failing is that they are fundamentally limited in their ability to assess a student’s understanding of the material. I have often found myself writing questions with answers “A and C,” “All but D,” and “None of the above,” in an attempt to make MC questions that aren’t obvious, despite being awkward or overly complicated.

 But…MC questions are easy to grade. This is the crux of it. For a large class, they are almost a necessity. This gives me a guilty conscience. A solution to the MC problem that I stumbled upon at an Early Career Faculty workshop this last summer is a slight variation on the traditionally styled exam. In several parts, students are given the opportunity to work first independently and then collaboratively within small groups.

 Part one of the exam is twenty MC questions, to be completed in about twenty minutes. I weigh this portion fairly heavily; 60% of the exam grade is based on the individual’s ability to answer these questions. This inspires self-responsibility and preparedness for the exam. Once this is completed and collected, the students are split into random groups of about three to four students. My random group generator typically depends on my mood and what is going on in my life on examination day—for instance on my birthday I had students arrange themselves in order of their own birthdates as I encouraged them with the occasional: “self-assemble, people!”

 As a group, students re-answer the same MC questions they took individually. Students argue on some of the more difficult questions, laying out the logic behind each of their cases. I have observed many students drawing figures, relating quotes from the text, and rehashing analogies discussed during lectures. Because everyone has a vested interest in how the group performs, participation is rarely a problem.

UBC Library

UBC Library

The remaining time is spent developing an answer to a group essay question. I pose a fairly broad question that requires multiple tie-ins of different concepts, and rewards brainstorming.  I tell my students that thoroughness of thought is key to answering these questions, and because the number of essays I have to grade is a fraction of the total number of students in the class, I find I do not regret these words later.

 The other outcome of this style of exam is that it too becomes a learning experience. My courses are fairly content heavy, and I am always at a loss for time. Traditional styled exams always felt like I was paying for assessment with a large loss in learning potential. When you devote three class periods to midterms out of a class that meets forty-two times, doing the math, that’s over seven percent of the class. The major difference here is that students learn from each other during the group work. Some of it is course content, but they also learn essential life skills, like how to appropriately work with others, when to concede on failed arguments, and when to stick up for themselves when they know they are correct.

 Comparing individual scores with group scores shows that almost invariably, the group does better than the individual. Perhaps this is not all that surprising. To make the exam truly a learning experience, I have students return to their groups on the day I hand back the graded exams. Here they discuss with one another how they prepared for the exam, how they felt they did on the exam, and what they learned from the exam itself.

 One other note I should add about Individual/Group styled exams: I now look forward to test days. It is an experience that is difficult to convey in words, but to observe a student freely sharing what they have learned in class is invigorating. The first time I implemented this style of exam I had a smile that just wouldn’t go away. But, if smiling is a malady sometimes experienced by faculty, I found the cure the following day in the reviewer’s comments of my (rejected) NSF proposal.

Ryan CurrierRyan Currier,
Assistant Professor,
Natural and Applied Sciences

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