Multiple choice

I’ve resumed a lot of committee duties and one thing I’ve been pushing for the last couple years is more TAs (we have the money) and fewer multiple-choice questions on tests. The argument is always that if we had free form answer there aren’t enough people to grade for the larger early career classes. Hence the need for more TAs. They might be correct because the most I’ve had in a class is ~80 with one TA. I haven’t had any of the 100+. That being said (and typed), I always have free form answer because I feel that best exams test the student’s knowledge. Multiple choice (especially when things are written intentionally to trick the students, like swapping a letter or using quadruple negatives in a sentence) tests will test what a student doesn’t know. I hated them as a student (bear in mind that I did very well on them), and I hate them as a professor. I see it as lazy. I brought this up, and was met with a lot of contention and excuses. And I understand all the points, but part of our job is education in the classroom. We all have busy personal and lab lives that we have to juggle with these teaching loads, but we shouldn’t be just caring about a grade number and trying to trick students into getting questions wrong. We should teach them well, test them for what they know, and assign scores accordingly. I’m all for trick questions, but I’m also for partial credit. If someone set the boundary conditions properly, but I inserted a trick unit mix-up and they screwed up they deserve a lot of credit. A multiple-choice test (unless broken down properly) would give them zero.

One person advocated for a problem broken down into multiple parts, then each part have a multiple-choice questions associated. So, outlining the problem gets a question, BCs get a question, math gets a question, solving then discussion both get questions. Then if they got the question wrong we reevaluate for partial credit. This kind of works, but still doesn’t fully test the students’ knowledge. In addition, this doesn’t work for classes that are, say, more biology-focused. There’s not as much critical thinking in these types of classes (which I do have to teach). In these, I still test them long-form, and I can really tell if a student understands something or not.

I know I’ve made a few enemies and will continue to make more with this campaigning. But I really do think multiple-choice tests are lazy. I will always make time for the students. The same goes for Chalkboard, which I’m forced to use, and which I only use to disseminate documents to my students. Everyone is busy, but students ultimately come first. I would feel bad failing a student for knowing a topic, but unable to decipher the convoluted ways I have to phrase questions to trick them. It’s lazy tests only what students don’t know, and I’m not changing my mind about this.


One thought on “Multiple choice

  1. I’m with you on all accounts. Hate multiple choice. I grade all my tests (yep, it takes forever, but I do it) where I have them solve problems (get to see setup and solution) also freeform questions along the lines of here’s a set of data, what happens if this or that. Also state this, explain that. Yes, the grading is onerous, but the students get feedback from me, I get to learn how they think and what they know and don’t. Their families pay a lot to get this education and we shouldn’t just phone it in.

    What I do is I teach how I want, and have both teaching evaluations and student outcomes measured in follow-on courses that are far above those of others who teach the same courses as me.

    I am also tired of “we need too many TAs/instructors for that” plight. Why can’t we offer multiple sections of the same course, people. We don’t have to teach 100 people when we can have two sections of 50. Or four of 25 if you will. Then instructors won’t mind grading their exams.

    Smaller classes are better all around, for everyone. The problem is that today’s corporatized university treats students as something between customers and cattle, just someone to run through the machine as fast as possible, without the regard for how much quality is achieved in the meantime, because getting out to that diploma fast is all that matters.


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