Multiple Choice

Here is a multiple choice question for you:

What is it that multiple choice questions (in humanities and social sciences) actually test?
A) Rote memorization of facts and trivia.
B) Deductive reasoning.
c) Comprehension of key themes from the lecture.
D) Ability to reason and draw connections between events.
E) How closely you read the textbook for facts and trivia.

I would accept A or E, with B being debatable. The problem is that I firmly believe that those are not really the purpose of the humanities, at least not at a college level.1 Although I have had multiple students come to me panicked about short answer, identification, and essay questions, claiming that they would be comforted by multiple choice tests, the comfort has more to do with familiarity and surety of having a “correct” answer than actual performance on the exams. Moreover, the perception that the lectures are utterly incomprehensible because there is a distinct lack of facts and key information plagues those same students. In much the same way that a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education discusses the struggles of students to formulate their own paper topics, students seem at a loss as to how to navigate the spaces between assigned reading, powerpoint presentations, and lecture. To my mind, power point presentations present the biggest problems, since the discussion section and TAs should be able to find the balance between the lecture and the readings, but in the lecture hall the students are presented with two distinct sources of information and with professors who vary as widely as not to use presentations to largely testing the students on the material on the presentations while reading the slides out during lecture.2

The sage wisdom once given to me by my father is that the key to getting a good grade is to discover what the instructor wants and then give it to them. Too often this is the key to getting a good grade, and in navigating the technological obstacle course of higher education, this truism certainly applies.

But I digress.

I do understand the appeal of multiple choice tests from the point of view of the instructors. So long as you don’t have to continually update (or have some means of automatically updating) the answers, the exams are easy to grade and are rather clear-cut in terms of right and wrong so complaints about grading are relatively limited. Of course, the students who come to complain about grades are generally asking the wrong questions–and so are the professors using multiple choice questions. Multiple choice questions have a limited range of types of information that can be addressed, but a very broad base of information to pick from. The answers are very precise, easy to mistake, and, most importantly, of little actual value. The professor is emphasizing memorization trivia and eclectica, not skills, logic, or actual learning. Better is to test the learning, logic, and writing, while allowing the trivia to supplement the answers. One of those things prepares people for pub trivia; the other prepares people to take in information and then to be able to produce actual thought, which should serve them well beyond the classroom while (if the students applies themselves) also preparing people for pub trivia. One provides an easy criterion on which to evaluate student performance on relatively trivial things; the other provides a more nebulous means of evaluating student performance on much more significant things and should provide a more meaningful way to gauge student learning and improvement.

In this sense, multiple choice exams, particularly multiple choice-only exams, are practically criminal in higher education.

Like I said, I have had students come to me begging to have multiple-choice exams, the type of which they are familiar with from standardized tests in high school. There is a clear-cut “right” answer and, if nothing else, there is a sense that they can just guess. But, at least in this instance, I don’t care what the students want. Nonetheless, this insistence on direct and absolute answers is an outgrowth of the societal insistence that the important part of the education are the facts learned (note: No Child Left Behind and the expansion of standardized tests).3 Learning the facts is the surest way to make the grade, which, in turn, is the surest way to achieving the degree, which, in turn, is the surest way to getting a job that will make more money, which, as my students usually assure me, is the measuring stick by which society determines your worth.

This calculation is simple, rational, sterile. School is to enable the career, not to learn anything. Classes are merely the obstacles in the way. Most instructors should disagree with the statement, either because they care about educating students, or they are defensive about their field of study being worthwhile, or both, but the too frequent use of multiple choice exams (when even giving prompts in advance and giving writing prompts for class papers seems to be too much direction) undercuts the actual value of the education while reinforcing the misconceptions of what is actually important.

Anyone who gives multiple choice exams on a wide scale is failing the students. The educational industry for high schools as it currently exists is setting the students up for failure, and professors incapable or uninterested in correcting these issues in college are complicit. Fighting against the corporatization of colleges, for-profit colleges, and the societal movement to value the degree over the education is hard enough without professors buying in to the misconceptions and letting the students down. Multiple choice tests are just one example of this phenomenon, one which is threatening to radically alter the shape of college and undercut the ideal of an educated society.


1 I think it is a travesty at lower levels of schooling, too, though high school cirricula and evaluation methods are a lot harder to change than those at college. Here multiple choice should also apply to similar evaluation methods.
2 Powerpoint and the use of the technology in the classroom might be the feature of another post, but I have noticed that students tend to focus on what is on the powerpoint at the expense of what the lecturer is saying, or worse, only writing down the spare outline presented on the powerpoint and setting down their pen. And the really repugnant part as far as I am concerned is that this behavior is condoned or even required by some professors (and of those, not all make the presentations available after the lecture). I can recall one humanities professor using powerpoint in college (yes, this is a “back in my day” moment from a young man, deal with it), and his usual process was to open powerpoint, but rather than actually using the presentation feature, he would scroll down the creation screen. And his slides were maps. Students who did not know initially learned quickly that they had to write down what he was saying. Now it is required for professors to have at least a passing ability to use technology such as powerpoint in classes, but the technology seems to be an inhibitor to learning, particularly if it is done done with a great deal of care (badly done or overly intensive presentations become the focal point of the class rather than a tool).
3 Curiously, this has recently been matched by the idea of providing students with “job-training” at the expense of the traditional disciplines. These two developments are oxymoronic.

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