Zen and the Art of Multiple Choice Exams

Scantron scoring machines are fairly common, if not universal, on university campuses. Thus one can infer that multiple choice exams are equally widespread. But how do they stack up against other kinds of assessment, especially in classes where higher-level thinking (application, analysis, evaluation), and not mere memorization (recognition and recall), are emphasized?

Crafting good multiple choice (MC) stems (questions) and conceiving of plausible distractors (wrong answers) are skills in themselves. Yet, when artfully done, MC exams can be effective in testing higher-level cognitive abilities – it just takes time and effort.

It had dawned on me a few years earlier that it would benefit students to shoulder some of these question making responsibilities. Coming up with plausible (dare I say artful?) distractors is part of the practice I so enjoy about writing MC exams. I try to think of the reasons why a student may choose a wrong answer (is X conceptually close to Y?, is it easy to confuse X for Y?, is X actually the opposite of Y?, does X actually negate Y?, is X spelled similarly as Y?, and so forth), and include those as the distractors.

Indeed, through this very process of crafting good questions with good distractors I come to have a better understanding of the relationships between concepts, in other words, I built a strong network of reinforced meanings. This is precisely what I want students to do!

Thus, I decided for my Zen class to unveil a new extra-credit option: for student to craft five of their own MC questions following the criteria I set out for them. From my perspective this had the following benefits:

  1. Students would create their own web of meaning between conceptually similar or confusing terms. This was a coercive way to get them to study in a new manner.
  2. Students wold post their MC questions on an online forum, and thus would get the opportunity to take several practice tests.
  3. By selecting several of the best MC exams, students would feel they had a sense of agency in the learning process.
  4. It might save time on my end from having to craft so many MC questions.

Overall, about 50% of my class took me up on the offer. Many of the MC questions did not match my highest standards (but, honestly, not all of my questions are perfect!), but several were thoughtful and well-crafted and were incorporated into our exams.

Something I would consider doing in the future is to have students explain why they selected each distractor (laying out the relationships I noted above).

Taking multiple choice exams will never replace the value of writing well-reasoned prose, but having students write well-reasoned multiple choice questions is a step in the same direction.

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The Art of Multiple Choice Exams

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