A few years ago I decided to have all my students do their multiple choice quizzes at home and online. It’s fairly easy to set up these quizzes if your school uses a Learning Management System (LMS) like Moodle (or an institutional adaptation). As I’ve noted before, it saves both precious class time and grading time.
This practice is predicated on the known benefits for giving frequent, low-stakes (low-grade impact) assessments. When given early in the term, this allows students to self-assess before more higher-stakes exams occur and also provides valuable feedback to instructors regarding the success of their teaching strategies.
In practice, I make the online quizzes timed, giving students 1-2 minutes per multiple choice question depending on the complexity or cognitive challenge of the question (I earmark less time for recognition questions than application questions, for example). I’ve come to be very explicit in recommending how students should study; I tell them they should read and reorganize their class notes, comparing and incorporating ideas from the readings, class slides (which I also provide), and from what they remember in discussion. Students are ultimately free to use their notes, course readings, and slides when they take the quiz, but the imposed time limit demands they have some understanding of the material or a conceptual organization of resources to know where to look.
I’ve come to realize an even better benefit of online quizzes recently – they ability to give immediate feedback to student responses. Online quizzes provide fields where instructors can type feedback to individual multiple-choice responses or for the entire question after it has been submitted.
I now use this space to offer a brief explanation of the structure of the question, especially noting if it needed students to apply their knowledge. This would involve, for instance, taking a novel situation and applying it to concepts they’ve studied (for quizzes I try to make only 10-15% of the questions application-based, this percentage increases for higher-stakes assessments). Because of this, I’m helping students identify why this multiple choice question seems harder than others, especially in comparison to one that is asking for simple recognition, i.e. recognizing the right word among the responses.
I also use this space to explain why the incorrect responses to a multiple choice question – called “distractors”- might have seemed plausible. For example, a distractor might represent the popular view of a phenomena instead of the analysis we’ve offered in class. Or a distractor might represent a common conceptual misstep in analyzing the question. With this feedback, students can immediately see where their thought process went off track when answering the question and gain more insight into the topic at hand.
Ultimately, I believe the best multiple choice exam is one that has been created by students. Creating good multiple choice questions, with plausible “distractors,” requires precisely the higher-order thinking many of us want our students to cultivate. Online quizzes have provided a new way to make this a reality.
One of the biggest issues I have found when having my students craft their own multiple choice questions (for extra credit) is the difficulty in having them craft higher-order questions (application) or provide plausible distractors for all or most of the responses. I believe the feedback I provide can help students see how good questions are crafted, thus helping them study and creatively learn the material. I’ll hope to return to this post after my current summer course.
 While there is plenty of literature on extolling this a standard best-practice, I learned the value of frequent and early assessment the hard way. The first semester I taught at a community college I did not schedule any low-stakes quizzes. The first formal test my students had was a midterm, and while many did fine, there was an abundance of students who did exceptionally poorly (with grades under 30%). I did not provide them the opportunity to gauge their early level of understanding, and consequently to adapt their learning strategies.