Further Meditations: Multiple Choice

I didn’t use to like multiple choice. They’re based on recognition, not recall, and thus (I thought) were not cognitively demanding. They don’t require higher-order thinking. And, so, they made infrequent appearances on my assessments. Now, every quiz I create is predominantly multiple choice and they feature largely on unit tests as well.

There are three main factors that lead to my change of heart.
Grade 6: I teach four sections of Grade 6, for a total of 99 students. If they were spread across multiple courses it would be different, but because it’s the same course, for every assessment, I (ideally) have 99 come in on the same day. The assessment burden is, well, burdensome, moreso when I aim to get grades back in a timely fashion. Multiple choice is quick to grade; for quizzes, if I’m focused and organized, I can grade the previous set while the next class is writing the quiz.
Cognitive science: Regular quizzing improves retention of information. If I’m going to quiz more frequently, I want to do so in a way that does not significantly add to my grading load.
Blog posts that challenged my views: This is not to say that the blog-o-sphere is uniformly in favour of multiple choice. Some think that multiple choice enhances retention more than other question types;  others cite evidence that suggests the use of multiple choice questions can create false memories.  Multiple choice does allow a teacher to assess a wider breadth of content, such as in subject areas like history, while essays typically assess depth of one or two topics; this is why I balance my Grade 11 Asian History quarter tests between a section of multiple choice and an essay. It is possible to write questions that require students to apply the information, to compare and contrast, and to generally use higher order thinking skills. If carefully designed, they can be used to pinpoint areas of confusion for students. Of course, some of the best-designed tests use multiple choice. Basically, multiple choice can be a useful classroom tool if the questions are well-designed.

I want to write well-designed questions. So I chose as my first micro-credential ​Designing and Evaluating Multiple-Choice Items.

What I really wanted to get out of this micro-credential was guidance how to create those high-quality questions I saw on those blog posts and in the AP exams. You know, the ones that require students to apply their knowledge or synthesize what they’ve learned from different topics. I think that will come from practice, mimicking examples and studying good questions to see what makes them good. This credential did not provide much help for that.

However, I still found the process valuable to complete. For this credential, the teacher designs three multiple choice items according to the standards set by the Relay Graduate School of Education, and evaluates two procured items based on these same standards. The standards were nothing new to me. I had already researched how to write good multiple choice questions when I decided to use them more often in my classroom. However, being forced to explain my question design and evaluate someone else’s design did deepen my understanding of the standards. Basically, reading about an idea is different from using the idea (and being held accountable for doing so).

I generally agree with all of the Relay Graduate School’s standards for multiple choice question design. They justified everything clearly. For example, multiple choice questions should be framed positively. I had personal experience with this recently. I was doing a silly Buzzfeed quiz, not paying the best attention, and just skimming the question stems. One question asked, “Which of the following is not…” I missed the “not;” I would have gotten 100% if I was paying better attention. Of  course, students should learn to read questions carefully (and I would have if the stakes were higher). However, negatively framed questions are not good assessment tools of student understanding: “Just because the student knows an incorrect answer does not necessarily imply that he or she knows the correct answer.” So why do teachers use negatively framed questions? Speaking from personal experience, it is easier to think of three correct answers than it is to think of three incorrect answers. I’ve been working towards having 100% of my multiple choice questions positively framed.

Another standard that I have found hard to apply is ordering the choices logically. For quizzes, I don’t move the desks apart, but I do write two versions of the quiz; the choices for each question are shuffled (but the questions are kept in the same order, so it is easier to go over the answers as a class). Putting the choices in, say, alphabetical order has changed how I shuffle my answers. Not an insurmountable challenge.

The hardest standard to apply is the first: basing each item on a vision for student mastery. What am I hoping the student will demonstrate by answering this question? This question, in a slightly different form, is what drove me to complete this credential. While the credential was a nudge in the right direction, this is something that will simply come with practice.

It takes two weeks for the micro-credential submission to be reviewed. You can view my submission here.  I’ll update this post when I know whether my submission has been approved.

​Update: It is May 22, and I have finally earned the credential. Review process takes much longer than the promised two weeks.

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