Multiple-Choice Tests (page 2)

— National Center for Fair and Open Testing
Updated on Jul 26, 2007

Multiple-choice and critical thinking

It is possible to get multiple-choice items correct without knowing much or doing any real thinking. Because the answers are in front of the student, some people call these tests "multiple- guess." Multiple-choice items can be easier than open-ended questions asking the same thing. This is because it is harder to recall an answer than to recognize it. Test-wise students know that it is sometimes easier to work backwards from the answer options, looking for the one that best fits. It also is possible to choose the "right" answer for the wrong reason or to simply make a lucky guess.

Some people claim that multiple-choice tests can be useful for measuring whether students can analyze material. This item was released by test publishers as an example of how multiple-choice items supposedly measure "thinking" skills:

Was the infantry invasion of Japan a viable alternative to the use of the atomic bomb to end World War II? Is so, why? If not, why not?

A. Yes; transport ships were available in sufficient numbers.
B. Yes; island defenses in Japan were minimal.
C. No; estimated casualties would have been much greater.*
D. No; Japan was on the verge of having an atomic bomb.
* Wanted answer.

(From Measuring Thinking in the Classroom, Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory, 1988, Oak Park, IL.)

Claiming there is one right answer to this complex historical issue actually demonstrates how this sort of question short-circuits the thinking process it claims to measure. Since "C" is the explanation given in most high-school texts for using the bomb, choosing the wanted answer would be a matter of recall for many students. For students who did not recall the textbook response, no information is provided to actually analyze the question and come up with the wanted answer. Beyond that, there remains an intense debate among historians about the justification for the use of the atomic bomb. Thus, what is treated as "true" may not be. A question really asking for critical thinking would have students weigh evidence and defend a position.

Most researchers agree that multiple-choice items are poor tools for measuring the ability to synthesize and evaluate information or apply knowledge to complex problems. In math, for example, they can measure knowledge of basic facts and the ability to apply standard procedures and rules. Carefully written multiple-choice questions also can measure somewhat more complex mathematical knowledge such as integrating information or deciding which mathematical procedures to use to solve problems. However, as students move toward solving non-routine problems, analyzing, interpreting, and making mathematical arguments, multiple-choice questions are not useful.

In sum, multiple-choice items are an inexpensive and efficient way to check on factual ("declarative") knowledge and routine procedures. However, they are not useful for assessing critical or higher order thinking in a subject, the ability to write, or the ability to apply knowledge or solve problems.

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