The value of multiple-choice in education has been a topic of debate since it’s invention in the beginning of the 20th century. Initially, the US army constructed this type of assessment as a means for determining intelligence for recruitment (Ramirez, 2013). Provided this social validity, the test quickly spread to education and industry sectors, such as the SAT (Ramirez, 2013). At this time, education mocked the industrial “factory model”, based on standardization and strict learning schedules.
In recent years, however, there has been a shift in the education model, contingent upon active and personal participation in our globalized society. Due to the invention of the world-wide-web and new technologies that utilize it, individuals have gained autonomy, instant communication, access to a plethora of information at their fingertips, and the ability to track all types of information and data. As a result, there has been a drive towards implementing constructivist practices within the classroom, where students gain greater agency to create their own knowledge when learning and working with peers.
Consistent with this new approach, learning experts have questioned the value of multiple-choice, arguing its passive nature of simple recognition which does not facilitate deep thinking, creativity, or agency (Wray, 2012). However, multiple choice questions contain a plethora of advantages including avoiding teacher bias, enabling careful thinking to avoid first guesses, finding subtle differences in wording or content, or rethinking factual knowledge in a new context. Nonetheless, there is no denying that the construction of questions that generate the most thought is up to the teacher’s expertise.
Despite this, a recent study in the Psychological Science compared multiple-choice and recall questions, when studying memory retrieval (Wray, 2012). Students were asked to read two short essays, half answering related multiple choice questions, while the others answering short answer (Wray, 2012). Later, students took a “final exam” which asked them to recall the information from the essays, with the same questions from before and a few new, closely related questions (Wray, 2012). The findings of this study showed that while both types of questions improved performance on the final exam, students who answered multiple-choice questions had better recall of both old and new items, showing a broader learning process (Wray, 2012). It is believed that multiple choice triggers a specific cognitive process of memory retrieval that enhances learning based on the contemplation of plausible answers, rather than a simple recognition process (Wray, 2012). This memory process is key to improving learning.
Multiple-choice questions, when used in combination with new technologies, offer an active, creative, and comprehensive learning experience. Clickers utilize multiple choice questions based on a set of written questions with predetermined answers. Socrative, the smart student response system, uses the same process of clickers, but enables any student to participate from any device, simply by entering a virtual room. Socrative multiple-choice questions are projected in real-time and thus enable:
1. Active participation
When a teacher asks a question through Socrative, students simply click on an answer using their computer, cell phone, or tablet. This way, students automatically participate in the class, rather than waiting for another student to raise their hand and specify an answer. Each student must think about the question and answers that are offered, before making their selection.
2. Learning from others
Student responses can easily be summed and shared, letting each student see the variance in answers and perspectives. Socrative allows teachers to generate “teacher paced” questions, where all students answer a series of questions at the same time, or “quick questions”, where answers to a single question are gathered and presented in a chart. Answers to quick questions may be projected to the entire class as a graph. Students may better understand the complexity of the question, and learn about the thought process other students had when approaching the question, through meaningful classroom discussion. This enhances the students’ knowledge of the question, as well as answers, in the context of the topic.
Clickers allow students the answer questions anonymously, allowing them to feel safe when responding, especially when the correct answer is not obvious to them. This takes away the pressure of raising one’s hand or being put on the spot, with the chance of losing confidence if he or she chooses incorrectly. With Socrative, teachers receive detailed graded reports after the activity, while maintaining anonymity in the moment, effectively avoiding teacher bias or student anxiety.
4. Rapid feedback
Socrative allows students to view the result of their answer, either after each question, or at the end of the quiz. This eliminates questioning or distraction from the current material that presides when students wait hours or days for feedback. With rapid feedback, students gain an all encompassing learning experience and continue learning to the next topic with a solidified understanding of the previous.
There is no denying that multiple-choice is everywhere: whether choosing among four answers on a science test, choosing which facts to use in supporting a thesis, or which formula to apply to a geometry problem. Beyond the classroom, students exercise multiple-choice when choosing which play they will make on the football field, which product to purchase, or which college to attend. Life itself is a web of multiple-choice questions, with a variety of options and levels of difficulty. This type of thinking relies upon comparative analysis, finding the subtle differences among a variety of options, and drawing upon components of memory that serve the question best.
Thus, there is no right or wrong answer regarding whether multiple-choice is a valuable tool in education. Rather, it is the careful creation of each question and the environment in which it is used that makes it a worthwhile teaching mechanism. How have you used multiple-choice as a valuable teaching tool?