Opinion: Are multiple choice questions a good assessment method?


Multiple choice questioning at exams is to be avoided, says Jan Hoffmann student at the European Law School and Member of the University Council, Maastricht University. There is little to say in favour of it.

The use of multiple choice questions (MCQ) in exams has become a popular tool among teachers, including those at Maastricht University. Supporting arguments normally consist of the following: scoring MCQs is quick, easy, and cost-effective. However, this line of argumentation is dangerous because it disregards some of the most evident downsides of the system – many of which do have a profound impact on student education.      

First, MCQs are about all or nothing. They only reflect whether a student went for the right or wrong answer but do not explain the rationale behind it. Thus, students may cross the right answer for the wrong reasons or the wrong answer for the right reasons. In case of the latter example, open questions would allow students to elaborate on their viewpoint and potentially receive credit. Also, a simple ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ only allows for teachers to conduct superficial analyses, but does not provide any guidance for possible improvement measures to the course. Equally, students will never receive the necessary feedback they need to develop their thinking.

Second, MCQs have been shown to hinder critical thinking. This defeats the entire idea of PBL whose objective it is to make students think more individually and critically. Thus, MCQs often trigger ‘teach to the test’ instead of achieving conceptual understanding of critical content. In fact, the very nature of MCQs discourages learning broad concepts. As a result, students may recognize or know facts and procedures well enough to score high on the exam, but will not be able to deeply think about the subject and apply their knowledge.

Third, MCQs take away one of the most beautiful aspects of open questions; the ability to reflect human characteristics such as morality, creativity, ingenuity or empathy.

Fourth, MCQs are said to be objective but the very way in which questions and answers are drafted is inherently subjective. One may only think of the ‘choose the best answer’ scenario.

Fifth, whereas I might be willing to accept that in some situations MCQ exams may be appropriate, at the same time their effectiveness depends on how well they are developed and how effectively they are put to use as part of an overall assessment strategy. In my three years at Maastricht University, I did not sit a single MCQ exam that met aforementioned requirements to a satisfactory degree. Instead, questions are often phrased in a misleading and poorly worded manner (especially where the exam language is not the drafter’s mother-tongue).

Now, going back to where we departed from: “Are multiple choice question exams a good assessment method?” I hope to have shown that the answer to this question should be (other than usual) a rather obvious one. Thus, MCQ tests should never be used as prime and sole assessment method, even where it might save time and costs, in particular considering the wealth of more authentic assessment alternatives available to teachers.

Jan Hoffmann

Opinion: Are multiple choice questions a good assessment method?
multiple choice
Author: Redactie
Categories: News,
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