Multiple-Choice Questioning as a Valuable Learning Opportunity

Multiple-choice quizzes are somewhat polarizing in education. Most teachers either love them or hate them. Some see these questions as a way to assess student learning while also providing options. Others believe multiple-choice questions are not very valid or reliable because students are able to guess and may be given credit for information they really did not know. And, to be honest, I see both sides of the argument. In my classroom, I want to provide efficient and effective instruction. By that, I mean, I want to use methods that most clearly present the information to the students for understanding. After instruction, I want to provide many opportunities (at varying time delays) for students to access and retrieve that information during assessment. At its simplest, class time is spent either trying to get ‘information in’ or ‘information out’. 

I want the ‘information out’ stage of class to be as honest as possible for my students and myself. No one is assisted by an assessment that does not accurately evaluate student knowledge. So, I understand why some don’t appreciate the multiple-choice question. I’m sure we’ve all been in a situation where we haven’t known the answer to a question, so we just guess…and, perhaps, 25% of the time we get it right without actually knowing the answer. That is why I created the template below in an attempt to curtail this sort of profit by guessing. This requires students choose the correct answer, like a traditional multiple-choice question, but  students are then tasked with cognitively interacting with all distractors. 

But maybe my worries about multiple-choice questions has been unfounded. A paper by Little, Bjork, and Bjork (1) put some of the critiques to the test. 

“Critics have argued that multiple-choice tests are less effective as learning events than cued-recall or short-answer tests are because they present the correct answer among the alternatives, thereby bypassing the need for retrieval and allowing test takers to rely on recognizing the correct answer.”

But is this actually the case?

Little, Bjork, and Bjork experimented with a goal of discovering whether multiple-choice questions, when written with proper incorrect alternatives, can actually task students with using retrieval that increases more than just the later recall of correct answers and their associated information. Can these questions amplify the recall of initially incorrect alternatives when they are the correct answer on later recall tests?

In other words, if ‘B’ is the correct answer, but students have also considered alternatives ‘A’, ‘C’, and ‘D’ before choosing ‘B’, is that better for remembering all answer choices (A-D) on a later assessment? This is in opposition to the thought that recall questions (fill-in-the-blank, short answer, essay, et cetera) are better for retention of material because these style questions provide no help. Multiple-choice questions may be better for study because they stimulate more thought about more material, with the caveat that all alternatives must be competitive and realistic options…and, believe me, I understand that this is much easier said than done. 

So, what did the researchers find? Their evidence not only supports the hypothesis that multiple-choice questions with competitive alternatives can require retrieval (rather than just recognition), but also substantiate the idea that these questions improve retrieval of material associated with the incorrect alternatives. These results contradict what many believe about the legitimacy of multiple-choice questions as study aids. It would seem that these questions, with more alternatives, actually can promote more cognition of material. 

While this evidence is quite interesting to me as a classroom teacher and my ‘wheels start turning’ about how to use this in my classroom with my students, I think it appropriate to revisit a necessary component of high quality multiple-choice questions: all of the alternatives must be competitive. This can be quite difficult to produce for many reasons and can be very time consuming. Those opposed to the use of multiple-choice questions often state that the time spent writing competitive alternatives could be better spent creating other types of questions. Also, what is competitive to one student may not be to another. I believe these to be valid points. Writing a good multiple-choice question takes practice, but I think, as this evidence indicates, the benefits can be great. 

What jumps out at me, that is also important for multiple-choice questions (or really any type of question) to be successful is student cognition with the material. If the students genuinely consider and retrieve information about all alternatives, then multiple-choice questions can be very advantageous. If, however, students read the stem and just look for the correct answer, mostly ignoring all other alternatives, then thinking about all of the different aspects of the material will suffer.**

There needs to be a conversation with students about the results from this research and how students should use multiple-choice questions to study/practice. I believe it would be a rare occurrence for students to look at a multiple-choice question as anything other than a task to find the correct answer and move on. Explicitly modeling and discussing how students can use the questions in a more beneficial manner is a must. That is why I developed the template shown above. Students must think about and consider all aspects of the question. So, instead of just looking for the answer, they are cognitively involved with all alternatives; comparing and contrasting information, explaining, describing, et cetera. 

Another strategy to encourage students to use all aspects of the multiple-choice question is to have them rank the answer choices from most correct to least correct. With this approach, students again are tasked with considering differing aspects of each answer to rank the alternatives, oftentimes with an explanation of why they ranked a certain choice in a particular order. In reality, the order isn’t all that important, as long as students can use relevant information to support their ranking. The cognition involved while working with the material is what I’m interested in. 

The long-term goal of using these strategies is to create healthier study habits with students; that they can see these questions as powerful learning opportunities. This plays into the larger goal of having students seeing effortful learning as more effective learning. As the results from Little, Bjork, and Bjork indicate, multiple-choice questions, when used appropriately, can be at least as potent for learning as questions requiring the recall of information. 

**There is some upside to this way of thinking, though. If students can read the stem and feel confident they know the answer before even looking at the alternatives, they can be relatively sure they know the material…assuming they answered the question correctly. Essentially, this takes the recognition of a multiple-choice question and turns it into a cued-recall question.

  1. Little, Jeri & Bjork, Elizabeth & Bjork, Robert & Angello, Genna. (2012). Multiple-Choice Tests Exonerated, at Least of Some Charges: Fostering Test-Induced Learning and Avoiding Test-Induced Forgetting. Psychological science. 23. 10.1177/0956797612443370. 

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