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Examining Multiple Choice Questions

According to Ron Berk (a keynote speaker and Professor Emeritus of Johns Hopkins University)the multiple choice question "holds world records in the categories of most popular, most unpopular, most misused, most loved and most hated" of all test questions.  Because of the many students teachers see each day and the little time teachers have to make tests and then grade them, multiple choice questions have become one of the favorite type of testing questions in education.  We see them on state assessments, national assessments, ACT tests, college tests, driving license tests, etc.  However, those who consistently use them aren't all that crazy about them and with good cause.

First of all, answering multiple choice questions doesn't teach students how to formulate answers; it teaches them how to select answers.  Many times choosing the right answer is more a literary skill rather than of content knowledge.  Multiple choice questions promote guessing, and if a guess is right, students get credit for something they didn't know.  Moreover, the instructor is deceived into thinking the student understands the concepts being tested.

Many multiple choice questions do not challenge students to think.  Instead they encourage the students to memorize.  In my opinion, test bank questions are the worst.  A simple analysis of this type of question in a variety of disciplines suggests that about 85% of the multiple choice questions test lower level knowledge, levels I (remembering) or II (understanding) of Bloom's Taxonomy.

When I first started at the community college where I teach math, the math assessments which the department used were mostly multiple choice.  I asked about testing our students using levels V or VI of Bloom's and the reaction I received was disheartening.  One instructor implied that our math students would be unable to answer such questions.  I guess his expectations were a great deal lower than mine. I am positive he hadn't read an article by two professors at Kansas State University.

According to Victoria Clegg and William Cashin of K.U., "Many college teachers believe the myth that the multiple choice question is only a superficial exercise - a multiple guess - requiring little thought and less understanding from the student.  It is true that many multiple choice items are superficial, but that is the result of poor test craftsmanship and not an inherent limitation of the item type.  A well designed multiple choice item can test high levels of student learning, including all six levels of Bloom's Taxonomy of cognitive objectives."  (Idea Paper No. 16, Sept. 1986)

So what are some things that make challenging multiple choice questions? Let's take a multiple choice test to help us answer that question.

Choose the best answer.  Which multiple choice question is the hardest to answer?

a) The one where it’s absolutely obvious that all choices are wrong answers.
b) The one where the question and/or answers are so badly written that two or more answers could be correct depending on how the student interprets the question.
c) The one where the list of possible answers are true or false; it depends on how the the student reads the question.
d) The one question where it is really two questions in one, but the options only answer one part of the question.
e) All of the above – except that there is no "all of the above" option given.

I trust you see the humor in this question.  Unfortunately, I have seen one or all of the above on math tests given in our department.

Now let's look at two different multiple choice questions from a mealworm test available on Teachers Pay Teachers.  The first one is pretty straight forward and requires little thinking on the part of the student. On Bloom's, it would represent a level I question - remembering.

Mealworm Test
1) Which tool will help you best see the mealworm up close?

a) Ruler
b) Mirror
c) Hands Lens
d) Eyedropper

The next question from the same test requires the student to understand what a good scientific investigative question is. This would be a level IV question which is analyzing.

4) Which question can be answered by investigating?

a) Will the mealworm eat the fruit?
b) How far can a mealworm travel?
c) Will more mealworms go to the paper with an apple slice on it or to the one with no fruit on it?
d) Why do mealworms move?

How about this one from a butterfly test?  (also available on TPT)  What level of Bloom's does it represent?

3) How does the life cycle of a butterfly differ from the life cycle of a frog?

Butterfly Test
a)     Only the butterfly has an egg.
b)     Only the butterfly has an adult stage.
c)      Only the frog has a tadpole.
d)     Only the frog has a pupa.

Again it is level IV because the student is asked to compare; yet, this test is for the grades 3-5 while the meal worm test is for grades 5-8.  I give you examples from both so you can see that challenging multiple choice questions can be written for most grade levels.

If you would like help writing good, challenging questions of all kinds, you might check out Bloom's Taxonomy Made Simple.  It is a five page handout that breaks the six levels of Bloom's down into workable, friendly parts, using the familiar story of The Three Little Pigs. Examples of good ideas of how to write assessment questions using all six levels of Bloom's are given.  For your practice, a follow-up activity of 16 questions is included.

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