Matching Learning Targets with an Assessment Strategy:
Should I give a multiple-choice test, an essay test or something entirely different?
By Vanessa Rutter
|“I didn't fail the test, I just found 100 ways to do it wrong” |
- Benjamin Franklin
The student will be able to understand the advantages and disadvantages of multiple-choice tests
The student will be able to understand the advantages and disadvantages of essay tests
The student will be able to provide an example of why multiple-choice or essay tests are used
The student will be better informed of the results produced by multiple-choice, essay, and other tests
Throughout school, teachers and other education officials use tests to assess how much information that the students have absorbed. This can be important in different ways depending on how the results will be used.
Figuring out what students have learned in the classroom is an important issue in the education field (Swartz, 2006). Teachers want to know that when they assess what their students have learned that the teachers are using an accurate assessment strategy that will mesh with their learning targets. In the following information, the focus will be on affects of using multiple-choice, essay, or other tests along with why they are used.
Advantages and disadvantages of multiple-choice tests
Multiple-choice testing became popular in the 1900's because of the efficiency that it provided (Swartz, 2006). According to Matzen and Hoyt, "Beginning in 1901, the SAT was a written exam, but as the influence of psychometricians grew in 1926, the SAT became a multiple-choice test" (2006). Until recently, multiple-choice have been favored especially for SAT and ACT testing. For many years now, the SAT test was used for mostly multiple-choice questions and has changed in the past few years so that it now includes an essay section.
Other advantages of multiple-choice tests include how quickly tests can be graded compared to others. There are machines that can quickly grade scantrons as well as bubble sheets that show right and wrong answers quickly for teachers when grading. It is much more cost efficient than having to read over written answers which take time and possibly training depending on who is employed to grade them (Holtzman, 2008).
Others may say that multiple-choice tests are hard. In college, students have said that multiple-choice question tests are long, filled with many words, and very complicated (Holtzman, 2008). Some argue that multiple-choice question tests are based on testing the level of knowledge only and do not show a student's level of comprehension and application of information (Holtzman, 2008). It is hard to judge on a multiple-choice test whether the student guesses the right answer or didn't get the answer right because they were confused and chose one of the other answers (Swartz, 2006).
Advantages and disadvantages of essay tests
Essay tests have started to become more dominant because of the results that come along with it. Essay format questions contain a level of information quality that exceeds that of multiple-choice (Swartz, 2006). According to Swartz (2006), "They provide the opportunity to assess more complex student attributes and higher levels of attribute achievement". Another advantage of an essay is that the teacher can clearly see what the student knows instead of being misconstrued with multiple-choice tests were students can guess the right answers. A student that doesn't do well with test taking may find writing an essay to much more efficient rather than testing knowledge through multiple-choice.
There are also problems associated with essay tests. Administering essay test can be harder and be less cost efficient. There is technology already available for grading multiple-choice tests that take up much less time then grading essay tests. Essays cannot be ran through a bubble sheet optical reader machine that quickly grades scantrons used for multiple choice questions tests. For a professor with over three hundred students, it is much more efficient to use multiple-choice tests than grade three hundred essays. Communication is an important factor as well. For a student that can not write well, they may feel at a disadvantage when being graded by writing an essay. This could be true for someone with a learning disability.
|“If more testing were the answer to the problems in our schools, testing would have solved them a long time ago” |
Bill Goodling, chair of House Education Committee
Multiple-choice and essay tests are not the only test out there. The recently modified SAT test states that if you put the wrong answer you will have points taken off in the multiple-choice section. This is an incentive to not fill in the circle unless the student knows the answer or is pretty sure of themselves. There are also short answer tests and fill in the blank, but the most popular are the ones mentioned before.
Other tests may show an excess of seven different multiple-choice answers to choose from. The first three would be regular answers (A, B, or C). The next three answers will be where a student can get half credit for the answer by choosing D ("A or B"), E ("B or C), or F ("A or C"). Then the student will not get full credit by choosing D, E, or F but half credit by being able to narrow the answer down to the two answers they are certain of. The last choice would be G (I don't know). There the student would get a one-third of the credit for being honest rather than no points for guessing a wrong answer (Swartz, 2006).
In conclusion there are many advantages and disadvantages to both multiple-choice and essay tests. The teacher should pick out what is more suitable according to the classroom. Factors that would favor multiple-choice may be large class size, large amount of knowledge, technology already available for scantrons, less time for grading, and students with low writing scores. Factors that would favor essay tests could include smaller class sizes, many student teacher aides to help grade, assessment of application and comprehension, and students with high writing scores. Other tests are also being developed to bring the most from assessing students comprehension of information.
What did you learn?
1. What is an advantage of using an essay test?
A) It costs less money
B) It contains a higher level of information quality
C) It takes a long time to grade
D) It can be graded with a bubble sheet optical reader
2. What is a disadvantage of using multiple-choice tests?
A) Students can guess the answers
B) Tests require scantrons
C) Tests are easier
D) Tests can be graded faster
3. If a teacher has a large group of students in their class, what kind of test would be less time consuming to grade?
A) Fill in the blank test
B) Essay test
C) Oral test
D) Multiple choice test
4. Multiple-choice tests assess mostly what type of cognitive information from students?
Holtzman, M. (2008). Demystifying application-based multiple-choice questions. College Teaching, 56(2), 114-120. Retrieved on March 22, 2009 from EBSCOhost database: http://web.ebscohost.com.proxy.lib.odu.edu/ehost/pdf?vid=3&hid=105&sid=ff9aaa2c-b758-4f95-8d5c-8f5a3fcc36c5%40sessionmgr109
Matzen, R. N. Jr., & Hoyt, J. E. (2004). Basic writing placement with holistically scored essays: Research evidense. Journal of Developmental Education, 28(1), 2-4,6,8,20,23,34. Retrieved on March 21, 2009 from EBSCOhost database: http://web.ebscohost.com.proxy.lib.odu.edu/ehost/pdf?vid=4&hid=105&sid=ff9aaa2c-b758-4f95-8d5c-8f5a3fcc36c5%40sessionmgr109
Swartz, S. M. (2006). Acceptance and accuracy of multiple choice, confidence-level, and essay question formats for graduate students. Journal of Education for Business, 81(4), 215-220. Retrieved on March 21, 2009 from EBSCOhost database: http://web.ebscohost.com.proxy.lib.odu.edu/ehost/pdf?vid=3&hid=105&sid=ff9aaa2c-b758-4f95-8d5c-8f5a3fcc36c5%40sessionmgr109
Examinations are a very common assessment and evaluation tool in universities and there are many types of examination questions. This tips sheet contains a brief description of seven types of examination questions, as well as tips for using each of them: 1) multiple choice, 2) true/false, 3) matching, 4) short answer, 5) essay, 6) oral, and 7) computational. Remember that some exams can be conducted effectively in a secure online environment in a proctored computer lab or assigned as paper based or online “take home” exams.
Multiple choice questions are composed of one question (stem) with multiple possible answers (choices), including the correct answer and several incorrect answers (distractors). Typically, students select the correct answer by circling the associated number or letter, or filling in the associated circle on the machine-readable response sheet.
Example: Distractors are:
A) Elements of the exam layout that distract attention from the questions
B) Incorrect but plausible choices used in multiple choice questions
C) Unnecessary clauses included in the stem of multiple choice questions
Students can generally respond to these type of questions quite quickly. As a result, they are often used to test student’s knowledge of a broad range of content. Creating these questions can be time consuming because it is often difficult to generate several plausible distractors. However, they can be marked very quickly.
Tips for writing good multiple choice items:
In the stem:
In the choices:
In the stem:
In the choices:
Suggestion: After each lecture during the term, jot down two or three multiple choice questions based on the material for that lecture. Regularly taking a few minutes to compose questions, while the material is fresh in your mind, will allow you to develop a question bank that you can use to construct tests and exams quickly and easily.
True/false questions are only composed of a statement. Students respond to the questions by indicating whether the statement is true or false. For example: True/false questions have only two possible answers (Answer: True).
Like multiple choice questions, true/false questions:
- Are most often used to assess familiarity with course content and to check for popular misconceptions
- Allow students to respond quickly so exams can use a large number of them to test knowledge of a broad range of content
- Are easy and quick to grade but time consuming to create
True/false questions provide students with a 50% chance of guessing the right answer. For this reason, multiple choice questions are often used instead of true/false questions.
Tips for writing good true/false items:
Suggestion: You can increase the usefulness of true/false questions by asking students to correct false statements.
Students respond to matching questions by pairing each of a set of stems (e.g., definitions) with one of the choices provided on the exam. These questions are often used to assess recognition and recall and so are most often used in courses where acquisition of detailed knowledge is an important goal. They are generally quick and easy to create and mark, but students require more time to respond to these questions than a similar number of multiple choice or true/false items.
Example: Match each question type with one attribute:
- Multiple Choice a) Only two possible answers
- True/False b) Equal number of stems and choices
- Matching c) Only one correct answer but at least three choices
Tips for writing good matching items:
Suggestion: You can use some choices more than once in the same matching exercise. It reduces the effects of guessing.
Short answer questions are typically composed of a brief prompt that demands a written answer that varies in length from one or two words to a few sentences. They are most often used to test basic knowledge of key facts and terms. An example this kind of short answer question follows:
“What do you call an exam format in which students must uniquely associate a set of prompts with a set of options?” Answer: Matching questions
Alternatively, this could be written as a fill-in-the-blank short answer question:
“An exam question in which students must uniquely associate prompts and options is called a
___________ question.” Answer: Matching.
Short answer questions can also be used to test higher thinking skills, including analysis or
evaluation. For example:
“Will you include short answer questions on your next exam? Please justify your decision with
two to three sentences explaining the factors that have influenced your decision.”
Short answer questions have many advantages. Many instructors report that they are relatively easy to construct and can be constructed faster than multiple choice questions. Unlike matching, true/false, and multiple choice questions, short answer questions make it difficult for students to
guess the answer. Short answer questions provide students with more flexibility to explain their understanding and demonstrate creativity than they would have with multiple choice questions; this also means that scoring is relatively laborious and can be quite subjective. Short answer
questions provide more structure than essay questions and thus are often easy and faster to mark and often test a broader range of the course content than full essay questions.
Tips for writing good short answer items:
|Type of question||Avoid||Do use|
Suggestion: When using short answer questions to test student knowledge of definitions consider having a mix of questions, some that supply the term and require the students to provide the definition, and other questions that supply the definition and require that students provide the term. The latter sort of questions can be structured as fill-in-the-blank questions. This mix of formats will better test student knowledge because it doesn’t rely solely on recognition or recall of the term.
Essay questions provide a complex prompt that requires written responses, which can vary in length from a couple of paragraphs to many pages. Like short answer questions, they provide students with an opportunity to explain their understanding and demonstrate creativity, but make it hard for students to arrive at an acceptable answer by bluffing. They can be constructed reasonably quickly and easily but marking these questions can be time-consuming and grader agreement can be difficult.
Essay questions differ from short answer questions in that the essay questions are less structured. This openness allows students to demonstrate that they can integrate the course material in creative ways. As a result, essays are a favoured approach to test higher levels of cognition including analysis, synthesis and evaluation. However, the requirement that the students provide most of the structure increases the amount of work required to respond effectively. Students often take longer to compose a five paragraph essay than they would take to compose five one paragraph answers to short answer questions. This increased workload limits the number of essay questions that can be posed on a single exam and thus can restrict the overall scope of an exam to a few topics or areas. To ensure that this doesn’t cause students to panic or blank out, consider giving the option of answering one of two or more questions.
Tips for writing good essay items:
Suggestions: Distribute possible essay questions before the exam and make your marking criteria slightly stricter. This gives all students an equal chance to prepare and should improve the quality of the answers – and the quality of learning – without making the exam any easier.
Oral examinations allow students to respond directly to the instructor’s questions and/or to present prepared statements. These exams are especially popular in language courses that demand ‘speaking’ but they can be used to assess understanding in almost any course by following the guidelines for the composition of short answer questions. Some of the principle advantages to oral exams are that they provide nearly immediate feedback and so allow the student to learn as they are tested. There are two main drawbacks to oral exams: the amount of time required and the problem of record-keeping. Oral exams typically take at least ten to fifteen minutes per student, even for a midterm exam. As a result, they are rarely used for large classes. Furthermore, unlike written exams, oral exams don’t automatically generate a written record. To ensure that students have access to written feedback, it is recommended that instructors take notes during oral exams using a rubric and/or checklist and provide a photocopy of the notes to the students.
In many departments, oral exams are rare. Students may have difficulty adapting to this new style of assessment. In this situation, consider making the oral exam optional. While it can take more time to prepare two tests, having both options allows students to choose the one which suits them and their learning style best.
Computational questions require that students perform calculations in order to solve for an answer. Computational questions can be used to assess student’s memory of solution techniques and their ability to apply those techniques to solve both questions they have attempted before and questions that stretch their abilities by requiring that they combine and use solution techniques in novel ways.
Effective computational questions should:
- Be solvable using knowledge of the key concepts and techniques from the course. Before the exam solve them yourself or get a teaching assistant to attempt the questions.
- Indicate the mark breakdown to reinforce the expectations developed in in-class examples for the amount of detail, etc. required for the solution.
To prepare students to do computational questions on exams, make sure to describe and model in class the correct format for the calculations and answer including:
- How students should report their assumptions and justify their choices
- The units and degree of precision expected in the answer
Suggestion: Have students divide their answer sheets into two columns: calculations in one, and a list of assumptions, description of process and justification of choices in the other. This ensures that the marker can distinguish between a simple mathematical mistake and a profound conceptual error and give feedback accordingly.
Cunningham, G.K. (1998). Assessment in the Classroom. Bristol, PA: Falmer Press.
Ward, A.W., & Murray-Ward, M. (1999). Assessment in the Classroom. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Co.
This Creative Commons license lets others remix, tweak, and build upon our work non-commercially, as long as they credit us and indicate if changes were made. Use this citation format: Exam questions: types, characteristics and suggestions. Centre for Teaching Excellence, University of Waterloo.