Multiple-Choice Exams: Alternative Formats

Some instructional practices rarely change. Even though the teacher using them may have concerns about the approach, it may feel as though there isn't any other way. Multiple-choice exams are a good example. Too often they encourage superficial learning, with students memorizing and then forgetting answers. They don't challenge students to think deeply. Missed answers are missed opportunities for learning. But can the format be changed? If you don't think so, consider these alternatives.

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Editor's note: Some instructional practices rarely change. Even though the teacher using them may have concerns about the approach, it may feel as though there isn't any other way. Multiple-choice exams are a good example. Too often they encourage superficial learning, with students memorizing and then forgetting answers. They don't challenge students to think deeply. Missed answers are missed opportunities for learning. But can the format be changed? If you don't think so, consider these alternatives. 

Multiple-Choice Questions with Required Rationales
Students in a survey of world religions course handled bluebook exams with multiple-choice, short identifications, and essay questions poorly. “I found many of my students poorly equipped to compose an essay during an in-class exam,” writes their professor, Molly Bassett. But she wanted an exam format that promoted deep learning and critical thinking, and she worried that straightforward objective exams did not usually accomplish this.

Her solution is a unique multiple-choice format. Each of the three or four sections of the exam are “anchored” with a pair of images or primary texts. One of the examples in the article includes the first five verses of Genesis, chapter one, and the first five verses of the first chapter of the Gospel of John. Several different multiple choice questions, all pertaining to these passages, follow. After answering each multiple-choice question, students must provide a short, written rationale for their answer. “By considering their learning in a written rationale, my students engage course materials in more than one way: they think critically about the material and then they critically examine their own thinking.” (p. 2)

Bassett uses a grading system that allows students to earn partial credit for answering these rational-based questions. If they answer the question correctly and offer an appropriate explanation, they earn 5/5 or full credit. If the answer is correct, but no explanation is offered, the answer is worth 3/5. If the answer is incorrect but a thoughtful explanation is included, 2/5 points are earned. If the answer is incorrect and there's no explanation, no credit is earned.

Students aren't used to having to explain their choices on multiple-choice questions. They need practice with format before the exam. Bassett provides opportunities in class for students to work with others on developing answer explanations. Explanations developed by students working in groups are then shared and discussed. Beyond helping students understand the characteristics of good answer explanations, working with the questions beforehand helps them develop the confidence they need to deal with this new exam question format.

“Opportunities to engage in metacognition do not always lead students to the right answers, but encouraging them to reflect on their thought processes is critical to my survey course.” (p. 38)

Reference: Bassett, M.H. (2016). Teaching critical thinking without (much) writing: Multiple-choice and metacognition. Teaching Theology & Religion, 19 (1), 20-40.

Two-Stage Exams
Two-stage or pyramid exams, as they're also called, offer another interesting way to change the traditional test structure. Three geoscience faculty describe this exam format, how they used them in a large required undergraduate course, and what effects this testing structure had.

Students complete these exams in two stages, hence the name. In part one, students do a typical closed-book exam on their own. In stage two they do an open-book exam independently or in collaboration with other students, with a variety of different options possible. Students may do the open-book part of the exam as a take-home, or they may do it in class. The questions on the two exams may be identical, or the open-book questions may be more challenging, or some combination of the two. If students are doing the open-book portion in class, then given the length of most class periods, objective questions or problems are used. If the second exam is completed outside class, students may do it alone or in collaboration with each other. In some cases, the collaboration is required and occurs within the class period. Generally, the two parts of the exam are weighted. Most faculty weigh the individual closed-book stage more heavily, making it worth, say, 70 or 80 percent of the grade

These various options give faculty a set of choices that should be driven by the learning goals associated with exam events in the course. If the goal is using the exam to promote learning of the content, then the second-stage option may be a good way to achieve that goal. When students take an exam and confront a question they cannot answer, that can be motivational—they wish they knew the answer for the points involved, but if there's an opportunity to find the answer and get some additional credit, that may successfully connect students with material they did not know. If there are course goals related to pursuing and finding answers, or goals that seek to promote the value of learning from and with others, then the open-book (it could be open resources generally) and collaborative options merit consideration.

The introductory geology course where this testing approach was used is typical of many required courses. It's traditionally taught with lectures to about 200 students. The authors write with honesty, “attendance is low, many students are unenthusiastic about course content and classroom management proves to be a constant challenge.” (p. 157) Before introduction of two-stage testing, students took three closed-book section exams and a comprehensive final. The faculty collected data from two sections taught with this traditional approach.

Two other two sections were taught using the two-stage approach. In one section students took the regular closed-book section exam in class and had the option of completing the exact same exam as a take-home. They could do it on their own or work with classmates. In another section, students took the in-class exam and then completed the same exam, open book, in groups of three or four. The number of exam questions was reduced so that students had time to complete both exams during the class period. In these two-stage sections, the individual exam was worth 75 percent of the exam grade and the take-home or collaborated exam was worth 25 percent. The authors provide details on the machine-scored methods used that made two-stage exams a viable grading option for a course of this size.

The median, final class score across all four sections of the course was 77.6 percent, but it varied significantly with test method. “The class score was significantly higher during semesters when exams were TS-C (two-stage collaborative) than T (regular section tests) and TS-I (two-stage independent).” (p. 159) When the second-stage option was collaborative, most students completed it, but when the option was to do the exam independently outside class, “many students opted not to complete the take-home portion.” (p. 161). The collaborative option benefited lower-achieving students more than any other group. “For example, F-range students significantly improved by a median of 23.5 percent on their individual exam score between exams during the TS-C semester compared to the TS-I (12.0 percent) and T (14.4 percent) semesters.”

The collaborative exam option had a noteworthy effect on attendance. “TS-C exams significantly increased attendance rates by approximately 16% compared to semesters taught by the same instructor. . .using TS-I exams and by 9% compared to using T exams.” (p. 162) The authors didn't survey students as to the reasons for their attendance, but they speculate the opportunity to collaborate with others resulted in students getting to know their classmates, and that made them feel more connected to the class. It could also be a matter of peer pressure. When collaborating with classmates on something as important as an exam, there is pressure not to look unprepared or intellectually deficient.

It's another version of the unfolding story of faculty exploring the role of collaboration in learning. What makes this chapter especially compelling is the use of the approach in one of those very challenging to teach introductory-level required courses.

Reference: Knierim, K., Turner, H., and Davis, R.K. 2015. Two-stage exams improve student learning in an introductory geology course: Logistics, attendances and grades. Journal of Geoscience Education, 63 (2), 157-164.