George Lucas Educational Foundation

How to Look at Multiple-Choice Assessments Formatively

Blogger Heather Wolpert-Gawron presents several ways teachers can use multiple-choice tests as formative assessments.

The following is an excerpt from my new book, 'Tween Crayons and Curfews: Tips for Middle School Teachers, I share what I call "lesson trails," step-by-step activities that I routinely use in my classroom following every formal assessment, in order to use that test formatively. In the book, I describe two different kinds of lesson trail packets: one for formatively reflecting on essay writing, and one for formatively reflecting on a multiple-choice assessment for any subject. The excerpt below is an abridged description of the latter.

As a student, I would study for a test (most likely the day before or, I confess, even the period before), take the assessment, and then, much like a person who is done with a document on their desktop, my brain would simply "Empty Trash."

To avoid this same scenario happening to my own students, I use assessments formatively. That is, I have designed a series of activities that routinely follow each test that help guide my students to learn from the results of their formal assessments. Therefore, the information gets routed, not into their brain's trashcan, but into their long-term memory. These activities help my students to look frankly at the results of their tests, analyze and reflect on how they did and why, and set goals to achieve better.

Bottom line: In my classroom, taking a test doesn't end the learning. In fact, it signals the beginning.

The day after I receive the results of their multiple choice tests, whether they are scantron, peer-scored, or teacher scored, the students know that we will begin embarking on a series of what I call "lesson trails" to create a formative packet that becomes both evidence of their learning and a resource for their future test preparation.

"Lesson Trails" lead from one to another, building towards a goal. We step onto one stepping stone, accomplish that task, then jump to the next one, which can only be tackled if the one before it is complete.

A Lesson Trail Following a Multiple-Choice Assessment

Basically, each student gets a Formative Assessments folder. This folder, which can be used for any subject, becomes a yearlong vault of information for each student. Through its development, I guide them to analyze their own growth. During the standardized testing season, the folders are also used as a test prep resource. However it is more than just test prep because it is a dynamic and growing resource that students interact with formatively.

Depending on the assessment being analyzed, the packets therein could look something like this:

1. Their Copy of the Test - Let's say this is the original packet of 50 questions that they used to take the initial test. When taking the test, the students should be encouraged to write in the margins, highlight words in the passages, show what they were thinking at the time they came up with their answers. They should also circle their answers in the booklet before bubbling the answer onto their answer sheet in order to assess another skill: bubbling prowess.

Frankly, even the best students make bubbling errors. It's a fine-motor skills issue. By getting the additional information that the circled response gives them, the students can decide for themselves whether it was a careless error or a lack of content knowledge.

2. The Original Answer Sheet - This way they can't dispute the accuracy of the actual scantron machine.

3. Reflection Questions - This is a sheet that asks students to quantify some of their mistakes on the assessment as a whole so that they can look at their data in the eye in order to goal-set later. On it, I ask the following:

  • What Score Did You Get?
  • How Many Problems Did You Get Right?
  • How Many Did You Answer Incorrectly?
  • How Many Bubbling Errors Did You Make?
  • How Many Errors Did You Make Because You Didn't Understand A Word In The Question?
  • What words or phrases challenged you on the assessment?

4. Short Answer Packet - This is a different kind of reflection that asks students to zoom in and look at each individual question to analyze why they missed certain questions. Basically, it has four columns. It looks something like this:

5. Goal-setting Statement - This can be anything from an index card to a more formal writing piece. What are their goals for next time? Are they going to work harder to show understanding of a certain standard or are they setting a percentage goal for themselves in how they will improve from Below to Proficient by moving up 10% in their correct responses?

6. Data Displays - In order to incorporate a non-linguistic element into their Formative Assessment folders, students should create a visual graph of their own progress from test to test in order to analyze their growth or lack thereof. Additionally, you can have the students graph the data that represents their class as a whole group based on the data from 1st to 4th quarter. Cover the classroom in graphs that show both individual and class-wide growth.

By the end of the year, through analyzing their own data, goal setting, and reflecting, more students will improve. I've seen it. Using data formatively is vital for students because it gives them control in their own learning, and in the end, less information will find its way into the cranium's trash.

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Jen's picture
High School Math Teacher, Minnesota

As a department we have tried to stay away from multiple choice assessments because our students seem to answer quickly and with less care because they know "one of them has to be right."
I like the idea of having the kids go through and explain what they did wrong on each problem - but I wonder, is this something you have them do in class? Is this their "homework"? How (or do you at all) address cheating when they are going through and correcting mistakes? I could see them sharing answers and writing what other kids say they did wrong instead of being mindful of their own mistakes... And finally, is this something you grade? If so, how?

jamelle's picture

I really like the idea of using multiple choice tests for formative assessment. Using the data to differentiate and drive instruction is a wonderful way to hold students accountable.
Do you feel that you can gain a deep understanding of what your students really know/comprehend? Or do you feel there is the factor of elimination and guessing that makes multiple choice tests not as strong of an indicator of student knowledge as a short answer or fill in the blank type test?

Kristi B.'s picture
Kristi B.
7th Grade Science Teacher St. Paul, MN

I love the idea of using it as a guide to start learning vs. ending the learning. We all know that multiple choice questions often aren't the best way to assess students because of the guessing factor. I like how you have chosen to use it to pre-assess the students to find out what they know and also as a means to set goals for what they will be learning by having them reflect on how they took the test. My school uses standards based grading and I often feel the need for short answer/essay questions to assess the students when in the past I used a lot of multiple choice questions. I still find myself wanting to use them for simple 'do they know it or not' type questions but I think your idea during the start of the learning is more of a useful tool.

Tam's picture

I teach 7th grade math and always ask students to defend their answers by showing their work even if they have a multiple choice question. I think the idea of giving them the questions first and then the multiple choice answers later is great. I give formative assessments prior to my summative assessment (which includes some multiple choice) would you include some multiple choice questions on the formative assessments to align the formatives with the summatives?

Trish's picture

I love this idea, thank you. Where I work, we have common assessments that consist of multiple choice and written questions. I often ask the students to make test corrections, which consist of writing down the question, correct answer, as well as, where in the notes/laboratory activities more information about the question could be found. However, I definitely want to incorporate the student's reasoning for why they chose the answer they did. I think this will be insightful for both the students and me, as I often find myself wondering why they choose particular answers. As mentioned above, are they simply guessing or is there a true disconnect/misunderstanding about the content? I find the self-reflection aspect to be wonderful as well. This would be a great foundation for revising test questions from year to year, based directly on student input.

Heather's picture

I really like the idea of using a multiple choice test as an assessment. It will help teacher and student to see strengths and weaknesses. Also students need a lot of practice with taking multiple choice tests and using them in this way to become a formative assessment makes both worthwhile. Additionally, it is a window into the metacognition going on with the students. I agree with HMartin in being disappointed when students throw their tests away. Just as the author states the "empty trash" button is pushed and with much learning is thrown to the wayside. This method will extend the learning opportunities. One question I have is how long does the process take?

Kirby VanDeWalker's picture

Wow, I never thought of using a summative assessment as a formative assessment. I really like the idea of having the students go back and explain why they answered a question they got incorrect. This really helps in looking at there train of thought and how they got to there answers. It gives the teacher a chance to see how they can change previous instruction to limit any student misconceptions. One question I'm thinking about right now is do you give a grade from the multiple-choice test? Or do you give a grade for the formative assessment folder after each test? Or both?

Trish's picture

I am taking a graduate course and one of our assignments is to ask for feedback on multiple choice questions we have developed. Do you feel that these questions would lend themselves to the short-answer packet aspect you describe? I think I would also like to incorporate the data displays you mention into my classroom as well, as I think this would help with my students understanding Microsoft Office Excel.
1. In order to separate the cream from the milk to make fat-free milk, what type of instrument should be used? (analysis)
a. Spectrometer
b. Distillation Apparatus
c. Vacuum filtration
d. Centrifuge

2. Predict which of the following substances will dissolve in water, a polar substance. (predicting)
a. oil
b. octanol
c. vitamin C
d. paint

3. A student is in the laboratory making a solution. As more solute is added, the student notices there are crystals collecting on the bottom of the beaker that will not dissolve. The solution is likely, (hypothesizing)
a. saturated
b. unsaturated
c. supersaturated

4. One way colloids are different from suspensions is that: (comparison)
a. colloids contain particles that settle over time
b. colloid particles are large enough to see without a microscope
c. colloids are homogeneous mixtures
d. colloid particles usually have an electric charge

Alayna Wagner's picture
Alayna Wagner
First grade teacher from Ada, MN

I really enjoyed reading your blog. What a wonderful concept to formally assess multiple choice questions. I will admit that I like to correct multiple choice questions, but sometimes I wonder how much my students are learning from them. I love the idea of explaining why they picked an answer if they got the question wrong to make them think about it. Not only will they remember it better, but a teacher can you this to correct tricky questions and terminology that may be confusing to students. I agree that a lot of kids memorize answers for a test and then just forget about it after the test is done. I would be very interested to try something like this in my own classroom. Do you think this type of process would be too hard for first graders? Do you have any recommendations for adapting this process for younger students?

Amanda's picture
High School Math Teacher from Minnesota

I love your comment about how taking a test doesn't end the learning but it is actually the beginning of the learning. I have always known that in math that many times future chapters are based off of previous chapters but I have never thought of it in that way. I am definitely intrigued with students looking at their tests and critiquing what they did well and what they need to work on.

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