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New Reasons to Dislike Multiple-Choice Testing

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The multiple-choice problem is becoming a bit of an issue.

While it has been derided by educators for decades as incapable of truly measuring understanding, and while performance on such exams can be noticeably improved simply by learning a few tricks, the multiple choice question may have a larger, less obvious flaw that disrupts the tone of learning itself. This is a tone that is becoming increasingly important in the 21st century as access to information increases, as the updating of information happens more naturally, and as blended and mobile learning environments become more common.


Learning depends on a rather eccentric mix of procedural and declarative knowledge -- on the process as much as the end product. Students are often as confused by teacher instructions or activity workflow as they are by the content itself. Keep a tally of how often student questions are related to the logistics of the assignment versus the content itself. You might be surprised.

The process of mastering mathematics, for example, is served as much by a consistent process of practice as it is the practice itself. If learning is the result of acquiring "new data" and organically folding it into "old data," how students come to that new data is incredibly important. They are best served by a short, taut the line between student and content-to-be-mastered. Even the transparency and apparent relevance of a classroom activity factor into the "value" of a learning experience as much as how cleanly that activity aligns with an academic standard.

This all emphasizes the value of uncertainty in learning.


There is nothing wrong with being uncertain.

In fact, it has often been said that the more a person learns, the less they're ever sure of. This shouldn't mean that students always lack confidence, but rather the opposite: that all stakeholders in education clarify that learning is a messy process chock-full of uncertainty, iteration and revision, and that anything tidy stemming from this untidy process should be questioned.

This shines a spotlight on multiple-choice questions, and not purely as an attack on them. There have been enough studies done to show that a well-written multiple-choice question actually measures understanding fairly well. But in the 21st century, change is happening at an incredible pace. Access to information is disrupting traditional processes and their related mechanisms.

Printed texts have gone from being the final word to simply one step in an endless chain of making information public. Texts are now merged with moving images, hyperlinked, designed to be absorbed into social media habits, and endlessly fluid. From an essay to a blog post, an annotated YouTube video to a STEAM-based video game, a tweet to digital poetry, the seeking and sharing of ideas is an elegant kind of chaos.

As a result, media are more dynamic than ever before -- and thus a bit "uncertain" themselves.

Beyond Either/Or

But the real issue here isn't one of assessment design as much as it is looking at the overall tone of learning.

In the 21st century, networks are a kind of collective wisdom -- or at least they can be. How you connect with others automatically informs how you'll connect with their ideas. If digital interdependence doesn't completely change both sociology and education over the next 25 years, we might need to go back and see what happened.

So let us look at multiple-choice questions in this light. More than anything else, when a multiple-choice question is given to a student in hopes of measuring how well he or she understands something, it manufacturers the illusion of right and wrong, a binary condition that ignores the endlessly fluid nature of information.

It alters the tone of learning, shifting it away from a constant process of reconciling old thinking with new data, and toward something of a pitch-and-fetch scenario. One question, four answers, and only one of them is right.

Just point to the right answer.

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Comments (24) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

cj13's picture

There is a big difference between human decision making (have a peek at the behavioural economics lit) and deploying an apparatus that masquerades as a measure of something (long bow there). And re the example of an intersection. Lots of other choices. Leave the car, hail a cab, catch a bus, etc etc etc. Whereas in a M/C test - there is only x options.

Joy's picture

To lump all multiple choice test into one category is like stating that there is only black and white questions and answers in the world today. That is not always true; many of the multiple choice tests given by the state have answer choices that no matter how the student works the problem, their answer will be there. It comes down to, are the students reading the questions carefully to understand what the problem is asking them to do. I look at multiple choice tests as one measurement of what my students can do, along with classroom participation, teacher observation, and written assignments. How does a multiple choice test prepare a student for the real world? Well, there are many ways to answer this question. Depending on how you answer will decide an outcome that can be good, bad, or indifferent, in any given situation. Sounds like a multiple choice question to me.

cj13's picture

Perhaps the solution is to build a museum to store (I was tempted to use the word arcane but won't ;)) educational curiosities so that centuries from now archeologists can muse over what they were used for, where they came from and why they persisted for the period of time that they did.

Monica Burns's picture
Monica Burns
Author & Speaker, ADE , Founder of

I love having students show their understanding. It doesn't replace standardized tests but should definitely be considered a form of assessment:

George Peternel's picture
George Peternel
Retired Principal

One last comment to a spirited discussion, most of it "piling on" about standardized testing. Yes, standardized testing is flawed. As are most of the "best practices" in education. But useful, efficient and easy to score. Should it be the only means of assessment? Of course not. But it is about making choices, and has a degree of validity that seems to escape many of the participants in this discussion. Discard all multiple choice tests? I say NO. Use them with caution. That's all folks!

Bon Crowder's picture
Bon Crowder
Math Mom & Education Advocate

Your points are so on target, Terry. And two of them mesh really well to make another one.

You wrote, "There have been enough studies done to show that a well-written multiple-choice question actually measures understanding fairly well."

And, "Texts are now merged with moving images, hyperlinked, designed to be absorbed into social media habits, and endlessly fluid."

These two statements lead me to think: because information is so fluid (getting created fast and by so many) the people who have the SKILLS to properly write multiple-choice questions that will measure understanding are not the same people who ARE writing the questions!

I know that my multiple-choice question writing skills are very poor - and yet I've been hired to do it. Not just in academia, either - in the oil and gas industry where "understanding" can mean the difference between life and death.

I avoid those test questions like the plague. I hope someday they can be as frowned upon as cigarettes. (Which were once cheap and cool - like MC questions are these days!)

Thanks for helping the revolution along!

Todd Finley's picture
Todd Finley
Blogger and Assistant Editor (Contractor)

My thinking about this subject has been elevated. Just pointing to a right answer is reductive and the wrong message to send in the post-"There are WWMDs" world.

Larry Emmons's picture
Larry Emmons
Middle School Librarian, Sheldon ISD, Houston, TX

Another problem I see with multiple choice testing is that test designers seem to go great lengths to confuse students by offering "wrong" choices as possible answers that have some truth or "correctness" to them. Test-taking then becomes more of a test to recognize wrong information rather than knowing right information. I believe that this circumstance invalidates many such tests, at least to some degree.

Margherita Rossi's picture
Margherita Rossi
Teacher of Classical Humanities at Lyceum (High School) from Bologna, Italy

Hi to everybody.
I'm Italian teacher and I'd like to show what's happening in Italian schoolastic system. Here, the multiple choice test is considered a limiting factor and it's not many proposed at students.
We prefer to give test with an "open" answer, 'cause for us it's essential to verify the correctness of subjects and the ability of the way of expressing. I teach subjects as ancient greek, latin, italian literature, history: so, for me, it's necessary that my students learn to ponder, to correlate and one, quick answer for me is useless. Unfortunately, Italian School Departement started with a new national examination, structured by multiple choice test: I think this is a bad deviation and impoverishment of knowledge. Sure, multiple choice test is not absolute evil: it's a convenient tool to prove some precise element. But a big problem here in Italy is the gradual depletion of language (both in lexicon and grammary). Maybe it's better to reinforce this fondamental competence. Sorry for my orrible English.j

PETER M. MWENDWA's picture

My opinion against use of Multiple choice tests in mathematics is growing stronger by the day. I have observed that many primary school leavers at grade 8 score average (50%) or above average marks in KCPE (Kenya Certificate of Primary education) but in high school they score less than 25% in most of the secondary school mathematics tests.

There seems to be one of the main reasons for this mismatch in mathematics achievement. Primary school examination is offered purely in multiple choice format while at secondary school level it is purely in open ended (constructed response) format.

It may be very critical to familiarize pupils with open ended tests at primary school level to avoid emphasis on LOTS (lower order thinking skills) without HOTS (higher order thinking skills). I am very touched by the blogger's ideas on this topic and really appreciate the rich comments which followed.

The 21st century information swing may be a turning point towards modern development of mathematics theories. I am not happy with the slow pace of formulation of new mathematics theories. I believe our instructional processes as well as assessment regimes may be contributing immensely to the down turn. Multiple choice tests appear to make life a simple range of ready made choices. This is not reality. I wish to scrutinize the MCT in mathematics.

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