EDUCATION: More than job-training

Do Multiple Choice Tests Measure Learning?

As a teacher, I have always objected to multiple choice answers because–like so many techniques used in the public schools–they train children to guess. Yet this type of testing is the most common in U.S. schools and on standard examinations.

When I was required to use them, I always tried to provide choices that required the student to have some prior information in order to choose the correct answer.

Now I am not so sure even providing more difficult answer choices can justify the use of this type of test.

I receive the Daily Trivia Email at Yahoo. Each question has four multiple choice answers. After submitting my answers, I get a page that tells what percentage of readers got the right answer. I am always surprised when the answer is extremely obvious, but the percentage of readers who got it right is below 80%.

For example, here’s a question that requires a certain amount of knowledge in order to select the correct answer:


Where was the first successful settlement by Englishmen in the United States?
a. Yorktown, Virginia
b. Salem, Massachusetts
c. Boston, Massachusetts
d. Jamestown, Virginia

All the choices are locations in the United States. Some thinking was required. Only 77% of players got it right.

On the other hand, even questions with extremely obvious answers often result in a low incidence of correct answers, like this one:

What did John Philip Sousa help invent?
a. the oral contraceptive pill
b. the incandescent light bulb
c. the sousaphone
d. the violin

One would think that even a reader with absolutely no prior knowledge would be able to guess the answer to this question. The percentage of correct answers for this one was also 77%. It seems to me that anyone who could miss the correct answer to this question is either a non-English speaker or a compulsive guesser.

The most accurate testing instruments are also the most time-consuming to grade:

1. essay answers (a paragraph or more)
2. sentence answers
3. short answers (one or two words)

The only type of test that ranks lower than multiple choice in terms of evaluating learning is True/False.

Parents need to know the basis for their children’s grades. If most of their testing is by way of multiple choice or True/False quizzes, parents need to test their children more efficiently at home.

2 Responses

  1. I expect that I may be older than than the “A.E.D.”, having graduated from HS in 1959. I agree totally with what you wrote about testing.
    When we were HS juniors, I recall being counseled by a teacher prior to taking the National Merit exams.
    The thrust of her message was to teach us how to be “test-wise quiz takers”.
    There were four choices for each test answer and by careful analysis, at least two of the available answers were obviously incorrect.
    There remained two “reasonable” answers.
    This technique worked well for supplying answers to questions you were unsure about or did not know.
    The process gave us a 50/50 chance of providing an answer because we would not be penalized for guessing.
    The strategy was to proceed completely through the exam, answering everything we knew first, then going back and doing those that we “thought” we knew.
    Having done that, we returned to the start and answered everything else using the “guess” technique.
    Scores were based on the number of correct answers only.
    This overall strategy was helpful in managing your time and gave us the best chance of making a good score and covering the entire test section.
    Again, an excellent piece!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *