So I just read about an article that was recently published in Current Directions in Psychological Science, entitled “Multiple-Choice Questioning Is an Efficient Instructional Methodology That May Be Widely Implemented in Academic Courses to Improve Exam Performance“. There was actually a story written about it yesterday by an NPR writer, which is what brought the article to my attention. The study described in the article sought to demonstrate whether or not “Distributed multiple-choice questioning during instruction improves exam performance in middle-school and college classes.” The conclusion of this paper reads: “Distributed multiple-choice questioning has been demonstrated to be an effective and efficient instructional method for increasing exam performance for a variety of student populations and topics. Furthermore, with compliant students, minimal class time is required for instructional questioning because the questions can be asked as homework.”
In other words, taking more multiple choice tests make you better at taking tests, and if your students are properly obedient, they will engage in such rote memorization on their own time. What I found most baffling about this study is why anyone thinks that this is even a question worth asking. The answer depends upon your fundamental view of the process of education, of course. While I find no fault in the methods used by the authors to reach their conclusion, I feel that I must challenge the underlying assumption upon which their entire study is based. The view of the authors seems to be explained rather clearly in the opening line of the article, which states: “The entire purpose of pedagogy is the learning and retention of knowledge or a skill; therefore, any factor of a study task that influences long-term retention is clearly relevant.” In this single sentence, the art and science of instructional theory has been reduced to one simple idea: education is nothing more than a process by which students are given information.
In order for this study to have any value or relevance to education, you must subscribe to this notion that education is an industrial process in which compliant students must memorize as much information as possible in order to regurgitate it on a test. Perhaps one could argue that there is some merit in assessing how an educator might make the best use of a tool such as multiple choice testing, but that does nothing to address the overall issues that exist with our current system of education. To make an analogy, imagine that our national approach to teaching requires you to bang your head against a wall throughout the semester, and as a way to train for this process, you periodically practice by banging your head with a frying pan. This study is the equivalent of explaining how to optimize your use of a frying pan in order to improve your success at banging your head against a wall. It makes me want to bang my head against a wall just thinking about it.
The idea that school is a place where teachers shovel information into the awaiting minds of students is ludicrous to me, but that still seems to be the approach towards education that our nation favors. It is so ingrained in our culture now that we strive to optimize a faulty system, rather than looking for ways to change that system. This is why it is so important to consider what questions you are really asking. In this case, I think we need to ask ourselves what is the purpose of education. If the goal of education is to have obedient students memorize and regurgitate information more efficiently, then I completely agree that multiple choice is an excellent tool. If the goal of education is to promote enthusiasm about learning, to facilitate the development of creativity, and to prepare independent thinkers who are capable of critical evaluation of both themselves and the world around them, then I have to say that this study is about as useful as a screen door on a submarine.
Seth Godin hits the nail on the head in the video below when he asks the question “What is school for?” Enjoy!