You have a choice.

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!


Category(s): Education

3 Responses to You have a choice.

  1. I agree with most of your points. We had a teaching workshop yesterday where we were talking about the creation of tests and assignments. In an ideal world perhaps there wouldn’t have to be multiple choice testing, however, if you have late class sizes as our colleague John pointed out yesterday, to ease the burden of grading you would need some appropriate assessment tool.
    One professor gave a brief introduction to constructing better multiple choice tests and if written properly can be application-based and present scenarios that get close to problem solving.
    One one hand we don’t want to encourage rote memorization without understanding, but we also do need some storehouse of knowledge. I was reading the Gawande article and thought about how horrifying it would be if my surgeon had to go “look something up” or if my students didn’t recall the main points of what we had been learning for weeks.
    In I/O psychology we find that general cognitive ability is the single best predictor of work performance and this is assessed with knowledge based tests. If it’s such a good predictor, I think we need to revisit learning objectives and ask what skill sets we are trying to help groom. Thanks for your post – I really enjoyed the points and wanted to contrast a few others. I’m excited to try PBL in the future as a way to get students excited about learning!

      sequencingscott says:

      Thank you for your comment! So I have a couple of observations about your thoughts that I wanted to share.

      First, I agree that we are not living in an “ideal world”, with regard to our educational system, and that many times teachers often have to make due with suboptimal circumstances, be it in terms of class size, time constrains, limited resources, etc. Much of this is due to our educational culture, in that we are used to an industrial approach in which we are not willing to commit the resources to do it well, and so we seek to find ways to optimize and do “more with less.” I understand the argument for optimizing the use of multiple choice, but I disagree with the need for it, or even the need for the type of testing system that it implies.

      Second, regarding memorization, I think that the act of learning a skill or learning about a body of knowledge leads to retaining that which is important. I do not want a surgeon who has memorized a lot of facts, but rather, I want a surgeon who has the depth of experience and good judgement to recognize issues and respond appropriately. I want them to own the knowledge or skill that they employ, not in a superficial sense of having memorized information, but in a deeper sense of understanding the information and being able to apply it in the desired manner.

      Thanks for reading!

  2. I would love to see the educational culture differently. Seth Godin’s video was amazing and I think it’s definitely possible. I’m going to try to have writing based only assignments next semester and do away entirely with multiple choice testing. I’m targeting critical thinking, researching, writing, presenting and working in teams as the skills. I want students to apply knowledge from social psychology and integrate it with research methods to create the group projects – so I’m hoping I get them to that deeper level of understanding that you talked about. Thanks for the discussion!