Almost every student at GW knows what it’s like to take soul-crushing, multiple-choice exams that require straight memorization and hours of trying to decipher ambiguous questions. But students’ annoyance aside, the use of multiple-choice tests has some major problems – although they’ve become a go-to way to easily test students, especially during the pandemic, they’re still poor learning tools that are highly susceptible to cheating.
GW should encourage learning across all disciplines and multiple-choice exams do the opposite. They contain unclear language, open the floodgates to academic misconduct and worst of all, hinder the learning process. What professors who assign multiple-choice exams could never anticipate is that, despite their advantages, they impede the academic goals of GW. In their efforts to promote deep thinking and learning, professors should stop giving multiple-choice tests.
Multiple-choice formats include unclear and ambiguous language. According to Cognitive Scientist Patti Schank, most multiple-choice questions are not well written. And ironically enough, the answers to these questions are factual, far from unclear and ambiguous. One would imagine the straightforward nature of answers calls for a straightforward nature of questions, but this is not the case. Instead, multiple-choice exams boast clear answers to unclear questions.
The consequence of this is reduced knowledge. Schank writes that “flawed multiple-choice questions damage assessments and confuse participants.” If students are confused by poorly worded questions, they are less likely to critically evaluate and analyze the material. As the Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence and Educational Innovation at Carnegie Mellon University puts it, they are more likely to “guess” rather than assessing their knowledge.
Furthermore, a study from the Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition in 2018 found that complex question formats hamper a multiple-choice test’s ability to measure knowledge. In other words, poorly worded multiple-choice questions interfere with the learning process. This does a disservice not only to students but also to GW’s goals. At best, multiple-choice exams simplify the grading process and measure fact-based knowledge and at worst, they discourage students from developing deep thinking skills.
Professors should also note the other drawbacks of multiple-choice exams, like cheating, so they can propose better alternatives. In the 2019-2020 academic year, coinciding with the start of pandemic-era learning, academic integrity reports rose dramatically, tripling at the business school.
Research from the University of Auckland New Zealand found that multiple-choice formats are specifically conducive to cheating because they give students few answer options, all of which are rooted in an objective fact. This enables students to easily collaborate with each other to discover which fact is true. An ill-retrieved answer is only a text or GroupMe message away. Students can also look up the right choice online in a matter of seconds. These methods of cheating are made easier by the virtual space, which now plays host to many multiple-choice exams.
But more important than cheating itself is what it leads to. When a student cheats, they are not analyzing or thinking about the material. They are seeking answers for the sole purpose of getting them right, and as such, their grades do not reflect understanding or critical thinking skills. The fact-based nature of multiple-choice exams lead to more academic misconduct, causing reduced knowledge.
Despite this, professors have decided to try improving multiple-choice exams before eliminating them, using tools like LockDown Browser that prevent students from adding other tabs online. Andrew Butler of Washington University in St. Louis conducted a study in 2018 that outlined ways to improve the clarity of multiple-choice tests, such as avoiding “all of the above” as an answer option.
Yet, the reduced learning that stems from multiple-choice exams will persist despite preventative measures. Let’s say professors rewrite exam questions, clearly asking students what information to seek. This increased clarity would make it easier for a student to find the correct solution online. And if a multiple-choice test is administered through a LockDown Browser, a student can simply use another device to look up the answers.
The bottom line is that multiple-choice exams are a trap. Clearly written questions only perpetuate the cycle of academic misconduct. They will always be prone to cheating despite anti-cheating software and they will always be prone to reduced learning.
Across all disciplines, professors should replace multiple-choice exams with more open-ended assessments like essays and short-answer questions. These formats are a logical alternative to multiple-choice items, as they encourage students to form a thesis, develop an opinion or solve a problem. Even in areas like STEM, open-ended exam styles effectively judge fact-based knowledge. In fact, a study from Manipal University in 2015 found that essay exams are harder than multiple-choice tests, as students “must fully understand the topic to produce a good answer.” Additionally, research has proven open-ended assessments are at lower risk of cheating than their multiple-choice counterparts. Essays and short answer questions discourage students from looking up the answer online, because when worded originally, they can’t. Instead, open-ended exams require students to find their own answers. This translates to analytical thinking and thus achieves GW’s most important academic goal.
Perhaps multiple-choice exams were necessary during the pandemic, but they are not up to par with GW’s standards and objectives. To further the learning process, professors should stop giving multiple-choice exams.
Charlie Mark, a freshman majoring in political communication, is an opinions writer.