Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Apropos the multiple choice questions

I cannot stop thinking about the Chronicle article I read this morning about a survey showing that part-time faculty tends to use less effective teaching techniques. There are already many comments up, tackling several aspects touched by the article, from the precarious working conditions of adjuncts and less professional development possibilities to their vulnerability to student evaluations. I do not intend to analyze it- enough to say that while I would be happy for anything that made adjunct's working conditions better, I am rather skeptical of studies based on broad generalizations that may lead to knee-jerk reactions. 
Anyway, back to the article: examples of less effective teaching practices were tests based on multiple choice questions. I had to laugh (with some sadness) because just yesterday I had a conversation with one of my classes regarding their final comprehensive exam. I had decided to give it a try to crowdsourcing questions, and told my students to post questions, of which I would use a certain number as part of their final. During the ensuing dialog I was asked repeatedly what kind of questions would I ask, and when I answered that it would be a mixture of questions they have seen before in other exams and assignments, they kept asking about multiple choice questions. Those seemed to be their favorite kind of questions. And as several honest students have told me before, they like MC questions because many times they have just guessed and got their answers right. 
I cannot really understand it, personally. If in my young years I had been tested with MC questions, I would have probably fared much worse academically. I have always been a big picture person (with many hazy details and unexplored corners), so I always loved  essay questions. MC questions tend to throw me off- they make me focus on details and spend time analyzing the meaning of each sentence. And still, I may miss some minor clue. 
Personally, I think there are good and bad MC questions. I use them for a portion of my exams for questions that require clear understanding of certain concepts. They are good for that, if they are worded well- I try not to gauge memorization, but basic understanding of concepts. One of the comments of the article mentioned the point of MC questions perceived by students as impartial and fair, and there is some true in that. Essay writing in a science class like mine will have a huge quality spread depending on writing skills, so while I do have some essay questions, they are only a minor part of exams. I like short answer questions, matching or labeling ones, as well as other assessments like report writing (with plagiarism checking software, of course- even so, I have had my share of complete copy and paste from Wikipedia) and oral presentations. I just got into the wikis, and am planning getting started with VoiceThread next year.  With assessments, I tend to have the same philosophy as with portfolios- spread them out and diversify...

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