Friday, March 28, 2014

The Madness of Multiple Choice

“Rather than encouraging children to think for themselves and elaborate an answer, multiple choice simply proposes two or three answers that the child must then choose between. This means, of course, that children learn that there is a ‘right answer’ that someone else knows, and that their own constructions are discouraged. The key to success is figuring out what someone else wants to hear, rather than attempting an authentic solution oneself.” 

Darian Leader, What is Madness?, pages 4 – 5

 Multiple choice questions are widely used in exams to increase reliability. As long as the items are written carefully, judging the answers as correct or incorrect is purely objective, unlike the grading of essays, which tends to be highly subjective. This format also facilitates marking, which can be done by computer. However, reliability is achieved at the expense of validity, as the scores achieved on multiple choice tests often have little correlation with the abilities of the students.

Multiple choice questions also have an insidious effect on teaching enquiring young minds. Too often, the types of activities we use in the classroom are determined by the format of the exams for which our students are preparing. The washback effect isn’t always entirely negative, and of course students should be familiar with the demands of the tasks before they take high-stakes exams. But testing students doesn’t teach them – “ just weighing a pig doesn’t fatten it”.

The multiple choice format is the prime example of testing techniques which we should avoid in our teaching. As Leader points out, multiple choice questions discourage children from thinking for themselves, whereas it should be our primary goal as educators to encourage independent critical thinking. 

The idea that every question has a ready-made answer is symptomatic of the industrialization of education. In fact “multiple choice” is actually about restricting choice, paralleling Henry Ford’s declaration that "Any customer can have a car painted any colour that he wants so long as it is black." True or False questions impose a black or white framework, denying the existence of the fifty shades of grey in between.

Our aim as language teachers is to promote communication, and asking good questions is an important part of this. In classroom interaction, closed questions may sometimes be useful for eliciting short, focused responses, but open questions will be more successful in stimulating our learners’ language production. Display questions like “What is the past simple of ‘go’?” may be used to check knowledge but referential questions like “Where did you go after school yesterday?” can do so equally effectively while also developing our learners’ communicative competence.

 Peter Beech -

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