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What Do Students Learn from Multiple-Choice Tests?

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Message Adam Bessie

Please select the option which best completes the following statement.

Students learn from multiple choice tests that:

A)   All the world's knowledge can be reduced to a short list of answers.

B)   These answers are concise and clear, requiring no elaboration.

C)   These answers are true, regardless of what I think.

D)   Memorization of these true answers is learning.

E)   These answers are more important than questions.

F)    All of the above.

G)   None of the above.

H)   Some of the above

I)     Answers F and G.

J)     Answer J.

(The answer is at the bottom of the essay!)

Clearly, this test is not fair.   You've been set up to fail from the start.(Sorry about that--you won't be going to Harvard Law this year.)  Such complex and controversial questions cannot be reduced into a series of concise solutions--especially solutions as biased as those I've presented you with.

You'll have to forgive my bias:  as a community college writing instructor and former high school English teacher, my job is to teach students to think "beyond the bubble,"- to grapple with the sort of complex, real world questions that cannot be reduced into multiple-choice format.   My job is to help them to ask questions about the world, and to attempt to develop answers, answers which cannot be tied up neatly, but may be fraught with contradiction and uncertainty. In short, my job is to inspire students to grapple with topics which they need to write about, as I am doing now.

And while I am biased, I still see the value in MC tests. As journalist Patrick Mattimore argues in a recent article "Why Our Children Need Multiple Choice Tests"-, (which this article is a response to) MC exams "test a variety of student knowledge."-  These tests can show us students' lower-order thinking--like basic comprehension of a topic.  But it can also test higher-order abstract thinking, such as inferencing and problem-solving, given the test is "well-designed."- And in many of the content areas--such as history and the sciences--such tests are indispensible instruments in insuring quality of learning.

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Adam Bessie is an assistant professor of English at Diablo Valley College, in the San Francisco Bay Area. He is a co-wrote a chapter in the 2011 edition of Project Censored on metaphor and political language, and is a frequent contributor to (more...)
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