Arts & Sciences

For better multiple-choice tests, avoid tricky questions, study finds

From the WashU Newsroom

Multiple-choice tests and quizzes are an effective tool for:

a) assessing a student’s mastery of facts and concepts;
b) helping students learn and retain facts and concepts.

While some educators might see this as a trick question, the correct answer appears to be:

c) all of the above, suggests new research from Washington University in St. Louis.

“Although people often think about multiple-choice tests as tools for assessment, they can also be used to facilitate learning,” said Andrew Butler, a cognitive psychologist in Arts & Sciences who studies the brain processes behind learning and recall. “The act of retrieving information strengthens memory for that information, leading to better long-term retention, and changes the representation of the information, creating deeper understanding.”

Butler’s study, published in the September issue of Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, offers straightforward tips for constructing multiple-choice questions that are effective at both assessing current knowledge and strengthening ongoing learning.

Among key findings, educators should never include trick questions or offer “all of the above” or “none of the above” options among the list of possible answers.

Research on the format of multiple-choice questions is important, Butler noted, because the tests are widely used throughout the world, especially in the United States where they originated as part of early efforts to measure intelligence.

Fueled in the beginning by the need for an efficient way to measure characteristics of World War I soldiers and booming student enrollments, multiple-choice tests now influence important life decisions in areas such as college placement, workplace hiring, career advancement and even online dating.

As an associate professor in the Departments of Education and of Psychological & Brain Sciences, both in Arts & Sciences, Butler conducts research that explores the malleability of memory — the cognitive processes and mechanisms that cause memories to change or remain stable over time.

  Read more at the Source.