NOTE: The multiple-choice question examples given in the article below include "none of the above" answers and four answer choices. This is different from the wording of questions on the AP Psychology Exam. Please refer to the Course Description for sample AP Psychology Exam questions.
Critical Thinking: Definitions and Assumptions
Critical thinking has become an important topic in education. Teachers at all levels are encouraged to include it in their curriculum. In addition, teachers and administrators alike are concerned with measuring its presence in their students. Critical thinking is often measured with essay questions, but this may not be practical for all teachers. The methods described in this article may help AP teachers devise alternate ways of measuring critical thinking. This article proposes that, without using essays, it still may be possible to measure critical thinking by using multiple-choice questions.
Definitions of critical thinking include a number of elements (Paul and Elder 2001), but a foundation of critical thinking is analysis and assessment of information so that clarity, accuracy, relevance, and precision of thought are achieved. Can multiple-choice questions help a student to think this way?
Multiple-choice questions can be easy or hard, and they can measure facts or applications of those facts. Textbooks often are accompanied by test banks that include multiple-choice questions written at several levels (factual, application, conceptual). Using the application and conceptual types of questions will result in a more challenging test, but do these questions actually tap into critical thinking?
One way to approach this question is to consider Bloom's taxonomy of educational objectives. Variations of his taxonomy have emerged since the original (Anderson and Krathwohl 2001), but the basic structure is this: lower-level questions measure the recall of facts (knowledge) and then, in increasing order, move on to measure understanding of information (comprehension), the use of information (application), the organization of information (analysis), the relating of different areas of information (synthesis), and finally, the appraisal of information (evaluation).
Some or all of these elements could be useful to a teacher who is trying to write a multiple-choice question to measure critical thinking. These nouns (knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, evaluation) and their accompanying verbs (recall, understand, apply, organize, relate, evaluate) give the teacher concrete guidelines in composing questions.
Measuring Skills: Two Examples
Teachers must first decide which skill in the taxonomy they want to measure. The application and analysis questions are probably easier to write; the synthesis and evaluation questions are likely more difficult. It would be impractical and unnecessary to compose an entire test of synthesis and evaluation questions—sometimes teachers do want to know if students recall and understand the facts! But targeting a skill and writing a question geared to that skill is possible and useful. Based on an introductory psychology textbook's section on the "fight-or-flight" response (presented below), I wrote two questions in an attempt to measure critical thinking. These questions are presented as suggestions, not as definitive versions. Anyone interested in revision and refinement of these questions will realize that revision itself is a process that relies on critical thinking. Here is the passage:
Any time you are under stress or faced with an emergency, the sympathetic nervous system automatically mobilizes the body's resources, preparing you for action. This physiological arousal produced by the sympathetic nervous system was named the fight-or-flight response by Walter Cannon (1929, 1935). If an ominous-looking stranger started following you down a dark, deserted street, your sympathetic nervous system would automatically set to work. Your heart would begin to pound, your pulse rate would increase rapidly, your breathing would quicken, and your digestive system would nearly shut down. The blood flow to your skeletal muscles would be enhanced, and all of your bodily resources would be made ready to handle the emergency—run!
But once the emergency is over, the parasympathetic nervous system brings these heightened bodily functions back to normal... the sympathetic and parasympathetic branches of the autonomic nervous system act as opposing but complementary forces. Their balanced functioning is essential for health and survival. (Wood, 51-52)
A multiple-choice question to measure critical thinking that requires the student to use (apply) the information in relation to other information (synthesize) might read like this:
Which view offers the most likely explanation of why we have sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems?
- the biological view that our genes and DNA dictate the formation of these systems
- the behaviorist view that we have learned which environmental events and situations are frightening and thus require a response
- the evolutionary view that one factor in the very survival of the species is the ability to respond and react appropriately to danger
- none of the above
The desired answer is "c." (A more challenging version of the question could omit the explanations in each choice and simply present "a. the biological view, b. the behaviorist view, etc.", so that students rely on their own prior knowledge.) Each choice could become a catalyst for additional thinking by both teachers and students. For example, if it is argued that some see no difference between the biological and evolutionary approaches, the focus could shift to the use of the word "why"—does it mean "what is the purpose?" (evolutionary) or does it mean "how did this happen?" (biological). Clarity is an important element in critical thinking.
A second multiple-choice question to measure critical thinking that requires the student to appraise (evaluate) the purpose of this information might read like this:
Which statement is the most accurate one in judging the value of the sympathetic nervous system?
- the sympathetic system produces a response without the need for thinking first—therefore it is more valuable to animals than to humans, who could probably survive without it
- the sympathetic system cannot operate simultaneously with the parasympathetic system—therefore in situations of rest or digestion, it is relatively useless and renders us more vulnerable than if we could control these responses
- the sympathetic system will sometimes respond to events which are not actually harmful but are misperceived to be—therefore these "false alarms" (much like the boy who cried "wolf") could lead to a deliberate lack of response when truly necessary
- none of the above
The desired answer is "d." This is not an opinion question, but is worded so that the student considers the reasons for, and value of, scientifically based facts as they are known at the time. Each premise is followed by a not-entirely-valid conclusion; the student is required to make an evaluation on the basis of these facts and not on the (deliberate) ambiguities.
In conclusion, it is possible to go beyond multiple-choice questions that only measure recall and use such questions to take some measure of critical thinking in a way that allows for objective and fast scoring and grading. The questions could be blended with others of lesser difficulty, clustered at the end of the test, or incorporated into each set of questions for each topic on the test. (Teachers interested in sources for writing good multiple-choice questions might want to check out Teaching Tips by Wilbert McKeachie. His suggestions are practical and take a variety of factors and situations into account.)
The difficulty in writing good questions should not be a deterrent to someone interested in critical thinking. The act of writing could help teachers to reach a better understanding of the material themselves—before attempting to question others on it.
Anderson, Lorin W. and David R. Krathwohl, eds. A Taxonomy of Learning, Teaching and Assessment: A Revision of Bloom's Taxonomy of Educational Objectives. New York: Allyn & Bacon, 2001.
Bloom, Benjamin S., ed. Taxonomy of Educational Objectives: The Classification of Educational Goals: Handbook I, Cognitive Domain. New York: Longmans, Green, 1956.
McKeachie, Wilbert J. Teaching Tips: Strategies, Research, and Theory for College and University Teachers, 11th ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2002.
Paul, Richard and Linda Elder. How to Study and Learn a Discipline Using Critical Thinking Concepts and Tools. Sonoma, C.A.: The Foundation for Critical Thinking, 2001.
Wood, Samuel E., Ellen Green Wood, and Denise Boyd. Mastering the World of Psychology. Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 2004.
Judith Krauss, an associate professor of psychology at St. John's University, is interested in critical thinking and active learning. She is also very interested in adapting psychological principles into fun and informative learning activities for a variety of student populations.