An Opinionated Defense of Multiple-Choice Questions
First, a quiz:
Multiple-choice tests are:
- All of the above
- None of the above
Multiple-choice tests (MCTs) have long been a source of countless—and heated—debates. Plenty of academic articles, books, position papers, conference presentations, government documents, Web sites, Internet chat groups, and kitchen-table talks have commented on the merits (and lack thereof) of MCTs. Before I proceed to add yet another opinion to this bubbling mix, I would like to pose a simple question: Why so much passion?
If you think about it, multiple-choice is simply one of the many ways to present a mental task (other ways may include open-response questions, essays of various kinds, portfolios, etc.). Why, then, have we educators been devoting so much energy and time arguing about this one format? To me, the answer is straightforward if not often articulated: MCTs provoke so much debate and controversy because they happen to be the most common format of so-called "standardized tests."
Standardized tests (STs) are as ubiquitous and controversial as it gets—and for a good reason. They are used to assess large groups of individuals competing with each other for either limited resources (such as college admission, scholarships, etc.) or for a certain type of merit certificate (such as a high school diploma). This ongoing competition is ruthless, intense, and high-stakes and is getting more so. In such an environment, the "rules of the game" are bound to be constantly challenged by the groups and individuals who feel that the system is treating them unfairly—and, of course, defended by those who think that the status quo is just fine. In this fight, convictions are deeply held and opinions are highly polarized.
It would be disingenuous not to admit that many educators have deep reservations about STs. Also, since STs are the "law of the land" at the moment, their opponents, while not outnumbering the supporters, tend to be much more vocal and passionate and attract much more media attention than the supporters can ever hope for. As the feelings of distrust and even hatred toward STs are publicized in the media, the multiple-choice format becomes "guilty by association."
As a teacher, a freelance test writer, and an educational researcher, I am seriously concerned that a negative attitude toward STs (warranted or not) may be preventing many educators, including my AP-teaching colleagues, from taking a calm, fair look at MCTs and seeing the multiple-choice format for the wonderful educational tool that it is.
I would like to remind my fellow teachers how useful multiple-choice questions can be and to outline some possibilities for using them in the classroom. I will make every attempt to stay away from the politically explosive subject of STs and focus instead on the merits of MCTs as a specific question format—for use in a classroom setting.
MCT: A Response to Common Criticisms
Before I proceed, I should address some of the most common charges leveled against MCTs. These charges, for instance, are comprehensively summarized on the Web site of FairTest, an organization ferociously opposed to all sorts of standardized testing. The siteJump to footnote  features a vast collection of anti-test arguments, combined in what FairTest calls, with all due modesty, "fact sheets." One of these "fact sheets" specifically lists the alleged shortcomings of MCTs. Since this list is fairly representative, I will address its main points, having filtered out, as promised, some charges that are more specific to standardized tests:
"Multiple-choice items are best used for checking whether students have learned facts and routine procedures that have one, clearly correct answer."
In fact, many sophisticated problems that require high-level reasoning skills and creativity do have "one, clearly correct" answer. As research has clearly shown, MCTs can and should be used far beyond "checking... facts and routine procedures."
"[A]n item may have two reasonable answer options. Therefore, test directions usually ask test takers to select the 'best' answer. If, on a reading test, a student selected a somewhat plausible answer, does it mean that she cannot read, or that she does not see things exactly the way the testmaker does?"
Look at the question at the beginning of this article. Is it a well-written, unambiguous, fair question? Of course not. Is it possible that some MCTs out there may contain some poorly written, ambiguous questions? Sure. Is this a good reason to dislike MCTs altogether? You decide: would you stop reading books forever if you ever came across a bad one? In fact, on the national tests, such as AP or SAT, ambiguously or incorrectly written questions are so rare they make national news each time they are discovered.
"Multiple-choice items can be easier than open-ended questions asking the same thing. This is because it is harder to recall an answer than to recognize it."
The level of difficulty of multiple-choice questions may vary greatly, of course. If the question requires a simple recall, then yes, an open-response question may be more difficult than a similar multiple-choice one. However, MCTs can go far beyond factual recall—and having several answer options may make it more challenging to find the right answer.
"It also is possible to choose the 'right' answer for the wrong reason or to simply make a lucky guess."
Of course, successful guessing is possible. However, it is just as possible to happen on an open-response question. For instance, physics and math teachers are well aware that many students, unfortunately, try to random-guess "the right formula," no matter what the format of the question is. However, MCTs tend to contain relatively larger numbers of questions, and the effects of "lucky guesses" may be far less than on an open-response test with only a few problems.
"Most researchers agree that multiple-choice items are poor tools for measuring the ability to synthesize and evaluate information or apply knowledge to complex problems... or solve problems..."
This is a very common theme: criticizing MCTs for what they don't do. I have always found it strange. Regrettably, FairTest does not provide the names of "most researchers" on their Web site—but I am sure that none of these researchers would toss away a bottle of milk just because it makes a poor furniture polish or discard their shoes because they don't work well as skis. Sure, the applicability of MCTs as an assessment tool is limited—but the same is true for any method. Besides, MCTs can be used for many other useful purposes.
"[I]t is often hard to know why a student got a question wrong or right... unless a teacher has that information, the test result is not useful for improving instruction for the individual."
In fact, MCTs have long been used to do just that: to pinpoint the students' misconceptions and common errors and to inform instruction accordingly. The unique usefulness of multiple-choice format in analyzing the students' ways of thinking has long been recognized by educational researchers and practitioners alike. I will elaborate on this point (and provide some references) later.
To sum up: I do not aim to convince anyone that MCTs are the "silver bullet" of some kind—in fact, I do not believe so myself. However, I do hope that, having read my brief "rebuttal," my colleagues may be more open to the idea that there is nothing inherently wrong with multiple-choice questions. So, what are they good for?
Boris Korsunsky was born in Moscow, Russia. He has been living and teaching high school science in the U.S. since 1992. In his spare time, Boris wrote several thousand end-of-chapter problems for different textbooks and published two original collections of problems: Challenging Problems for Physics and Holt Physics Workbook. He has also written several articles on various aspects of teaching physics, plus many items for the national graduate admission tests and the state high school competency tests in physics and chemistry. A former coach of the U.S. Physics Team, Boris enjoys teaching, writing and conducting workshops for teachers. Boris holds graduate degrees in physics and physical chemistry from Moscow colleges and a doctorate from Harvard School of Education. He currently teaches freshman honors physics and AP Physics.