You Learn Little From Bubbles

As you move through the seemingly endless pile of tests, wielding the red pen of fury and striking through wrong answer after wrong answer. Students are consistently marking the incorrect answer on the multiple choice section, but reading the question you see no issues. This may be hinting toward a larger issue in the students’ understanding, but you can’t tell because you left them nothing but a bubble to fill in…this is a disservice to both you and your students.

Many of the tests given at the secondary and post-secondary level reward students that are good test takers while never really testing the knowledge and understanding of the subject. Multiple choice, true/false, and matching formatted questions test a student’s ability to recall isolated pieces of information from previous lessons; however, there is little to no test of their ability to use that information. These questions also fail to encourage broad-scope thinking or “looking at the big picture”, these events are isolated and may possess little meaning by themselves. Tests should aim to test the level of understanding rather than memorization, though memorization may be an important piece of this understanding.

Multiple choice and true/false questions are a wonderful way to assess student knowledge in a snap. However, they are limited in the information they can provide an instructor when the student answers incorrectly. There are a range of reason that the student may have selected the wrong answer, including misunderstanding information in the lesson, misreading the question, accidentally circling the wrong answer, or maybe they really don’t know the answer. If you have only provided a multiple choice question you, as an instructor, are unable to determine the root of the issue and fix it. Sure, you might be able to ask the student(s) at the next class period but that might be a few days away and the students may not remember why they selected that answer, or you may just not have time to discuss the issue due to time constraints. In this case, you and your students are all left wondering what happened.

Now, I’m not saying that you should stop including multiple-choice questions in your tests and/or quizzes, I’m just saying that there should be some other follow-up question that allows the student to justify their answer or explain their choice. This simple addition can accomplish several things. First, it will make the student really think about the answer and draw on past information rather than possibly just recalling a word they memorized. It will also provide the instructor with how well the student(s) understand the concept. Are they justifying the answer with the correct information and making the right connections between topics? Or are they displaying a misconception in a principle that is skewing their thinking? If there is a common misconception showing up among several students then the topic should certainly be retaught and/or discussed in the following class.

So, I challenge you to look at previous (or even upcoming) tests and see if you’re testing information recall or subject understanding. You may notice that many parts of the test are not aligned with the goals of your unit/lesson cirriculum.

Also, comment below if you have any other ideas on how to test students for understanding and mastery, rather than memorization and isolated information recall. I have touched on only one of many ways to improve testing and assessment.

Bradley M. Richardson
Bradley M. Richardson
Research Fish Biologist

My research interests include aquatic ecology, species interactions, aquatic macroinvertebrates, and freshwater fishes.

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