Process of elimination

Why some students believe their knowledge isn’t being tested as effectively as by short-answer tests


Everyone has probably experienced that familiar feeling of anxiety before a test or exam. I, for one, love to rattle on in short-answer questions. I discuss the issue until I drift off into an abyss and end up talking about how I will save the galaxy.

Is this the reason why tests don’t solely consist of short-answer questions? Are professors trying to ensure they aren’t stuck grading papers until their next birthday?

Several students I interviewed said they felt their knowledge was better tested by short-answer questions, since they were forced to make full use of the concepts they studied. One student, Bharat, said he felt his capabilities were better tested by short-answer questions. Another student, Prem, said that while he prefers multiple-choice questions, short-answer questions allow him to thoroughly show that he studied the material and to explain answers in his own words.

Hineet, a good friend of mine, observed that the main strategy for devising multiple-choice questions is to make the answers so similar that even a student who might know the right answer ends up picking at random between two confusing options. Hineet believes that students’ intellectual capabilities aren’t measured by multiple-choice questions, since their opinions aren’t factored in and their critical thinking skills are less involved.

Aashika Jayanth, a third-year psychology student, says she finds it convenient to have all possible answers on hand in a multiple-choice question, pointing out that when students write their own, “there is no guarantee that what [they] think is right will be considered right by the professor”. For her, multiple-choice questions eliminate this subjective factor.

More than one of us has lost marks for not using the correct word or phrase a professor or TA is looking for.
To be fair, the multiple-choice question helps to simplify unmanageable amounts of grading, in a way that feels fairer than scanning for a keyword. But when the answer is included on the page, it has to be well-disguised, which can be difficult to achieve without simply confusing the student.

This, I would imagine, is what Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post was trying to get at when she wrote that “multiple-choice questions don’t measure deep-thinking skills”.

Strauss observed that when students are given a multiple-choice question, they feel one option must be entirely right and the others entirely wrong. Since the wrong answers tend to closely approximate the truth, students become confused and doubt what they’ve learned.

This is not to say that multiple-choice questions can’t be well designed. The Graduate Management Admission Test, for example, exemplifies what a multiple-choice test is intended to be: each word is used strategically, requiring the student to pay attention to detail and analyze the subtle changes in meaning. All five options of a GMAT question are right, but one is more right than the others.

In the end, given the average standard of multiple-choice tests, some students would like to see the day all tests are solely short-answer. But the chances of that happening are either:
A. Iffy
B. Slim
C. Slim to none
D. All of the above