multiplechoicehelp

The One Thing I Don’t Do When I’m Assessing Students

Jose Vilson Mr. Vilson 11 Comments

I’ve now taught almost 11 years, starting in the throes of overtesting and overstandardizing. I’ve given multiple forms of assessments over different periods of time. I’ve taught all of the middle school grades and tutored lower and higher grades. I’ve taken my own set of exams for teacher certifications, most of them different from the quizzes for one and only one specific reason.

I don’t do multiple choice quizzes.

I can’t stand multiple choice quizzes. A-B-C-D doesn’t work for J-O-S-E. One of my admins used to call multiple-choice a skill. The idea seems to be that being able to make the right choice takes a skill that some have and some don’t. This frame suggests that students should have to learn how to make choices when they’re presented in a predetermined format. Halfway between giggling and scoffing, I couldn’t get over the idea that having four and only four choices actually makes it easier, not harder, to pretend expertise. I suppose if a student knows what they’re doing, then they have a high probability of getting the answer correct, especially in a subject like math.

But even then, I’m less interested in their ability to choose (and eliminate choices) and more interested in their thought process. I’m interested in seeing how they approach the math in front of them and how they arrive at their conclusions. This way, we can open up a conversation both as a class and as individual students. Also, because they’re going to see so many multiple-choice questions elsewhere, I can more readily address misconceptions if I see their answers and their reasoning immediately.

I’ve also found that, while easier to grade, multiple-choice questions don’t make me a better teacher. Open-ended questions do.

I’ve even found that we don’t need to always use “why” and “how” to start an open-ended question. We can ask, “what’s the difference between ____ and _____?” or “what makes _______ do this?” My classroom is already structured for whole-class and table discussions, so my quizzes don’t just assess for their mathematical knowledge, but also their listening and speaking skills within my class.

Multiple choice questions assume that the answer is already out there; open-ended assumes that the mathematician will arrive at the answer in a thoughtful way.

photo c/o

About Jose Vilson

José Luis Vilson is a math educator, blogger, speaker, and activist. For more of my writing, buy my book This Is Not A Test: A New Narrative on Race, Class, and Education, on sale now.

Comments 11

  1. escowhat

    So much yes. I’m at a school that I enjoy…but all our tests are multiple choice..and common assessment style. Its the first time I’ve ever done common assessment style. It’s aiighhhht. But I really hope to give some input to not doing all multiple choice all the time tests. Of course, the standard response is..”we want to model the .” Of course my response is that test should be the floor, not the ceiling. And if we good at the ceiling, then the floor is cake.

  2. cstutts2

    Great read. I’m torn on this one for social studies. I much prefer open-ended questions and used them on nearly all tests. But, there really is no “answer” in a history question, just competing narratives. So, if all MC questions basically have “according to” then perhaps they are an efficient way to verify the student’s knowledge of certain narratives, not the truth, so you can save you time and student time for work that does more than that. Like, before we interrogate Christopher Columbus I need the student to confirm for me that they know what people think he did, quickly. That could all be a dodge on my part to justify grading efficiency.

  3. Peter Ford

    I can’t recall administering a multiple choice test of my own in 20+ years. I never took a multiple choice test as an engineering student, so I figured if I’m supposed to be preparing them for that they have to ‘show their work’ like I did.
    Yes, it takes longer to grade, but of course you learn so much more about the student that way, along with all the comments you make and the humorous art work and phrases you see on student papers that make the effort delightful.

  4. Christina

    I love your blog btw. I just found it, and I am so glad I did. It is refreshing to see a teacher, a black male teacher, talk about education and how to improve it one step at a time.

    Anyhow, you go deeply into what is frustrating in the educational system and why. Not only that, you give your two cents about what can be done better. But, I wonder, what can all of us as educators do when we are faced with students who do not want to hear our advice? How do we engage students who simply have no interest in engaging us back? How do you do this successfully?

    And…seriously, I want to find a way NOT to have to grade so many papers because after grading four block courses…it can exhaust you physically.

  5. Samantha Adams

    Absolute truth is written here. I understand the general appeal of multiple choice assessment… it is quicker to evalute, it is familiar to students, etc. However, you are absolutely right– we need to make student THINKING visible… rather than revealing a student’s ability to choose an answer from 4 options.

    Creating opportunities for students to explore AND explain their thinking in our classrooms is the first step in the right direction and away from the “standardized” feel of education.

  6. Brigetta S.

    I really appreciate your comment that “multiple-choice questions don’t make me a better teacher. Open-ended questions do.” I have found that even in a humanities class it is the easier choice to give multiple choice quiz questions. I can even do it through Blackboard now and have Blackboard immediately grade the kid’s quizzes. Once the test is set up, my work is done. It is so easy. While it cuts down on my time in terms of grading, at the end of the day it might not be the best way to assess real student learning. The better way is to do what you said. Ask them “what’s the difference between this and that?” Or ask them to explain something to me as if they were just introducing me to the information. When I give essay tests I get a much better sense of student learning from my students. Your blog post has challenged me to rethink the way I approach assessment. Thank you!

  7. Vicente Leyva

    I am a Music Education student and want to ultimately teach High School band and music theory. I find this method of assessment as a very thought provoking. Instead of is this chord “A-B-C-D” I can ask a question such as “how does this chord effect the music?” or other thought-provoking questions. Are there any difficulties or cons with this type of assessment? If so, what are they and how do you counter them? Thank you!

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