EducationPop Quiz

Pop Quiz: Exam Formats. What Works Best?

This week has been filled with exams for several of the classes I teach. Due to this I got to thinking about test formats. I know a few of my colleagues who teach general education classes who give straight Scan-tron multiple choice exams. According to them it is easier for the student to just see the answer as part of one of the choices then to have to fill a blank in from memory. I have some colleagues who think that this is a horrible approach to evaluating what their students have and have not learned. Their reasoning is that this really only determines how well the students can guess or backward engineer the answers. They tend to give pure essay questions where the students must explain a concept or two from class clearly. They argue that if the student cannot clearly explain themselves then they have not learned the subject matter properly.

Of course, I suppose it depends on the course you teach but for any of my general education classes my exams are probably considered one of those levels of hell that Dante wrote about. I have multiple choice, fill in the blank, true and false, and short essay all on one exam. This way I figure I can get a rounded evaluation of what they know and what is partially guessing. Whether this is a pedagogical correct method I do not know but it works for me.

What exam formats do you think accurately evaluate a students retention and understanding of the topics introduced in your courses? Do you have any strong feelings about just multiple choice vs. just essay exams?

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JoDee is an adjunct faculty instructor of astronomy and physics at various colleges around her hometown in the midwest. When she is not trying to get her cat, Pixel, off of her laptop she is observing variable stars and researching black holes.


  1. February 21, 2014 at 11:20 pm —

    Man do I hate multiple-choice exams, but unfortunately once you get above about 150 students there is really no choice in the matter. All they really do is shift the burden from the students–who would otherwise have to learn to articulate actual facts–to the professor, who now has to come up with 100 (good and effective) questions that they can now passively recognize. And don’t forget to make sure none of your questions inadvertently provide hints to the others, and of course to make four randomized versions with their own painstakingly filled-in answer sheets in order to appease the jackbooted invigilation overlords!

    What’s worse, writing actually good multiple choice questions is incredibly difficult and time consuming. Not only do you have to make sure there’s a good balance of easy and difficult questions, but you have to make sure you pose the questions in such a way that more than one answer would actually seem plausible to someone with no specialized knowledge of the material.

    All this for the “convenience” of the machine, which inevitably misreads several people’s names or ID numbers (or rather they don’t fill them in properly in the first place) so that you get a spreadsheet with six anonymous scores at the bottom…which you can’t easily match up to the answer sheets since the new machines don’t actually stamp grades on the actual answer sheets anymore.

    Yeah, reading the same essay over and over again is hardly a treat, but I’d take it any day over the hassle of scantron tests.

  2. February 22, 2014 at 11:07 pm —

    For me it’s not writing multiple choice questions what is the hardest, but writing the answers, so that you don’t end up with an exam in which you barely have to read the question in order to answer it correctly. But my most hated type of questions (both as a student and as a teacher) is the true or false. As a student, many of them seem terribly ambiguous, and as a teacher, the 50/50 chance gives bad students an unfair advantage. I prefer the short essays and math problems, which I think tell you more about how well the student understands the subject, but I do think some multiple choice questions at the beginning of the exam are a good option, I remember appreciating that as a student as they helped me kind of warm up before the longer questions.

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