Monday, March 5, 2007

More on Multiple Choice Testing

It's midterm time here, and most teachers give multiple choice tests. (In a future post, I'll raise some questions and issues regarding the policies, advantages, and disadvantates of our practice of giving midterms each semester, but for now, here is one approach that has worked to some extent with some students (is that qualified enough?).)

Of course, I echo that the route to a good grade on multiple choice exams is the same as the one that will get you to Carnegie Hall - practice, practice, practice.

But for some, simply practicing is not enough, and some guided steps can be helpful. I suggest to students that they review their completed practice exams through three lenses: (1) doctrine; (2) application; and (3) test-taking strategies. All three are in the mix with each question, in differing degrees. They overlap, of course.

First comes doctrine - what doctrine does the question require for choosing the right answer? Is their articulation of that doctrine accurate and complete (the two criteria I set out for them in evaluating rule statements in their study groups/outlines, etc.)? If they have paraphrased the rule, e.g., from a Restatement, have they changed it or left out an element or factor?

Application: Did the correct answer to the question depend on a particular fact that they either overlooked, ignored, or didn't understand? Or, was the doctrine triggered by the absence of facts (i.e., res ipsa loquitur)? Did the facts trigger a policy that made one answer better than the others?

Test taking stragegies: Are the students using all the structural clues that the questions themselves provide as guides to the correct choices? For example, if two choices are virtually identifal paraphrases of one another, attrative as they are, neither one is likely to be the correct answer. If one choice discusses unfamiliar doctrine that was not covered in class or on the syllabus, it's good practice to have the confidence to pass it by, on the theory that "I studied, I'm prepared, if I don't recognize it, it's not because I'm unprepared." Does that particular teacher tend to put in red herring facts?

One good exercise is to take a question apart, figure out the least crummy choice out of four crummy choices (a/k/a the right answer), and then break the class up into small groups, giving each the task of adding one or two facts that will either make another answer better, or test some different doctrine.

Finally, for now, is my "margin of error" speech. There is a margin of error built into most exams, which is why an A on the exam rarely, if ever, requires a score of 100 percent. That margin of error is, to a large extent, beyond the control of the student, i.e., there's some doctrine, I didn't get, some fact I didn't recognize, some quirk I didn't pick up. The object is to narrow that margin of error so that all of hte questions that are in my control, I get right. The "three lens" technique gives some students a handle on how to do that.

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