In Praise of the Lowly Multiple Choice Quiz

One of my online students had to take my ten-question multiple choice syllabus quiz 17 times before getting all the answers correct. Seventeen. She must have cursed me as she whackamoled her way through it, changing one answer only to have another pop up as incorrect. Such a quiz can feel tedious and maddening, I know, but I’m not ashamed to admit that the objective quiz has recently reentered my life and stolen a little piece of my pedagogical heart.

I liked taking rote quizzes when I was a kid. The challenge was clear and, unless the questions were badly formed, I could count on being rewarded with a puzzle-solving jolt of satisfaction. As a young teacher with a kazillion students, I relied on multiple choice quizzes as a matter of sanity, but later denounced them as a lazy, reductionist substitute for real education. Despite their shortcomings, though, I’ve regained some respect for objective quizzes, especially in the online realm. The multiple choice syllabus quiz, for example, because of its clear purpose, ease of implementation, and hefty payoff has been recalled to active duty.

One of the main benefits, of course, has to do with encouraging good reading. Having trained in a discipline that prizes close reading, I’m fetishy about it. And I don’t mind publicly grumping about how the conflation of skimming with reading, always a problem, has only worsened. Multiple choice questions don’t teach students to read well so much as help them quickly see when they are not already reading well. When the document at issue is as simple as the course syllabus, their own deficits in genuine reading — for example, reading that includes comprehension — can leap out in brilliant, irritating clarity.

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The multiple choice quiz, then, is a humble litmus test. In contrast to short answer or essay questions, there’s no fudging, which is critical when the aim is to cultivate scrupulous honesty about whether one has really read. And, at the same time, the syllabus quiz helps to seal a contract: “By having succeeded at this quiz, I acknowledge my understanding and acceptance of the terms therein.” And, perhaps most importantly, the pact implicitly includes an acknowledgement of what is to count as good reading. It is not to be a skittering, impressionistic fly-over, but, rather, a deep dive that sharpens the senses.

Quizzes are attractive in other ways, too, of course. For one thing, the online multiple choice quiz is graded automatically and immediately. Ideally, students who miss questions are quickly pushed back to the text with new, more specific questions and greater focus. Though, of course, perfect scores don’t mean they have mastered the material — that requires higher order activities too — the quizzes fill an important gap. And when questions are carefully constructed with conceptual objectives in mind, students can’t easily complete them by hunting piecemeal through the readings. For example, they need to understand the purpose of class discussions in order to reliably answer my syllabus quiz question about it.

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Of course, objective quizzes bring some pain. It takes me forever to create a decent, fair objective quiz up front. But the automatic quality of their implementation seems magical later, during the harried weeks of the semester. And because the quiz takes care of itself, I can better focus on authentically connecting with students, and may even use poor or excellent quiz scores as a springboard for reaching out to them.

Though quizzes have been abused by indifferent or overwhelmed teachers, they’ve also been unfairly maligned. Like blood glucose strips, they function as a quick gauge of where things stand. While more holistic, contextual assignments are critical both for gaining and demonstrating real learning, flexible, open-ended questions also invite us to rationalize, deflect and otherwise pretend. My syllabus may be no more interesting or challenging than the text-filled side of a cereal box, but this is why an objective quiz about it can be so powerful. It’s a clear statement at the very outset of my class, not merely of the difference between “A” and “C” work, but of what reading itself is going to mean.

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