A Defense of the Multiple-Choice Exam

Its value may be limited, but there is no better way to test whether students have read the material

October 18, 2016

Like many professors, I tend to disparage multiple-choice tests. They measure a narrow test-taking skill that has little to do with "real life." They’re about memorizing facts rather than dealing with ideas. A multiple-choice test is an easy-out, no-work thing for faculty and a demeaning slog for students.

So how come I give multiple-choice tests anyway? Semester after semester, in all of my undergraduate courses?

Last week I confronted that contradiction, and resolved it for myself, in the process of telling my students in "The Sociology of Health and Illness" what to expect on their exam. I realized that actually, I do have a theory of examinations, that I am working from a logic. And it is perhaps not what you’d expect from someone giving a test with 25 three-point multiple-choice questions and five five-point definitions.

Let me give you a moment’s background. I am a sociologist, working in areas of bioethics, race, reproductive technologies, and feminism. My undergraduate courses are at an urban public university’s business college. I am, I often say only half-jokingly, paying for the sins of a past life — I must have once been a tobacco executive.

So here I am, two mornings a week for over a quarter of a century, talking radical sociological talk at people who are worried about their finance exam or are trying to get into an accounting program. For the most part, with some pleasant exceptions, they really do not care about sociology, and are happy to make that clear. They want an easy three credits, need a course at the time I’m offering it, or prefer a minor that might have something interesting to offer.

You’d think, then, that I am indeed doing multiple-choice tests out of plain old laziness. They don’t care, so why should I? Maybe there is a touch of that. But in those same classes, I also give take-home exams, long essays on extra books I’ve asked them to read, thought-provoking questions asking them to relate the work of the course to the living of their lives.

Reading their essays, I have glimpses into their situations as immigrants or the children of immigrants, as people overworked and undersupported, struggling to make a life in a hard country.

Maybe they are not ready to think critically or sociologically at this moment in their lives. But, if I make sure they've read it, they will have been exposed to ideas and thinking, and they will have that to draw upon when they are ready to do so.
Learn a bit about these students, and you have to respect them. However, I don’t always (maybe not even often) share their values. I’ve had students defend every corporate crime and every excess of American capitalism in the language of choice and the marketplace. It’s all, they tell me, about the individual. It’s an argument that makes sense for struggling immigrants; it’s not an argument that sits well with sociologists.

I choose the classwork carefully. I pick books, readings, texts, and supplementary articles with a great deal of thought. I am showing them a critique that might well unsettle them. I show films, talk about things that do not — markedly do not — fit into the worldview they are mastering in business education.

I don’t want to test them on their agreement with me. And it’s none of my business if they share my worldview. It is my business to expose them to the world of sociology — a way of thinking, an "imagination," as C. Wright Mills famously called it. I do that in the readings I assign, in the films I show, and in the lectures I give.

My exams are designed to test if they have read, seen, and heard the material I’ve given them — not if they believed it or cared about it. Just exposure.

There’s an art to constructing questions that do that. Here’s an example I give them when I am reassuring them that the test won’t be "tricky," their favorite adjective for hard tests. If I had, say, asked them to watch the movie The Wizard of Oz, I would have asked the following question:

The name of Dorothy’s dog was: (a) Fang, (b) Toto, (c) Snoopy, or (d) Scarecrow.

If you saw the film, you’ll know the answer. From your answer, I won’t know if you understood the allegory, the place of the film in American culture, or the iconic value of Judy Garland. But I will know you saw the film.

Those are the kinds of questions I ask on multiple-choice tests. I find that the test booklets that sometimes come with textbooks rarely yield that kind of question. The textbook questions are trying to measure understanding, intellectual grappling with the material. Not me — I just want to know if you read it.

I assign Victor R. Fuchs’s wonderful article on epidemiology, "A Tale of Two States," comparing Utah and Nevada. On the test, I don’t ask about the point of the article (the relationship between social organization and bodily health). Instead, I ask them to name the two states.

Why? How do I justify that? I justify it precisely because I do respect my students. I know that they are smart people, capable of understanding. And I respect Fuchs, and all the other readings I’ve chosen for them.

I want to expose them to that work. I believe in the value of reading. I believe that once it is in their heads, it’ll do its work. It will make them think. Maybe not now. Maybe they are not ready to think critically or sociologically at this moment in their lives. But, if I make sure they’ve read it, they will have gotten something out of the course, they will have been exposed to ideas and thinking, and they will have that to draw upon when they are ready to do so.

So, did you read this entire essay? The movie I referred to was: (a) Citizen Kane, (b) Casablanca, (c) Spiderman, (d) The Wizard of Oz.

Barbara Katz Rothman is a professor of sociology at the City University of New York.