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Using Multiple Choice Exams to Test Critical Thinking

Perhaps one way to accomplish the goal of challenging students during exams is to infuse critical thinking into your exams. When we look at test banks provided by publishers or think back to our own undergraduate college days, the one thing that, perhaps, stands out when you think of taking exams was all the multiple-choice tests you took. 

Discussions about multiple-choice tests typically center on how poor they are at getting students to engage with the material. Easy to make, easy to grade, low on student engagement, and little thinking about course content and how to apply that content. I would agree. Multiple-choice tests, as they are written in test banks and on the fly, typically focus on the recall of memorized information. So students cram for finals, spit it all back out, and are done with it.

However, written carefully, multiple-choice questions can stimulate and demand critical thinking. Written carefully, students are forced to think about each option in a question by writing better responses. Isn’t critical thinking about multiple choice? The difference is we are limiting the student’s critical thinking to a few (4-5) answers on an exam. Typically we use multiple choice to assess a breadth of knowledge. Done well, multiple-choice can activate and assess critical thinking. Here are 7 strategies adapted from the Real Science Challenge (www.realsciencechallenge.com).

  1. All answers should sound plausible. While it is fun to come up with one goofy answer just to lighten the mood, the result is that students revert to test taking strategies, not thinking about their choices.
  2. Have more than one right answer. Sometimes I call this multiple, multiple-choice, or multiple answer questions.
  3. Instead of restating the textbook, provide other examples. Here we are talking about the stem of the question. If you use different examples than are in the textbook or the examples you used in class, you start to see if students can transfer what they have learned.
  4. Have students provide a quick justification for their answer. This would make grading a bit more in-depth, but a justification does not have to be long. Having students tell you why they picked a certain answer, and include why the other answers don’t work is a great way to see a student’s thought process.
  5. Remove “all/none of the above. These get students back to strategies where they don’t have to read all the answers. If they read one answer that does not fit, then they know it can’t be “all of the above.”
  6. Remove “always” and “never” answers. Again, these are typically throw-always.
  7. Keep the lengths of each multiple-choice answer similar. While tutoring a biology student back in grad school I saw this in action. We were going over a practice test and the student said to me, “I just pick the longest answer. That is the one that is usually correct.” Sadly, he was right. Given the choice between a few-word answer and a couple-sentence answer, students will quickly learn that longer answers are typically the correct choice.

Here is an example question I saw on an exam that I think really gets the students to critically think about their choice. In the question, students were given data (like dissolved oxygen, etc.) from eight ponds. They were asked to choose which pond(s) were polluted accidentally by a turned over sewage truck (don’t ask how that happened). With only the data to go on, students had to “remember” the indications in a water sample for a load of organic fertilizer. This was a novel situation, though they had discussions about water samples and pollution previously. This stem question was the basis for about 4-5 follow up questions.

A case study I run (I am not the author) asks students to look at four examples of respiratory conditions and choose which is most like Carbon Monoxide poisoning, which is what the case is about. They have to think about what the issue is with CO poisoning (it is a problem with hemoglobin, therefore a problem of transport). Students have to think about each choice and if it is showing a transport problem or not. The students might even have to look up what the heck is barbiturate-induced hyperventilation if they don’t know. So I would expect them to use the internet or other references to complete a “simple” multiple choice question with only 4 choices. If the students were asked to justify each of their choices (both for and against), that would make a very challenging question (and it is). 

How can you make more challenging (and fun) multiple-choice questions that stimulate critical thinking?

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