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The Lesson of Multiple Choice: There is One Right Answer

January 31, 2013

“New Reasons to Dislike Multiple Choice Tests” an Edutopia article posted earlier this week, offers some subtle insights into these tests.

One compelling reason to dislike multiple choice tests resonated with me: they imply that there is one right answer to every question… and that implication is misleading at best and damaging at worst. The concluding section of the post, “Beyond Either/Or” describes this phenomenon:

But the real issue here isn’t one of assessment design as much as it is looking at the overall tone of learning.

In the 21st century, networks are a kind of collective wisdom — or at least they can be. How you connect with others automatically informs how you’ll connect with their ideas. If digital interdependence doesn’t completely change both sociology and education over the next 25 years, we might need to go back and see what happened.

So let us look at multiple-choice questions in this light. More than anything else, when a multiple-choice question is given to a student in hopes of measuring how well he or she understands something, it manufacturers the illusion of right and wrong, a binary condition that ignores the endlessly fluid nature of information.

It alters the tone of learning, shifting it away from a constant process of reconciling old thinking with new data, and toward something of a pitch-and-fetch scenario. One question, four answers, and only one of them is right.

Just point to the right answer.

Increasingly, everyone will need to learn how to live in ambiguity and uncertainty: we’re never given four choices where only one is correct… we all need to learn how to muddle through…

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