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5.2 Multiple-choice questions

Multiple-choice questions (MCQs) are commonly used for online assessment. They have a simple format. The stem contains the question or sets up a problem. Distractors offer possible answers that are incorrect, while the key (or keys) gives the right answer. Learners are asked to identify the correct answers while avoiding the distractors.

Criticism that has been levelled at MCQs is that they encourage the view that learning simply consists of the acquisition of facts, and they encourage educators to teach material that can be assessed using MCQs, rather than encouraging a detailed consideration of the material.

MCQs are well suited to an online learning environment. Once a computer has been programmed to identify the correct answers, these questions can be marked almost instantaneously. If MCQs only support the learning of facts rather than developing understanding, then it follows that technology-enabled assessment is likely to have a negative impact on learning and teaching. This is more likely to be true when the questions posed are similar to those in trivia quizzes rather than ones that require deeper understanding of the material.

Stephen Draper (2009) argued there is no reason that technology-enabled assessment should have a negative impact on learning, because learning benefits do not depend on the choice of technology (in this case, MCQs) but on the teaching method that is paired with the technology. He suggested several ways of using MCQs to support deep learning. These include:

  • Assertion-reason questions. These begin with a statement and offer a range of explanations of why it is true or false. A correct answer requires an understanding of the different explanations and how they apply in this particular case.
  • Considering each answer in depth. Students are asked to respond to the MCQ but also to note for each answer why it is right or wrong.
  • Brain teasers. These questions are based on the course material but are designed to challenge learners. For example, physics students might be asked what would happen to someone in a lift that was plummeting after its cable had snapped. If the person jumped just before the lift crashed, is it more likely they would (a) be killed or badly injured (b) escape with minor injuries (c) survive unscathed? Posing a question like this to a class can assess understanding of the principles and forces involved and form the basis for subsequent discussion.
  • Creating questions. Students are asked to produce MCQ items for the rest of the class to answer. The questions they produce can be graded based on their lack of ambiguity, alignment with course learning objectives, appropriate level of difficulty, justifications supplied for each item and whether the answers marked as correct are accurate. In order to design good questions, students need a deep understanding of the subjects they are testing.
  • Including questions in a presentation. Students working in small groups can be asked to present their work to the class, including a certain number of MCQ items for others in the class to respond to.