There Are No “Dumb” Questions, But There Are Intelligently Guessed Answers

The weather turning colder, the snow starting to fall, the days becoming shorter and people more busily bustling around are sure signs that “the most wonderful time of the year” on our campus is fast approaching: final exam season.

Few, if any, types of questions appear more prolifically on final exams than multiple choice questions (MCQ). However, there are good MCQ’s and there are not-so-good MCQ’s. An exam containing poorly written questions will produce inaccurate measures of your student learning; if the purpose of a final exam is measuring student learning, a final exam consisting of poorly constructed questions is essentially just “going through the motions” of assessment. A student who knows nothing about your subject matter could easily get a higher mark using strategic guessing than a student who is well-prepared.

For example, see these Rules for Intelligent Guessing on Multiple Choice Exams. These “rules” make a lot of sense, because they capitalize on the most common errors that instructors make when constructing multiple choice questions.

MCQ contain a stem (the lead in to the question), the correct choice(s), and distractors (the incorrect choices). Many MCQ construction errors result when “question-writing fatigue” hits… at some point, one can end up feeling a bit desperate for another distractor (or at least that’s been my personal experience: the stem and the correct answer are usually pretty easy to come up with; it’s coming up with plausible distractors that is wearying).

One way to avoid this is to write two or three MCQ’s on each topic area while you prepare to teach it in class. That way, you have a set of new and original questions to choose from when it comes time to put your final exam together. Review all your questions with the lens of a student using “rules for intelligent guessing” and make changes where required.

It takes a lot of time to construct final exam questions, so make sure your time is not wasted. You want to make sure you are testing students on their knowledge of your subject matter and not on their ability to exploit any oversights you may have made in your question construction.

14 Rules for Writing Multiple-Choice Questions, from Bringham Young University Faculty Centre is a succinct yet thorough list of best practices for writing good MCQ’s. It may be helpful to print this document and keep close at hand for easy reference.

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