A colleague and I were discussing the use of multiple choice questions a couple of days ago, and we both confessed that we will at times find our own questions challenging - perhaps even a bit tricky - after we return to those questions months or years after writing them. We realized that we write these questions after having been immersed in the material for a few weeks or months, and we tend to get in a certain head space when developing a particular question. The problem is this: students have no way of knowing what head space we were in when we were writing a given question. Were we in a metaphorical head space when writing a question which a student will later interpret within a highly pragmatic framework? Were we feeling a bit philosophical when designing a question for a student who may one day read that question in a very technical manner? If we find ourselves reviewing a question that we wrote a while back, and then asking ourselves, "Hmmn... what was my angle here?" then we have invariably written an overly ambiguous, perhaps even unfair, question.
If we find ourselves reviewing a question that we wrote a while back, and then asking ourselves, 'Hmmn... what was my angle here?' then we have invariably written an overly ambiguous, perhaps even unfair, question.
Turn that Lemon into Lemonade!
Alright... some of our multiple choice questions may be a little tricky... so, should we throw the baby out with the bath water? Of course not. I love multiple choice questions! I've blogged about them before and I'll likely blog about them again. There are plenty of reasons to use multiple choice questions, and obviously we should use them in ways that are judicious, valid, and fair. However, that's not to say that we might not still have some use for those particularly challenging questions that we invariably develop from time to time. Have you ever thought about offering your students the opportunity to take out a little "mark insurance"?
Multiple Choice Insurance Policy
When you identify certain multiple choice questions as being a bit ambiguous, challenging, or tricky, then perhaps you might consider using these questions within a separate "insurance" section of your test. The header of that section could outline an insurance policy that might read something like this:
The following four multiple choice questions are insurance questions. You don't need to do these questions at all. However, correct answers on any of these questions can generate an insurance mark that will be used to replace any marks that were lost in the above multiple choice section. If you have time at the end of the test, think about coming back here and taking out some insurance!
The beauty of this approach is that it does not violate education policy that may (depending on your country or jurisdiction) prohibit the use of bonus marks. Insurance marks are not the same as bonus marks in that they are not added onto a an overall test mark in a wholesale manner. They can only be used to replace a lost mark within a particular section of a test that offers questions that explore similar material in a similar manner. Thus, insurance questions essentially offer the student an expanded opportunity to demonstrate learning within a given area.
Epilogue: Another Approach to the Insurance Policy
Depending on the style of insurance question chosen, the insurance section will invariably help out different types of students. If the insurance questions are selected based on the criteria mentioned above (ambiguous, challenging, or tricky), then I can tell you from experience that they will have a disproportionately beneficial impact on the higher achieving students in a given class. If a teacher hopes to help out a broader spectrum of students, then I might suggest that a slightly different style of question be used within an insurance section. One type of question I might recommend is a question that rewards students for classroom engagement. These days, with digital distraction becoming an ever-increasing issue within classrooms, having an insurance section that rewards students for participating in class discussions might prove to be more than a little beneficial - both in class, and on test day. Such questions could inquire about particular advice, suggestions, or guidance that the teacher provided in class, as well as perspectives that were offered by both the teacher and students during class discussions.
If you value class discussion and debate, and if you have a Socratic element to your class, then you might consider rewarding your students for their class engagement by way of an insurance section on your next test.
The New Learner Lab
Exploring the ever-changing, often challenging, and always controversial world of teaching.