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Multiple Choice Makes Better Tests

All things considered, multiple-choice tests are better than tests that require students to work out extended problems with a pencil and paper, according to a study of physics undergrads at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

While a comparison with longer format tests showed that multiple-choice questions are equally as good at evaluating students’ relative performance, there are significant added benefits to eliminating calculation-crammed test booklets. To be specific, multiple choice tests ease grading demands in large classes, reduce grading ambiguity and inconsistencies between graders, and dramatically cut back on the numbers of students contesting grades.

While standardized test questions for exams like the SATs and GREs undergo rigorous evaluations, the Illinois study focused on tests designed by instructors with little or no formal training in writing exam questions.

Nevertheless, the researchers conclude that multiple choice exams in the University’s physics classes

A) are just as reliable and valid as other types of tests in gauging students’ understanding of class material.

B) are as good or better than traditional format tests at assessing relative rankings of students in a class.

C) effectively eliminate student complaints about grading fairness.

D) all of the above.

(Answer: D)

The article by Michael Scott, Tim Stelzer, and Gary Gladding is in the journal Physical Review Special Topics – Physics Education Research. Like all of the articles in the APS Physical Review Special Topics journals, it is available for free.

If you're feeling brave, try answering some of the questions in the sample exam they have at the end of the article. Just reading them gave me those heart palpitaions that all my college finals used to inspire.


  1. It is true that knowledge, understanding and the capacity for applying the subject studied can be effectively gauged using multiple choice questions. However students should be made to practce answering questions of the conventional long answer type also since their ability to express their ideas effectively is important.

  2. Good point MV.

    On the other hand, some classes focus only on conveying concepts. In those classes, adept expressive abilities are of little or no concern.

    In a creative writing class or literature analysis class, multiple choice wouldn't work very well at all.


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