In this series, we dive into the realm of educational research to help you best formulate effective classroom practice
Are multiple-choice questions beneficial to our students, and how do we alleviate some of the associated risks? Let’s find out.
What does the research say?
Multiple-choice questions are a staple of most maths teachers’ classrooms, and often form a key part of low stakes quizzes and homework activities. But, how much do they actually help students?
According to Marsh et al (2007), evidence suggests that these positive benefits of the testing effect are still achieved when using multiple-choice questions. In fact, this form of question can actually help to improve future performance on non-multiple choice exams.
This is further supported by Little et al (2012). In studies, they have found that multiple-choice questions actually have an advantage over different question types. This is because they force students to justify why their selected answer is correct in comparison to the other options available.
However, multiple-choice questions are not without their flaws. In fact, there is a growing fear that offering pupils a choice of wrong answers (or lures) can actually lead them to develop misconceptions.
While it is important to note that there is some evidence that multiple-choice lures can become integrated into a subject’s more general knowledge, this tends to happen only when the misconception is pre-existing. As Marsh et al (2007) explain, “rarely did students select the correct answer on the initial test and then produce a lure on the final test. Nor were students likely to select lure A on the first test and then produce lure B on the final test”. Therefore, rather than actually causing misconceptions, multiple-choice activities simply highlight ones that were already in place.
An experiment administered by Butler and Roediger (2008) offers further reassurance. Here, subjects were presented with a multiple-choice test, before receiving immediate, delayed or no feedback. Pupils receiving some form of feedback, whether it be immediate or delayed, saw an increased proportion of correct responses on a delayed cued recall test. The implication for teachers is simple – in order to reduce any potential negative effects, ensure students are informed which answers are correct, and why.
No teaching tool is perfect, and multiple-choice questions are no exception. However, their closed nature combined with a limited number of possible responses allows teachers to quickly interpret students’ answers and carefully plan interventions in advance. For that reason alone, they will always play a prominent role in my lessons.