Rolf Reber Ph.D.

Critical Feeling

Is Multiple Choice Testing Immoral?

Students learn false facts in multiple choice tests; but there is a twist.

Posted Apr 15, 2016

Students everywhere are preparing for end of term exams. Multiple choice tasks are among the most frequently used exam forms in undergraduate education. They are cheap; they can be used in mass education; and they are just. Whatever your looks are, whatever the teacher thinks of you, the grade stays the same. If done intelligently, multiple choice tests not only are capable of testing facts but also the understanding of principles. These are the bright sides of multiple choice testing.

However, there is a dark side. If you have to answer the question, “Which psychologist wrote a book about his experiences in a concentration camp” and there are four response options: Sigmund Freud, Carl Gustav Jung, Kurt Lewin, and Viktor Frankl, you not only answer a question. You learn new information because writing a book about experiences in concentration camp is now associated not only with Viktor Frankl, which is the right answer, but also with Sigmund Freud, Carl Gustav Jung, and Kurt Lewin, who all did not experience concentration camps.

When you are later asked whether Carl Gustav Jung wrote about his experiences in concentration camp, it is more likely that you respond “yes” after having seen the lure in the multiple choice test than when you have never encountered this statement; especially if you do not know that Carl Gustav Jung was Swiss and did not live in Germany during the Nazi era, the statement may just feel familiar and therefore right because you have seen it before. This means that students may learn false facts from completing multiple choice tests.

Do these observations not support the conclusion that it is immoral to administer multiple choice tests when false knowledge sneaks in a student’s mind? The answer is no, because the benefits of multiple choice tests by far outweigh their drawbacks.

The reason is that testing benefits learning. When you have to decide whether you take a test or read the materials again, it is to your advantage to take the test. This is the well-known testing effect examined by Henry Roediger and his colleagues. In fact, the benefit of testing is much higher than the harm from connecting a question to wrong answers. This advantage of testing alone would be enough to reject a ban of multiple choice tests.

 School Boy (Public Domain, {{US-1923}}
Source: Albert Anker: School Boy (Public Domain, {{US-1923}}

There is another reason. Did teachers not give multiple choice tests, they might use an open-response format where students write the answer themselves. However, there is compelling evidence that memory for content is much better when learners have to generate it than when they just read it.

Let us translate this effect to the earlier example. If Albert has to answer the question, “Which psychologist wrote a book about his experiences in a concentration camp”, and he answers Carl Gustav Jung, the damage is much greater because he produced the answer himself. If he later has to respond whether Carl Gustav Jung wrote about his experiences in concentration camps, it will be much more likely that this statement feels right.

To conclude, yes, there is a dark side of multiple choice tests. However, the losses due to false lures are of minor importance compared to both the gains of testing and potential losses alternative forms of testing might produce.  

This blog post is based on the results of the following study:

Roediger, H. L., & Marsh, E. J. (2005). The positive and negative consequences of multiple-choice testing. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, & Cognition, 31, 1155-1159. 

More on feelings in school education can be found in:

Reber, R. (2016). Critical feeling. How to use feelings strategically. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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