Can a Multiple Choice test ever be sufficient?

I think it can…(I know this is against the grain!)

I am all for students showing higher level thinking but I am not sure my test, regardless of what type it is, lets students do this. The higher level thinking in my classroom happens when students are working with one another engaging in math. It may be a math lab, a whiteboarding activity, or perhaps just helping each other out on a workbook question. This is where the magic happens, not on my test.

I give summative assessment tests because I feel I have to. Maybe I don’t have to, but that is the current culture, students/parents/administrators expect it… so for now I’ll keep them coming. The test is a method of generating a grade for me, simple as that.  I would be much happier using my professional opinion to give my students a formal grade, but again that isn’t the culture. (I do change students grades all the time, if I feel a student deserves an ‘A’ but couldn’t demonstrate it on a test, no problem, done deal, ‘A’.)

Last year when I chose to embrace the Flipped Classroom as my method of instruction I also brought in Mastery Learning. In my classroom I now require students to achieve 70% or greater on their quizzes before they can move on in the course. Those students who do not achieve mastery go back into the learning cycle until they have achieved a basic understanding of the content. I have been able to do this with Moodle. Moodle is a Learning Management System where students can write quizzes, among many other things, digitally. I manually created a database of roughly 1600 questions that are broken down by difficulty and learning outcome. This gives me the ability to give each student a different quiz yet control for certain parameters. Students like the quizzes because they are only used as formative assessment, there is no grade attached, the focus is on learning not the old points game. There are huge benefits to using Moodle for my formative assessments including: Self-Pacing, Differentiation, Personalization, Immediate Feedback, etc.

Lately I have been having an inner struggle if I should give Multiple Choice tests or continue with my traditional paper and pencil assessments. Here is where I am at now…The Pros and the Cons:


  • Students get immediate feedback on their tests
  • Students can begin working on the next unit or spend some more time and do a re-test sooner
  • I don’t have to spend hours marking them
  • Easier to generate re-tests


  • I don’t get to see what students are actually doing / thinking
  • Silly mistakes = no marks
  • No part marks for correct logic/steps/thinking

In weighing the above I feel Multiple Choice tests seem like the answer for me, here is why:

  • The tests are marked for me. I hope this doesn’t seem selfish but is my time best spent every two weeks marking over 120 tests? I don’t think it is. I think it is best spent creating activities that support student learning. Activities that engage students in mathematics. Inking up a test and seeing what students do and do not know seems redundant because I already know. In the Flipped Classroom I get a chance to work my every one of my students every day and see how things are going..I even give them a quick interview (hot seat) before the test to make sure they are ready to go…The effort I put into grading seems to be for nothing. By the time my students have made it to the summative assessment test the learning is over, if students want to keep learning because they don’t think they have demonstrated their learning then they do a re-test. But does that require me to have marked the test?
  •  I can have everyone write at different times. Students do not learn in the same way, they also do not take the same amount of time to learn. Students in my class write tests when they are ready. With a traditional paper and pencil test this is harder to do, I have had to create up to 5 different versions when I do self-pacing with written tests.

So that is where I am at. Not sure where to go from here but would be interested to see if you have any thoughts. Perhaps I am missing something but it seems to come down to time. In the Flipped Classroom I always hear ‘What is the best use of our face-to-face with our students? I now ask what is the best use of my time as teacher? Is it marking?


About flippingmath

Math Teacher, Flipper, Blue Jays Fan
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8 Responses to Can a Multiple Choice test ever be sufficient?

  1. I try to use a mix. I find that if I do all multiple choice, scores are artificially low. When I do all free response, the scores are much higher. But I don’t know whether that’s ‘real’ or artificial.

    As we, down here, head into the Common Core, one of the standards of mathematical practice is ‘Attend to precision’. My students are HORRIBLE at this. If I were at a time in my life that I was doing studies, I’d study if students taking a multiple choice test attend to precision more than free response (knowing that a teacher will likely give some/most points for a problem done mostly correct.)

    My quizzes and requizzes are manual. (Will be setting up moodle either over winter break or next summer.) I have been having students requiz on foundational concepts to proficiency. One of the quizzes has a multi-step equation involving fractions and one involving decimals. This is Algebra 2. The number that can’t simplify the answer properly on the fraction problem and can’t round to the nearest tenth on the decimal problem is staggering. Even with review and review. And the number that drop the negative along the way when going from something like -8/24 to -0.3 is even larger. It’s like too many things to think about at the end of a problem when they think they’re done is overload. Because I’m paying such attention to their mistakes on all these manual quizzes, I’m MUCH better at writing M/C questions with good distractors.

    I think as long as they’re going to have things like college placement exams and SATs etc. its important to teach them how to thrive in that environment. (Along with the time benefit to me.) Teaching them to parse the distractors is a great skill that we rarely get to except with the quickest students. I hope, in getting them to do more collaboration, that I get THEM to write some M/C questions to see how distractors are generated. That can only help them improve on M/C tests in the future, I’d think.

    • flippingmath says:

      Thanks for the comment Malisa! You are right that a lot of the tests students will soon be taking are MC and preparation for that, while not the goal, doesn’t hurt! I like the idea that of you getting students to make MC questions, I heard that in Moodle there is a way to do that….any idea how?

      • Here’s some experience I had last year in Physics 11. I only had one quiz with multiple choice and the students did this one the fastest and with the most confidence. They also said it was the easiest quiz I gave. It also had the worst results, which is interesting.

        For our final exam, we had a 50 question MC quiz. My students didn’t do very well in it.

        For Physics 12, the final exam was half MC and half free response. During the year I didn’t have any MC questions. After the exam I marked the MC first. The results were horrible. Class average was around 55% and I felt like crap, wondering what the heck I had been doing all year. I then marked the free response and the average was 80%.

        So there’s definitely something to the argument of practicing for MC questions. Obviously you guy don’t need me to tell you that, but it’s an interesting story anyways. However, I leave this comment with one thought. I can’t for the life of me remember doing a MC test or exam in university. So for Physics 12, should I be getting the students to practice MC questions for the sake of one MC physics exam? (if doing MC for practice is the argument for it – which I don’t think it is)

  2. Glenn Arnold says:

    I’m with you. I do as much as possible in Google Forms assessments because they are autograded and the students get immediate feedback while the test is still in their hand. In fact, I think that it works well in flipped classes since you are sitting down next to your students to check their progress and actually see their work.

    • flippingmath says:

      Thanks for the comment Glenn, glad to know someone is thinking along the same lines. I think you are right that this method of assessment only works because of the flipped classroom

  3. Hi Matt, this is a very interesting topic, thanks for posting it!

    Research tells us that if we put a grade on a test or quiz, that students won’t look at the feedback but only the grade. So there I was last year, spending a lot of time putting feedback on free response quiz questions. I knew about the research and I knew that I could “grade” the quizzes very quickly if I didn’t leave feedback. So for my classes I got the students to anonymously submit an answer to a simple question: “Do you read the feedback on the quiz and do you find it useful?” I was secretly hoping the students would say “no” and my home life would be spared the hours of marking. To my surprise, the overwhelming response was “YES!”. Part of this may be due to the fact that I use standards based grading, and the quizzes report progress on a learning objective instead of adding and subtracting marks.

    I wonder if there is another way to go about this. Perhaps the students can self-mark their quizzes using an answer key in-class. Maybe I will try this. It would take a fair bit of class time, but maybe the learning reward for the students would be significant. Quizzes in Moodle can provide the student not only with instant feedback on their progress, but also can provide complete solutions so they can analyze where they went wrong.

    I’ve also thought about doing Moodle quizzes. Do your students do them at home? What measures are in place to prevent cheating? I think I happen to be in the minority and think that the vast majority of kids won’t cheat even if there is ample opportunity. But the thought of my test bank being compromised by a few kids taking screenshots is uncomfortable. Or there could be help on quizzes from tutors, etc. I would love to hear your thoughts on this.

    • flippingmath says:

      Hi Doug, thanks for the comments (my name is Graham!).

      In previous posts I believe I’ve explained my assessment strategy in further detail, so sorry if I took some things for granted.

      My students are free to do their quizzes where, when, and with whom they choose. Students can take them at home, in class, using their notes, using the internet, with mom, or with their classmates. I explain to them that if they want to best gauge what they know (and what they don’t) then they should take the quizzes alone and without other resources but it is up to them. This has helped transform the quizzes from being an assessment tool to more of a learning tool, formative assessment at its best. The quizzes are not worth anything, only formative feedback that controls if they move forward or go back and relearn concepts. My making these quizzes worth 0% anxiety has been eliminated.

      If students achieve greater than 70% they move on and if they get less than 70% then I take them back into the learning cycle. That may mean that they have to go over their quiz with me, do corrections in their learning journal, and/or complete an additional assignment. Once the student is ready he or she reattempts the quiz.

      Student quizzes and tests come from a database I have compiled myself with roughly 1600+ questions for each of my courses. They are from testbanks, old provincial exams, and a number are created by hand. I have sorted them by learning outcome and difficulty so that each student gets a different quiz/test but I can control for content and difficulty. Thankfully Moodle will not give a question more than one on a given attempt.

      You mentioned cheating. As I said above I am not concerned about cheating on quizzes, sometimes it is encouraged, I just like seeing students talking and being concerned about their learning. For their tests I suppose it is possible that some students could show each other there tests, and perhaps have already seen a question or two that they get on their test, but it is unlikely. With 300+ questions a unit the probability isn’t that high and if they ‘cheat’ this way my guess is they probably are learning at the same time. 🙂

      I hope this provides some insight on how I run things.

      • Hi Graham (I have no idea why I thought your name was Matt)

        I like your approach with the quizzes. That seems like a really useful approach for the students and I agree that it should promote authentic learning.

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