Monday, February 16, 2009

What about multiple choice?

Ordinarily, I pass back papers with the number wrong -- just a small “3x” in the corner, for example. I do not indicate which are wrong. I leave it to the students to check all their answers, find the one(s) they know they guessed on or were not sure about, and puzzle it out.

I must confess that results on the multiple choice section of the last test were abysmal. These were various questions about a non-fiction article. This time, there was such carnage – only five perfect papers out of 75 – that I knew my usual approach would be fruitless.

Instead, I passed back the reading only, plus new blank question sheets. I did *not* return their original work. I then put the kids in groups of three or four and offered a “Chocolate Challenge.” Each group that answered all correctly won chocolate (a Hershey’s kiss) – extra for the first done.

In circulating, I could both listen in on their reasoning and identify the real stumpers.

I’d planned to divulge the correct answers same day, but the kids were engaged to the last, and I found I really needed time for meaningful discussions. So, next day, I passed back their original individual efforts, then discussed the problem spots.


  • One question asked, “According to the article, what was the most important contribution …” The kids did not take time to find the contribution the author cited as most important, instead choosing their top pick from a list of valid choices.
  • Another asked why someone was “profoundly tolerant.” Students most often answered with achievements, because they did not understand the phrase “profoundly tolerant.” This question was aligned with our state’s Style and Language strand, but for my students, it truly was a test of their vocabulary. As soon as I made clear the meaning of “tolerant,” all identified the correct answer. I took advantage of this opportunity to highlight the importance of our vocabulary work.
  • One question asked about mood. Yes, the kids needed a refresher on the ELA meaning of mood. Beyond that, many were reluctant to choose the correct answer (“lighthearted”), as they were not familiar with the word. Another vocabulary issue. However, most realized the other choices did not fit well. They need the courage to choose the word they don’t know when other options cannot be right.
  • A final question asked about how certain punctuation was used in this piece. This was disappointing, as many answered without checking instances in the text. Most disturbing was that some misidentified the punctuation, checking usage of another punctuation mark altogether!

The extra time spent evaluating the questions and the text in small groups lead to much improved understanding of accessible questions. Further, the challenge invested kids in the outcome; they were attentive and engaged in the subsequent class discussing pitfalls and techniques.

All in all, this painful test did result in excellent learning opportunities. I plan to offer similar types of questions on the next assessment, to determine the level of skill retention.

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