Terry Mills on a Variation on Multiple Choice Questions

Terry Mills has made it clear, many times, that he dislikes multiple choice questions. Now, on Tom Peachey’s new blog, Terry has a post to discuss a suggested variation of MCQs.

So, should you:

A. Make comments here.

B. Ignore Terry’s post entirely.

C. Go to Terry’s post and engage in the discussion.

D. Email Terry directly, indicating how much you love MCQs.

The answer, of course, is C (although D is a tempting distractor).

16 Replies to “Terry Mills on a Variation on Multiple Choice Questions”

  1. Blast from the past. I had a professor at the University who never gave MCQ’s. He used to say: “If bananas are on the palm, they are on the palm, and that is the only answer”.

  2. I hold the (possibly controversial on this blog but otherwise not really so) view that MCQ are fine. It is possible to write MCQs that do what you want. MCQs are inherently a trade off; they have epsilon marking overhead but can tell some things. In my exams I use a combination of true/false, MCQs, logical statement questions (that use recall), calculations (that use learned techniques), short proofs (that require some ingenuity) and long answer questions (that use a combination). I’ve been using the same basic structure for a long time, which is itself a (very slight) variation on what was taught to me.

    I’m not going to remove the MCQs from it. They have their place and I like them there.

  3. What is the benefit of MCQ in the traditional sense, not as in Terry’s variation?

    The benefit is that (provided the exam writers are competent) it allows for easy, unambiguous, unbiased, and potentially automated marking.

    For this purpose, they are pretty much completely useless in VCE: the other three quarters of the exam show that VCAA is capable of marking short-answer questions on students’ papers.

    They are also a huge negative in VCE: the majority of them have devolved into just a predictable pattern students can put in their bound reference, or even worse (and more common I’d argue), CAS-bashing. I don’t think they provide any value to VCE as is, and there would be a benefit just from removing them. I’d even argue that the time limit of two hours should stay the same, as the time limit is already quite unnecessarily short as it is, for the amount of questions there are. But I digress.

    Are there any MCQ that can’t be written as short answer questions? No, and I doubt that any MCQ is better because it’s a MCQ as opposed to a short-answer question.

    As for Terry’s variation, I wouldn’t call it a multiple choice question, just a multi-part question.

    As for alternative wordings as he asked for, you could try these:

    “Determine whether the following are true or false, with brief justification.” If brief justification is required.


    “Disprove or prove the following statements.” If longer proofs are required.

      1. I was going to post there (and link the comment here), but unfortunately the other blog requires an email to comment. I suppose I could try a fake email.

    1. If the MCQ on the VCE were all replaced with short answer I suspect that instead of 30 minutes for answering all 20 MCQ you would need at least 60 and maybe 90 minutes to answer the 20 short answer. So I think a big reason VCE uses MCQ is to squeeze many more questions into the exam. Because I don’t see any credence to the argument that they save marking time, because the VCE exams contain another 60 marks worth or short answer questions that have to be marked by hand not computer. In fact I definitely think its just to cram as much stuff as possible into the exams.

      And Ill add another huge negative (for me anyway) of MCQ on VCE exams – there are always at least a couple of MCQ that are just gonzo insane with their complexity and are clearly trying to do too much simply to bamboozle students and show off. And you are right that many of the MCQ are just button pressing exercises, but this can be said for a lot of the short answer questions as well.

  4. I followed your advice to “charlie out” and posted there, Marty. Figured if I started some flame wars, it would help his web traffic. I’ll make sure you get credit for sending me, if it works.

    P.s. That other Anonymous is making me want to post a Highlander clip…

    1. Hi Terry,

      What are you views on multiple multiple choice on a math or physics exam?

      eg 5 statements A B C D E with possible answers
      1 one of the statements is correct ,2 two of the statements are correct … 5 all of the statements are correct ,
      6 none of the statements are correct

      We used to get about 10 of these during our GCSe’s a long while back in the UK as well as in the US when i visited to make marking easier and guessing the correct answer harder with partial knowledge.

      In the US on some internal exams you could even score two for a correct answer, zero for no answer but -1 for an incorrect answer which seemed harsh to me inviting some use of game theory

      they were not popular with the candidates at the time

      steve r

      1. Thanks Steve. There are many different approaches to MCQs (as well as other forms of assessment). I always ask: “What does the answer given by the student tell me about his or her learning?”

        To put it bluntly, what does “(C)” tell you about my knowledge of quadratic functions?

        Thanks again for your comment, and best wishes.

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