Mutiple choice or open-ended question . . . it doesn’t matter under the right circumstances
November 2nd, 2009 by Frank LaBanca, Ed.D.

questionThe fact of the matter is that objective assessments are here for a while.  How do we as teachers find the balance between objective assessments and authentic assessments? I am a strong proponent of authentic assessments:

  • position (critical stance) papers
  • lab reports
  • poster presentations
  • oral PowerPoint presentations
  • Blog posts and responses

They so better provide a more realistic cognitive apprenticeship for students as they traverse their knowledge growth potential.  But for better or worse, there is an obligation for teachers to work with students and allow them to engage in more objective assessments:  timed tests on specific content.  I’ve often worked with teachers who indicate that they would NEVER use a multiple choice question.  They spout off some nonsense about the nature of the question.  However I would only agree with them if the multiple choice question is a fact check. 

I would classify types of questions (whether objective or authentic)  that teachers ask students into three major categories:

  • factual
  • conceptual
  • analytical

Factual questions are just that:  checking facts.  Isolated information that stands alone.  Generally much lower on Bloom’s Taxonomy (knowledge/comprehension).  Conceptual and analytical questions, though, would fall under higher order thinking questions.  Conceptual questions: ill-defined allowing students to connect ideas together and draw on knowledge.  Analytical: well-defined, challenging students to interpret information or data, and make calculations. 

I’ve seen essay questions that were just as factual as a factual multiple chioce.  Conversely, when students are challenged to connect ideas or analyze information – that’s higher order thinking no matter what the format.

I often think back to a teacher that would tell me that his midterm exam had 300 multiple choice questions for the 2-hour period.  My students can barely complete 40 multiple choice during the same time frame.  Easy reason:  my questions require more thinking and analysis.  His only check facts.  My student test booklets are covered with notes, comments, calculations, and figures.  There certainly is something to it.  The challenge for educators is to put more emphasis on HOTS – no matter what the format.  Authentic assessment can stink just as much as some forms of objective assessment if it isn’t pushing students to higher levels of intellecuation.  

So, ultimately, it’s not what we ask students to do – it’s how we ask them to do it.

I’ve done more detailed posts about conceptual assessment here and here.

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