Choice is Multiple, Context is Everything

I feel like writing multiple choice questions has characterized this semester so far. It’s unusual in that I normally feel that battling with my exam questions characterizes the early week of the semester (perhaps this year I’ll learn to write next year’s as I teach the material this year but that’s another issue entirely). But this year has been MCQ central.

I normally write them on train journeys. Particularly train journeys like this one (late Monday evening…somewhere in the Scottish Borders) where there is no wireless (no, the driver’s feet aren’t sticking out the bottom of the train in a Flintstone-esque way). Or I can’t face paying for wireless. It’s quiet and free from interruptions so I can hold a train of thought (heh).

I’m starting to develop very strong opinions on what constitutes a good MCQ, and very strong opinions about defining what you want to achieve in setting an MCQ. For example, something that tests for conceptual understanding may initially want to test only a single concept. Something that’s for discussion through peer instruction may need to be more complex, at least towards the end of a course. And like most things, I know bad questions when I see them. You know, the type of question where you wonder what the point in writing it was.

For example: which group of the periodic table is carbon in? Group 13, 14, 15 or 16.

I’d call that a bad question because it’s either testing someone’s ability to read (doing chemistry questions without a periodic table??) or someone’s ability to recall a simple fact. It might be a good pub quiz question but it doesn’t cut it for learning. The context for use is everything.

A better question would be: Which of the following best describes why carbon is in group 14 of the periodic table. (a) carbon forms four single bonds to hydrogen; (b) carbon has 6 electrons; (c) carbon is chemically similar to silicon; (d) carbon has the electron configuration 1s2 2s2 2p2

At least there is something to argue about there if it’s some kind of social (torture) learning activity. It’s not a great question but it’s also not on the kind of stuff I teach. Great questions are very hard to write and it’s hard to see sometimes how an MCQ can be used to get people to think about more complex concepts (inorganic reaction mechanisms anyone?).

MCQs are no substitute for writing extended responses to questions either. Yes, I can accept that in a social learning environment, making a case about why your answer is correct probably stretches your knowledge and skills at argumentation. Provided you’re the one talking rather than the poor student who didn’t have time to do the pre-session thingumabob (I’m not sure I agree with the autocorrect spelling here) and is completely out paced. But there’s a difference between speaking it and being able to write a coherent response in a high pressure, high stakes environment like the end of module exam.

All things considered, I think I’m coming out in favour of blended learning in the broadest conceivable sense. I think mixing up the activities keeps sessions feeling fresh and that good MCQs used in thoughtful contexts have great potential. But so does just about everything else, including spurts of more traditional lecturing.

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