Monday, October 14, 2013

Multiple choice tests, from OUTWITTING COLLEGE PROFESSORS

What follows is an excerpt from OUTWITTING COLLEGE PROFESSORS. The whole book is equally useful, and insightful, and available from amazon, smashwords, kindle, and nook.

The Multiple Choice Test:

(1) Remember why profs give multiple choice tests.
These kinds of exams are easy to grade, so if you’re in a large class, chances are you’re in for a large number of multiple choice questions. If you walk into a large lecture hall the first day of class, then you can almost be assured that your exams will be multiple choice or some version of it, using a bubble sheet for the answers. Remember also that these exams can be a real pain in the neck to make out, so your prof is probably not particularly happy about the exam either, except to the extent that he or she doesn’t have to prepare a show just to keep you entertained and hopefully make you educated for 50 minutes. So the main objective is ease of grading and not necessarily evaluating your knowledge or understanding. A second objective is to separate students into groups based on class performance. That is, the prof needs some written evidence to support a decision to award some grade. Again, this second objective has little or nothing to do with your learning, but everything to do with your formal record in college.

(2) Remember that multiple choice tests are actually more exercises in reading than in whatever subject the class concerns.
Students tend to forget this principle, and as a result, end up losing points unnecessarily. So whatever course you’re taking, study it the same way you would a foreign language first, then deal with the subject matter itself. In other words, you have to know the words in order to understand the language. To illustrate this point, here are a couple of multiple choice questions from one of my recent exams. The subject is embryological development.

1. In Protostomia, you would expect (a) the blastopore to become the anus (b) the anus to become the blastopore (c) the mouth to become the blastopore (d) the blastopore to become the mouth (e) the mouth to develop from mesoderm.

2. In radially cleaving embryos (a) the fate of blastomeres is established in the first cell division (b) the fate of the blastopore is established by the 4-cell stage (c) the fate of blastomeres is not determined until at least after the first few cell divisions (d) the archenteron develops from mesoderm (e) none of these.

Now, here are the same questions but with the vocabulary words (foreign language of biology) replaced with gibberish:

1. In wnitlnlcy, you would expect (a) the xclapic to become the ipxhp (b) the nmnm to become the xclapic (c) the trtrtz to become the xclapic (d) the xclapic blastopore to become the trtrtz (e) the trtrtz to ghjklnm from cvbzoupwty.

2. In prritzx rucbwyx eicvbasms (a) the ewrt of hklwuciths is plknytxcvb in the first pgksl rycbnqtzx (b) the ewrt of the xclapic is plknytxcvb by the 4-pgksl wtxvnqm (c) the ewrt of hklwuciths is not etdsytpmlk until at least after the first few pgksl rycbnqtzxs (d) the tcbnsxuiqb ghjklnms from cvbzoupwty (e) none of these.

Obviously there is no way you’re going to be able to answer such questions, or even to guess intelligently, until you learn what those words mean and can use them in sentences in the same manner as does the writer of such questions.
There will be some classes in which multiple choice questions actually require that you solve a problem of some other kind in order to find the correct answer. Chemistry and physics courses are notorious for these kinds of questions. Depending on how long the exam is, such tests, and multiple choice tests in general, may place a real premium on the speed with which you work, regardless of your intelligence or preparation. This premium on speed is especially evident in large classes.

(3) Remember that often, if not usually, multiple choice questions are simply complete sentences that are either true or false.
In the above examples all you have to do is look at the introductory phrase and the answers to realize that each of the five answers, when combined with the introductory phrase, makes a complete sentence. Then all you have to decide is whether each complete sentence is either true or false (typically easier said than done). When introductory phrase + answer make a false sentence that fact is usually revealed by a key word or two.

(4) Key words are the key to answering multiple choice questions.
In the first of the above questions, “Prostomia” is the key word because the very definition of that term is choice (a). In the second of those questions, “radially” and “fate” are the two key words, leading immediately to choice (c). Even though the subject is biology in this case, the principles apply to almost every course in which multiple choice questions are given on exams. If you visit your prof after performing poorly on a multiple choice exam, chances are that he or she will pull out a copy of the exam and start through a few questions, circling key words in the process. Looking for key words is a way of learning to read such exams the same way your prof does.

(5) Try not to change correct answers to incorrect ones.
Every time I get a bubble sheet back from the graders, I see questions that students have changed from right to wrong. I’m not really sure why this change happens, but when I talk to these students, it seems like they’re trying to outguess me instead of dealing with the question itself. So my advice is to always read the question literally, and not try to guess what the prof might or might not have intended.
Only the most bored and sadistic profs try to devise trick questions or demand that you read their minds in order to answer correctly. The vast majority of profs are busy as hell, irritated because they have to make out an exam, and eager to get the test over so they can get back to this major ego trip called “lecturing.” So they’re not likely to waste time trying to make questions ambiguous and obscure psychic exercises, at least on purpose; most of them, however, are quite capable of writing such questions by accident or out of self-delusion, thinking they are perfectly clear.

(6) If you’re allowed to comment on questions, do it.
If you’re unsure about a particular answer or feel like a question is not a good one, then always (always!) make the comment in writing, using the phrase “I answered question with choice ___ because . . .” In most cases, you’ll get the question correct anyway because thinking through your reasons helps you with the rationale for choosing between options.

(7) Make sure you answer all the questions.
Again, this is a very simple rule, although some profs are very devious and try to design multiple choice tests that either penalize you for guessing or give you choices that specify two or more other choices. My advice is to avoid these profs if at all possible.

(8) Always, ALWAYS, keep your exams if allowed to, record the correct answers, and use these old exams to study for the final.
You’d be surprised at how many students ignore this obvious rule. Profs can be quite lazy and therefore use the same questions over and over again. I’ve often used the same test questions multiple times and even given students the questions in advance. Statistically, this behavior on my part makes little or no difference in class averages because so many students ignore my advice to study the questions before the test.

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