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multiple choice tests

Multiple choice tests may be a better learning tool than some educators believe.

Ask students whether they prefer multiple choice or more open-ended questions on their tests and most are likely to say the former.

But teachers, particularly at the college level, may not be so quick to agree. The ability for students to simply guess their way to a higher grade than might otherwise be the case is not exactly what some educators have in mind.

But a new study — co-authored by Jeffrey Webb, assistant professor of chemistry at Southern — suggests that multiple choice tests may offer students a more effective way to learn than previously believed. The study shows that in situations where students had an opportunity for a “second guess” on multiple choice tests, they have a much higher success rate in providing the correct answer than random chance would have it.

The study included nearly 1,500 chemistry students during a three-year period taking tests in which five potential answers were given. After an incorrect answer, a second attempt at answering the questions would generate a 25-percent success rate based simply on chance (one in four remaining options). But the study showed that students actually answered the questions correctly 44.9 percent of the time.

“It suggests that second chances at questions actually involved an informed response, rather than just pure guessing, at least among many students,” Webb says.

Webb says that science faculty, in particular, tend to be skeptical of multiple choice tests. “They tend to be used sparingly,” he says.

But the results show that multiple choice tests can be a good educational tool in situations in which students are given partial credit for correct second guesses, and when immediate feedback on their answers are provided, just as they were during the study, according to Webb.

The study was published in September 2015 by the Canadian Center of Science and Education. Other authors included former Southern student Jeremy Merrel, as well as University of New Haven faculty members Pier Cirillo and Pauline Schwartz — both faculty members at the University of New Haven.