It’s Time to Say Goodbye to Multiple Choice Tests

I admit it. I’ve assigned multiple choice questions before.

They are easy to produce and quick to grade. They seem to provide an objective, comparable measurement of student knowledge. And no one will criticize me for using them.

So why do I feel guilty?

Because when I use multiple choice for assessment, I know I am settling. It’s like shopping at Wal-Mart. I know it’s not good for me, store employees, or society as a whole.

But I can’t help myself. The system is in place. Society wants me to shop there.

So I do. It’s just so…convenient.

Multiple choice tests have been a staple of American education for almost a century. Concerned about the subjective judgement and large amounts of time associated with grading papers, Frederick J. Kelly developed a more efficient, objective testing method in 1914.

Professor Kelly’s creation was a product of the machine age. Multiple choice questions were “a dependable, uniform, easily replicated product— the assembly-line model of dependability and standardization.

There wasn’t much evidence that the multiple choice test was an accurate measure of what a child knew, but no one could deny the test’s efficiency.

America has grown out of the machine age and into a new economy defined by new technology and global connections. But in education, efficiency still reigns supreme. Often at the expense of effectiveness.

I’ve come to view multiple choice tests as the poster child for our outdated, mass-education system. They reward memorization of isolated facts and information, leaving little room for coherent thinking, logic, and individual style.

We can do better.

I know it will take more work. I know it will be uncomfortable. It could get us in trouble. But new technology makes it possible to support more imaginative assessments that are efficient and actually effective.

Multiple choice tests had a good run. Now let’s move on to something better.


  • Ash

    Hey Colin, nice post. I would agree that multiple choice test is not a great way to test what a student has learnt. However I feel that unless the education system is changed to modify how learning takes place, change in the test methods would not be very efficient or even practical.

  • Colin

    Ash, I certainly agree we need to change how learning takes place. The question is where to start. A lot of standardized tests use multiple choice, so individual instructors don’t have much control over that. But in the places we do have control, I feel like improving our methods of assessment will begin to reshape how we teach our students.

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  • I think carefully crafted Multiple Choice questions can challenge students and make them use higher order thinking skills. It’s efficiency makes it a practical test for teachers too. Sometimes we have to be practical too.

    It’s only when schools assess a student purely on pen and paper tests like multiple choice exams that makes assessment weak and outdated.