Reflecting on … workload-friendly, highly-informative multiple choice quizzes

By trying out in the classroom what has been recommended by others, I’ve come to see the power of multiple-choice quizzes to inform my teaching and provide me with rich data on my students’ progress.

There was a time when I would rarely have thought of using pure knowledge tests as a history teacher and would certainly have been highly sceptical of a multiple-choice quiz as an “easy” option.  I was aware of its use in the American education system as a tool for assessing historians, but inclined to be dismissive of its value.  I would not say that my position was well thought-through but, if asked, would have suggested that a substantial piece of writing was of considerably more value, testing both knowledge and deeper understanding.

In recent years I have come to question some long-held assumptions about the nature of knowledge acquisition.  One part of this journey has been the realisation that I can do more to break down the skills involved in becoming an historian and assess my students on different parts of the learning journey.  Thus an open-book essay (another tool I would never have used) can help them focus on building an effective argument with evidence appropriately deployed, whilst a multiple-choice test can help me to see the gaps in their knowledge that could be acting as a barrier to higher level thinking.

In experimenting with the use of such quizzes in class and for homework over the last few months I have discovered the following things about their use, all of which have surprised me and challenged my assumptions:

  • Multiple-choice quizzes can provide rich data, very, very quickly.

I was always sceptical about how much a multiple-choice quiz could tell me, especially as students had a decent chance of hitting upon the correct answer purely by accident.  However, I have discovered that well-designed quizzes can tell me a lot more than whether my students know a simple fact.  As with most assessments, the trick to getting good quality data out is careful planning.  As the old saying goes, “rubbish in, rubbish out.”  However, with a clear idea of what you want to achieve, a multiple choice quiz can yield a huge amount of information.  Take this question, as an example:

  Which were developments in policing after 1829?
Introduction of CID Turf scandal Police forces compulsory in all towns Introduction of Bow Street Runners

 

All of these answers had been discussed in class.  Nearly every student put introduction of CID correctly, which showed they had learned something.  Those who didn’t needed some support with the basic facts, which I was able to provide.  Those who put the turf scandal had generally remembered discussing it in lesson but were struggling with the concept of a “development”.  Those who didn’t put “compulsory in all towns” had missed a developmental step that I was worried I had run through too fast.  This was over half the class so after the assessment I retaught that part of the lesson going over it more carefully.  Those who put the “Bow Street Runners” might be clear on developments but uncertain on the chronology and key dates.

I was able to devise suitable follow-up activities for students which deepened their understanding and addressed misconceptions.  However, even more importantly, I was able to do so quickly.  Far from giving students a week or two to write an essay, aiming to turn it around within another week and then having to trek back to review the whole of policing, the multiple-choice quiz ran through the key concepts each lesson for 3 lessons whilst we deepened our understanding, addressed misconceptions and prepared for the essay.

  • The format of multiple-choice quizzes can be very flexible, allowing to test different categories of knowledge in different ways.

I have been delighted how easy it is to play with the format to test different types of knowledge.  At first I spent a lot of time trying to think of meaningful possible alternative answers to a 4-per-question format.  However, the more I thought about what I was trying to test, the more I realised there was no one, single, approach that was needed.

Thus to test chronology I could use a tick-box approach:

  Match the Event/Person with the Correct Period.  Tick the period with which they are associated.
Saxon Norman Late Middle Ages Early Modern Industrial
Matthew Hopkins          
Heresy Laws          
Metropolitan Police          
Harrying of the North          
Bloody Code          

Or a sorting activity:

  Number these key events in the history of crime and punishment 1-5, with 1 being the earliest.
Introduction of the Bloody Code  
Creation of the Metropolitan Police Force  
Creation of the Bow Street Runners  
Introduction of the Forest Laws  
Abolition of Trial by Ordeal  

Reformatting information in different ways helped me to overcome the “were they lucky” question by repeating demands in new questions, and thus ensuring that students really were confident with the information they were called upon to deploy.

  • It is possible to test higher-order thinking skills as well as pure knowledge.

Reading various blogs around this convinced me to have a go at pushing the boundaries for this format of assessment.  Some simple tasks in lesson started to beget high-level discussion of great value to the students.  For example, in one A-level lesson we considered possible introductions to the source essay they had just written:

 

Which introduction?  Select which introduction you think would best begin this essay.

 

There is a long-standing historical debate about who was to blame for the split in the Liberal Party in 1916.  Some historians think that it was Asquith’s fault because he was a weak leader, nicknamed “Wait-and-See” Asquith.  Others think that it was Lloyd George because he plotted to become Prime Minister and took advantage of the war situation in 1916 to push Asquith out.  In this essay I am going to look at the sources and draw inferences from them to evaluate who was to blame for the split in the Liberal Party.

 

The collapse of Asquith’s premiership in 1916 created a rift in the Liberal Party that contributed to their terminal decline.  However, there is considerable debate over who was responsible with Asquith’s supporters attributing responsibility to Lloyd George.  They saw him as an untrustworthy, self-aggrandising manipulator who exploited Britain’s needs to fuel his own ambition.  Source C and B both express such opinions.  On the other hand, Lloyd George’s supporters saw him a saviour who decisively stepped in to rescue the country from a vacillating Prime Minister.  Source D makes this case, and A similarly highlights weaknesses with Asquith’s leadership.

 

 

By late 1916 the war looked as if it was going badly for Britain.  The Battle of the Somme had been costly in terms both of lives and ordnance and had severely damaged Britain’s morale.  Asquith himself was devastated. Lloyd George proposed a solution in which he assumed responsibility for the management of the war through a small war cabinet with extensive powers.  However, when Asquith rejected this his government fell and Lloyd George became Prime Minister of the Coalition in December 1916.

 

This was a new approach to me inspired by Loboworth’s blog (https://lobworth.com/2017/10/21/so-thats-what-you-mean-miss-sourcework-and-multiple-choice-statements/) and I was delighted with the rich discussion it produced and the deeper understanding of how to write an introduction my pupils showed in their next essay.  The approach combined modelling with discussion, enabled students to self-assess their own written work and helped me to better understand why they were struggling and the misconceptions they had about introductions.

  • Multiple-choice quizzes divert workload from marking to planning.

I am not yet sure whether this assessment tool is saving me work as to obtain rich data requires careful planning and I am still experimenting.  Like most things, I expect they will become easier to write with time. At the very least, I have already been able to re-use some quizzes (e.g. as revision, or when students have needed to improve) and will now have them safely stored for the future.  Even if not directly saving me time, it is certainly diverting it from marking an activity to planning it.  There are lots of reasons that I feel this is where my efforts belong that I will not explore at length here, but what I will say is that, once in, a multiple-choice quiz is very easy to mark and allow for data comparison.  I have long been a fan of whole-class feedback, used appropriately, and in many ways this acts in a similar way.

Another thing that helps with the workload is the sheer number of easy-to-use tools available to help with these.  Our school uses Show-My-Homework which allows me to set a multiple-choice quiz for my class, set a number of attempts they can take to get it right (redoing the whole quiz each time: retrieval practice) and then gives me the data on how the class did, how each individual did and which questions they struggled on.  Instead of wading through a pile of essays I am therefore able to focus my energies on comparing patterns across the class and devising strategies to respond to misconceptions whilst making students correct their errors and learn missing information.

Questions I have reflected on to help me devise worthwhile assessment for my students:

  • What is the key information I need to know about their learning and understanding at this point?
  • What is the simplest way of obtaining that information about the whole class? What will different possible outcomes tell me?
  • What am I going to do with this information when I receive it? How will I address issues that it illustrates in my next lesson?

For further reading on assessment I would recommend:

Christodoulou, D and Wiliam, D, Making Good Progress?  The Future of Assessment for Learning, (2017)

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