…and B is for Believable (maybe), C is for Could-this-be-right, and D is for Dunno. Ah, the multiple choice question, the grim blade separating the triumphant from the disappointed, the admitted from the rejected. How did we come to base so many important decisions on someone’s bubble-blackening prowess? College teachers can honestly if somewhat immodestly acknowledge that most of us were standouts in this bizarre sport. We earned special cords and stoles for our academic regalia, Latin words on our diplomas and degrees, and sometimes $$$ toward the costs of those degrees just by being good at the game.
By contrast, many of our students are not “naturals” with a #2 pencil. While a few take to the Scan-tron sheet like Michael Phelps to water, more confront the admonition to “choose the best answer” feeling as I do when handed a golf club or a tennis racket: “You know, I am just not very good at this.” An old sports adage contends that you can’t coach speed. That may be true, but I’ve found that you can, in fact, coach multiple choice answer selection. We just need to let our students in on some of the secret strategies of test-taking which we mastered easily and intuitively. Long after my students have forgotten the 12 cranial nerves (sigh), they will remember how to beat a test question into submission. In the long run, that may prove to be one of the most important things that I have taught them, as it grants them admission to desired programs and helps them to succeed once admitted.
A host of resources are available to help students sharpen their test-taking skills. My college’s GEN 102 includes material on test-takings skills, and most colleges offer a similar course. Academic services at many colleges offer individualized coaching. Books and websites offering assistance abound. But, like the miracle potions in my cosmetic cabinet, the treatments only work when opened and applied, and therein lies the problem. A student already paddling madly to keep her head above water has no time, energy, or desire to practice test strategies. A potential solution: embed skills practice in our regular classes.
When I interrupt a lecture to display a multiple choice question and invite responses, I enhance students’ learning pleasure in several ways.
- First, the question comes as a mild surprise and focuses their attention on the material, moving them from passive to active learning.
- Second, if one of the potential choices is funny, they get a pleasant little dose of humor. This works especially well when the tickler option involves a class’s insider jokes…those little stories and silly moments that creep into every class if we allow them…thereby enhancing the sense of belonging to the group. Best of all, the tactic allows every student to feel the pleasure of meeting an achievable challenge and owning a skill that is of value.
I am exploring new ways to use this strategy. After displaying a question, I will often ask “Who can tell me one of the options that is wrong?” Less confident students may not wish to risk offering a correct response, but almost everyone can choose at least one blatantly wrong answer. After the incorrect response is indicated, I can ask, “Can someone tell me why it’s wrong?” More discussion and, I hope, learning. I typically use a marker on the white board to “X” the discarded response, modeling a behavior that I hope they can mimic on their own tests later. We continue in the same fashion, sometimes marking potentially correct options with a “?”, until we arrive at the best answer, which I mark with a big star.The real payoff comes when I ask “How did we get to the right answer?” We trace the application of the strategies that we have been learning.
- If two answers are directly contradictory, one of them is probably right.
- Treat each option as a true/false question.
- Beware the dread double negative.
- Take a good look at the longest question or the one with the most qualifiers. Since teachers don’t like to be challenged, we often try to close our own loopholes, rendering the correct response longer.
The last tip is known in all my classes as “Pedro’s Rule” in honor of a delightful student I had many terms ago. I had flashed a particularly gnarly question, and Pedro’s hand shot up before anyone else had read, much less digested, the question. After he answered correctly, I asked how he had responded so quickly. His reply; “It was the longest one!” Since I have shared his tactic with subsequent classes, Pedro’s Rule and its occasional exceptions have become part of our class culture.
I have also offered out-of-class sessions on multiple choice strategies. These sessions offer a chance to focus on more of the subtleties required to unravel challenging questions. A great source for structuring a program like this is available at Brigham Young University’s Counseling and Career site. For a list of great tips, click here. The site also supplies a list of entertaining practice tests on a variety of interesting topics, including Dating, Fashion, Harry Potter, and tarantulas. You can access these by clicking here. (Warning: These tests are addictive to multiple choice nerds!) Each question within these tests allows the learner to practice the strategies outlined on the first page and coaches them to the correct response.