09/17/2012 12:57 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2012

The Pitfalls of Multiple Choice

This post is co-authored with Michael Bergen

If given the option, most people would rather take a multiple choice test than one which requires free response. The conventional wisdom behind this is that multiple choice tests rely on recognition instead of the more complex cognitive function recall, and therefore the multiple choice test should be "easier." Indeed, Michael Watkins of Princeton University issued a psychology paper over forty years ago declaring recognition a more reliable memory function than recall since it only affords one opportunity for error (when matching one's memory to given items) instead of the two (retrieving specific information and then reporting it accurately) inherent in recall. As such, parents and students often conclude that although standardized tests may seem daunting in their scope and presentation, the fact that they are by and large multiple choice exams means the student can rely on the answer choices to help him or her through the test. Unfortunately, this reasoning is reductive and often detrimental to the student's score.

The main problem with the common approach to multiple choice tests is that it focuses attention on the possible answers instead of the given question. Sometimes students will use answer choices to bypass addressing the question directly. For example, if a student is intimidated by the form of a multiple choice math problem, he may resolve to plug in each answer choice hoping the solution will present itself. This can be an effective strategy, but it is commonly over-utilized. Simple algebraic or geometric processes often yield correct answers more efficiently than plugging in, which may not solve the problem at all. This is not to say that there is necessarily a single correct way to solve every problem; each student should know his or her personal strengths and call upon them liberally during standardized tests, but the reality is that the time constraints of these exams puts a hefty premium on speed and efficiency.

In other instances, attending to answer choices too quickly can cause the student to overlook what the question asks. The reading comprehension portions of standardized tests frequently feature detailed answer choices to complex questions about a verbose passage. For anyone, keeping all three of those in their cognition simultaneously is a challenge. Curiously, it is usually the question itself which receives the least attention. The student reads the question once, overlooking any nuance, and then proceeds back and forth between the cited passage and the answer choices. Students tend to pick answers which sound the most complex or sophisticated and will sometimes favor one answer before they refer back to the passage, subsequently falling victim to confirmation bias when they see a part of the passage germane to the choice they selected arbitrarily. Other students waffle between answer choices, repeatedly scanning the same selections of the passage and ultimately wasting valuable time. These issues manifest themselves differently in different students, but the uniting thread is that they are using the multiple choice format as a crutch.

While there is not a single appropriate technique for every standardized test question, students would generally benefit from taking multiple choice tests as though they were not multiple choice. This is best accomplished by using an approach known as answer anticipation. With answer anticipation, the student must supply an answer herself before determining which given answer best matches her own. In other words, it transforms these questions from pure recognition into recall of specific facts or processes to find the answer, then recognition of which choice corresponds to that answer. Of course there are questions on which this technique cannot be used (questions asking which answer is not like the others, e.g.), but answer anticipation forces students to pursue answers actively rather than eliminate choices haphazardly. While some argue that this approach is needlessly time-consuming, it ideally eliminates all wrong answers at once and prevents the student from losing time and points by second guessing. This is a technique that requires practice, discipline, and focus, but the reward is a more precise and accurate approach to multiple choice tests.