Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

Multiple Choice Question-based Examinations

Written by johnleemk on 12:16:36 pm Jun 4, 2007.

In response to my criticism of memorisation in Malaysian education, Say Lee writes:

There's a Chinese saying that it takes ten years to nurture a tree but a century to mold a generation. It would take much longer to break the mold, starting with the educators themselves. So the entrenched rote learning will linger on for years to come, certainty way beyond the present generation.

In my mind, tools/testing techniques are neutral. What impacts they would have depend on the ones who wield the tool or set the questions. Take for example, the multiple choice (aka objective) tests such as those used in SAT and GRE. Even the professional engineers (PE) examinations are no exception.

Properly structured, multiple choice questions can really test a taker's understanding of the subject, the finer differentiating details that lead to the preferred answer, not necessarily wrong under the most relaxed condition.

Education falls easily into the trap of the blind leading the blind. Unless the teaching profession, comprising the so-called engineers of the soul, is elevated beyond the present unhealthy regard as the employment of last resort, the status quo will remain.

It has certainly been amiss of me to so casually dismiss the case for evaluating students on an objective basis, following a multiple-choice answer scheme. There are of course benefits associated with this form of assessment.

The main one would seem to me to be objectivity. An answer is either right or wrong; there are no two ways about it. There is no room for disagreement over the grade a student should have received, while different examiners can give the same essay very different grades.

There is also the question of efficiency. It is many times more efficient to feed multiple choice answer sheets into a scanner than it is to manually mark exam scripts by hand.

And, as noted, if effort is taken to properly prepare the questions, a multiple choice examination can be just as testing for a critical mind as a subjective examination.

However, I think it is undeniable that the character of different examination methods will be inherently suited to evaluate one skill or another. An objective examination is unquestionably superior to a subjective paper in evaluating one's knowledge, while an essay-based exam has the edge in evaluating one's ability to use that knowledge.

This simple fact is quite obvious from the situation in any institution of higher learning — the main method of evaluation is almost invariably focused on subjective styles of questioning.

Another issue of course is that objective examinations poorly reflect the nature of the real world, where on most issues, the true answer lies in a range of grey, rather than being a simple black or white.

To a certain extent, objective examinations are brilliantly capable of assessing one's ability to use knowledge. The American SAT Reasoning test, with its critical reading portion, is, I think, very effective when it comes to gauging how far one can read a text and think about the information it presents.

But at a certain point, this advantage starts to fade. Preparing for the mathematics portion of the SAT, or even the higher mathematics SAT subject tests like Mathematics Level 2, can be done without actually mastering the concepts. This criticism can be applied to mathematics papers marked manually, of course, but to a lesser extent — a human examiner looking at one's workings will be able to tell to some extent whether you have understood and correctly applied the concepts in question.

And of course, some things are just ridiculous if evaluated objectively. The SAT writing portion is an excellent example; some grammatical structures acceptable in Commonwealth English are unacceptable in American English, and vice-versa. A computer cannot account for these subjective differences in evaluating your writing skills.

It is difficult to see how an objective examination can deeply probe one's ability to analyse our subjective, nuanced world. Intelligent, thinking people can read the same literary text, the same historical sources, and come to completely different conclusions.

An objective examination is obviously useful in some areas, and to get rid of it entirely would be a waste. But it should not be a main form of evaluation, especially not past the basic areas of learning. Once we have passed the stage of spelling words correctly and basic addition, to rely mainly on an objective form of evaluation is to do a disservice to the human mind.

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