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Posts Tagged ‘multiple choice test’

For no apparent reason, I recently remembered an odd thing from my childhood. One of my earliest memories is looking down in disbelief at my left hand, and wondering why everybody seemed to think that it was not as good as my right hand… I could not write yet, but I already knew that I was going to have to use my right hand for that purpose as well. There was no negotiation about it, I had been disciplined that the right hand was the only hand to eat with, to write with, to shake other right hands with. Even so, I kept coming back to my original question: why did nobody want to give my left hand a chance, why was everybody discriminating against it? I can remember the moment when I decided I that I would become a secret supporter of my left hand: I would comfort it when all the important assignments went to my right hand and then I would give it a chance to try them when nobody else was around. As I grew older, I realized that in several languages the word “right” was used to not only designate one of the sides, but to specifically indicate the correct or positive side, while the word “left” in many languages suggests something inapt, unlucky, even designates a strongly negative trait. For instance the Italians use “sinistra” (for left) from the Latin sinistr-, or sinister, unlucky, inauspicious.  How did it get to this point, but more importantly how does this predetermined, negative view of one of the two sides consciously or subconsciously affect the way we place judgments when it comes to anything that can be specifically related to one of the sides: of our body (our hand, our brain) or our thinking and actions? Is there a wrong way to think or do things? Why “take sides” anyway?

My secret persistent support for my left hand proved to be extremely useful to me several years later. My right hand had to be immobilized for a few months in a cast from its finger tips to the shoulder, after a basketball accident during my high school freshman year. I had to take a bunch of exams during that time, none of them a multiple choice test… My somewhat prepared left hand, emerged from its previous anonymity to legitimately take over the task of writing my exam essays, allowing me to not miss a beat. Even later, I learned that the left side of our body is controlled by the right side of our brain, which also happens to the center of our creativity, the one with the capacity to discern patterns, and make new connections. This further made me wonder: is the widely supported predominance of the right hand leading to a supremacy of the left brain thinking patterns?

Why am I writing about this? The constructive interference of my old memory, which couples my willingness to make use of my left hand (widely considered substandard) to write exam essays (right brain?), is now finally starting to make sense to me… Moving later in my educational journey to North America, I had briefly considered now and again the potential implications of the over-reliance of this educational system on the multiple choice type tests. I am not referring to the problems created by poorly written questions (e.g., ambiguous, or too obvious). I am questioning the reign of the principle itself: the correct solution has to come from a pre-set collection of choices, all provided for the picking. Do the multiple choice tests adequately measure the right brain creative problem solving ability? Maybe if you had forgotten or maybe never learned the correct answer, and you had to figure it out? Could be, but as many readily available materials, some displayed by websites, will eagerly teach you, the intellectual effort of finding the correct answer should focus on finding a fault in the question or the potential answer formulation, rather than on trying to find the answer based on making logical connections with the learned material or attempting to build a solution from scratch. One is advised to analyze the mismatch of the “superficial” features, e.g., does the answer match the grammatical construction of the question, or to consider whether some answer is just a decoy based on being overly restrictive or too different (or maybe appears to use jargon!!!) Yet another suggested technique is to basically game the system, either by literally using game theory reasoning (Ian Ayres writes: “Game theory is so powerful it can help you figure out the correct answer without even knowing what the question is.”) or to mindlessly select random answers which might just turn out to be right one and will bring you points. On other tests there is also some gain for leaving all blank answers or sometimes no penalty for giving the wrong answer…

What are the advantages and disadvantages of the “Multiple choice” examination system? The related entry from Wikipedia indicates that the main advantage compared to soliciting written answers is “a more comprehensive evaluation of the candidate’s extent of knowledge” (in the same amount of time).  I.e., the multiple choice test is convenient to administer and grade, and say some students easy to take. On the flip side, the consensus seems to be that the main disadvantages are losing some credits for partial answers or gaining some credit for random guesses. Personally I think that operating based on these principles and selecting year after year students mostly based on this type of test creates an enormous loss of an entirely different order of magnitude: the test does not teach the students to consider the possibility that… there just might be another/new, potentially better solution! Creativity and the creative don’t stand a chance! I am referring to people who might be able to “build” the correct answer, whether it might be the one known to the examiners as being the correct one or maybe a completely new answer. These people are weeded out of the system early or retrained to think in terms of memorizing pre-set answers, to find fault in the superficial formulation of the question or the answer, or simply to become champions at gaming the system. Along the way we lose the ability to assess and stimulate a lot of qualities that include organizing, processing, and articulating information and thoughts, and the ability to think outside of the box (literally, outside of those A, B, C, D choices). This post is getting too long, so I plan to come back with some considerations of the interplay between education/selection systems, fields of training, geography and potential generational differences.

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