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What is the Best way to Evaluate a Student’s Understanding: Multiple Choice or Short Answer?

There are several ways for an instructor to assess and grade their students. Between assignments and testing, teachers can gauge how and which students are comprehending the learning material. But which method is most effective?

The answer varies, depending on the subject matter and the students themselves. The key is to find which practice is most useful for your class and the materials you’re teaching.

Best assignments to gauge a student’s understanding

Assessing your students’ understanding is a necessary building block to level up students’ learning.

Instructors must set clear benchmarks to evaluate the progress students are making through the course material. Finding the best assignments for your class can be challenging but well worth the reward. So, which methods are best for evaluating students?

Written assignments

Essay writing is a traditional evaluation method, remaining one of the most common assignments we see today. Written assignments gauge a student’s understanding of the course material by requiring them to explain their argument or recount details fully. Essay writing is an excellent way for students to relay information and express their opinions on the subject matter. It provides a distinct separation between struggling students and students who have a clear and insightful perspective on the material.

The negatives of written assignments are that the student or the instructor can lose the exercise’s purpose. When an instructor grades a student’s essay, many of the grades deducted are from spelling and grammatical errors regardless of the course.

While students need to learn proper writing techniques, and fully grasp the written language, focus on grammar and spelling can detract from the overall goal of evaluating your student’s understanding of the material. As an instructor, you will find that many students dislike essay writing and prefer another evaluation form.

While it’s possible to assign different writing activities for spelling and grammar or concepts and discourse for non-language-based subjects, it may be possible to find an alternative method of evaluating your students.

Student thinking and studying

Creative assignments

With the evolution of technology comes the evolution of teaching. Whether it’s new education technology, distance education, or new technologies affecting subject matter, instructors must continuously evolve their content and teaching strategy. Traditional methods of teaching may no longer be useful in this modern age. Written assignments, multiple-choice questions and short-form answers might work for some students, but many prefer an alternative. Offering your students the option of creative assignments could be the proverbial evolutionary leap your course needs.

When assigning a creative project to your class, consider which media might best suit your students. What ages are your students? What is their access to materials or resources? If most of your students have access to smartphones, consider assigning spoken video presentations. If your students are remote learning and have access to a computer, perhaps create social media projects.

When creating the project outline for creative assignments, consider asking your students which medium works for them. Providing options and giving students choices will almost always yield a positive result.

Traditional exams and quizzes

Writing exams is the oldest form of evaluation we still practice today. Asking students curated questions on the course material can give instructors a clear picture of which students understood the material and which did not.

However, while the exam method is useful for traditional grading purposes, it may not be the best tool for improving your teaching skills. Experienced educators know that the fewer assessments a student completes, the less they absorb the class material and the less we can track their progress through the course. One solution to this problem is frequent tests to better chart students’ understanding through performance.

While instructors understand the value of exams, students often dread the experience. That’s why carefully crafting your test is imperative to your students’ success. Rather than assessing your students at the end of the course with one monstrous exam, test your students regularly. Weekly or bi-weekly quizzes on the course material, in an exam format, will prepare your students for the final exam. This method also provides better tracking of student progress through learning in the course and lessens the pressure and anxiety that invite academic integrity violations.

Student working on a diagram

Testing your students: Multiple choice questions vs. short answer questions

While exam writing has its merits, there’s controversy on which format is most effective: multiple-choice question types or short answer questions? The simple answer is both.

When crafting an exam for your class, you should use a mixture of multiple-choice answer tests and short answer questions. Here’s why:

  • Engaging questions: As many instructors and students know, exam writing can be mentally exhausting. To keep your exams engaging, use a mixture of multiple-choice questions and short answer questions. Multiple choice questions are often quick, gut-reactions, while short answer questions allow your students to detail their understanding.
  • Memory triggers and prompts: Most writers understand the importance of writing prompts; sometimes, open-ended questions leave too much room for distraction. When designing your exam, use a mix of multiple-choice questions and short answer questions to trigger your students’ memory and prompt them to explain their understanding. If a short answer question is placed directly after a multiple-choice question, the student is more likely to remember the crucial details they need to include in their answer.
  • Anxiety reduction: Many students suffer from exam anxiety. Traditional multiple-choice questions can often provoke anxiety in students who tend to overthink their answers or second-guess themselves. Alternating multiple choice questions and short answer questions can reduce stress for students, giving them equal opportunities for success.
  • Opportunities for explanation: As mentioned before, short answer questions are a good way for students to explain their understanding. While multiple-choice questions offer prompts, there’s a chance your students could be guessing their answers or misunderstanding the problem altogether. Short answer questions require students to explain their answers in detail or use higher-order thinking, which helps instructors gauge their students’ comprehension of the material.

While an exam question may only have one correct answer, there isn’t one right way to assess a student’s understanding. Instead, using a mixture of the methods we’ve described above will help you teach effectively and evaluate your class simultaneously.

Every student learns differently, which is why finding the best way to evaluate students will include some trial and error. Considering your students’ age demographic, creativity, and access to supplies when creating assignments and writing multiple-choice and essay questions will provide the best opportunities for them to apply what they’ve learned.

For exams, using multiple-choice questions and short answer questions on the same test effectively assesses students’ understanding and ability to explain their answer choice. Giving students the option to answer a multiple-choice question and then write a short answer on why they chose that option will benefit both you and the student.

For more articles on effective teaching and how to evaluate your students, read our blog!

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Crowdmark is the world’s premiere online grading and analytics platform, allowing educators to evaluate student assessments more effectively and securely than ever before. On average, educators experience up to a 75% productivity gain, providing students with prompt and formative feedback. This significantly enriches the learning and teaching experience for students and educators by transforming assessment into a dialogue for improvement.