Multiple-Choice Tests and Student Learning

In a paper published in Current Directions in Psychological Science, Rutgers University researchers Arnold Glass and Neha Sinha review nine recent experimental studies that evaluate the effectiveness of distributed questioning (asking the same multiple-choice exam questions several times during the months leading up to the final exam) in improving student learning and long-term knowledge retention.  While most research about this subject was done in laboratory settings, the studies reviewed here used a course-embedded experimental design.  This not only provides more realistic experimental conditions, but also allows for within-student, within-item, counterbalanced experimental designs where course materials and exams are used as experimental treatments and measures.  Of the nine studies using this method, three were of middle-school courses; four were of college courses; and two were of training programs for medical residents.

The effects across studies show that:

  • a previous question increases short-term and long-term exam performance on the repeated questions
  • questioning distributed over 3 to 4 weeks of instruction increases long-term exam performance on both the repeated questions and novel related questions.  The increase in performance is significantly greater after two or more prior presentations of the question.
  • varied questioning increases generalization to a related question
  • distributed questioning with multiple-choice questions increases exam performance on related short-answer questions

The authors explain that a couple of theories have been proposed to explain these findings.  The first, based on a dual-system mammalian memory, suggests that "the memory system is designed to forget idiosyncratic events but retain routine events.  Consequently, the distributed repetition of the question is assumed to be a causal feature of its long-term retention."  The second theory posits that "social activity stimulated by clicker responses is more memorable than passive listening and solitary writing. [...] In addition, the social activity is supposed to raise the memorability of the entire lesson, not just the memorability of the questions and their answers."

Glass and Sinha conclude that "we are at the very beginning of an era in which surprising new findings will transform our understanding of how students learn."

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Frederique Laubepin

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