Welcome again to The Teaching Workshop, where your questions related to pedagogy are answered. Each post features questions submitted by readers, with answers from others within the profession. Have a question? Send it to PhilTeacherWorkshop@gmail.com.
Question: I work at a reasonably large state school. My introductory classes have so many students that multiple choice exams are my only real choice. But multiple choice philosophy exams are horrible. They are extremely difficult. Students aren’t prepared for the sort of careful reading and thinking that are central to figuring out the right answer. Making the questions easier isn’t the answer—the only way to do that is to make them so easy that I’m no longer testing them on anything philosophically significant. I want to work with my students to help them develop their reading and critical thinking skills so that they’re better prepared for the exam. But I’m struggling to figure out what sorts of activities or projects can be useful. What can I do to help students develop the skills associated with reading multiple choice philosophy questions and picking the right answer?
Firstly, I was glad to see you recognized the challenge that multiple choice tests offer students. Rather than simply calling for “mere rote learning,” they can help students achieve clear understanding before they critique a theory. In a discipline such as philosophy, where we hear all too often,“There is no right or wrong answer, right?,” it can be important to convey to students that yes, there are right answers when it comes to whether you understand a philosopher’s claims and arguments, and a mastery of the basic ideas must precede reflective analysis.
Students often find these tests extremely challenging, so how can we help better prepare them? Here are some quick suggestions:
- Give frequent low-stakes quizzes that ask students to demonstrate that they know what a concept means or what a philosopher’s position is.
- Be sure to avoid assuming that students know words such as “objective,” “theism,” “argument,” “intrinsic,” etc. We live with these ideas, and too often the instructor assumes a basic vocabulary that is simply not there for many students. Here again, quizzes can help them see for themselves what they understand. Try pairing them up or having them work in groups to define key terms and explain important ideas.
- Consider using clickers as you lecture. Creating voting slides on a PowerPoint can engage students in paying attention and testing themselves on the reading and your lecture. You can go over a section of text or a theory and then put up some slides that ask them to choose the right answers. These votes can be anonymous, and students see immediately how they all voted. When wrong answers are chosen, you can give immediate feedback as to why they are mistaken.
- Be sure to go over multiple choice exams afterward and explain why an answer is right or wrong. You might consider giving them a do-over for an exam as a way to discourage them from simply giving up.
Try constructing a few comparable multiple choice questions for each of the chapters or sections of the material they are covering as they go along during the semester, possibly as part of students’ homework assignments. In addition, instructors should think about covering sample questions in a review session a week or so before the exam—even if it’s during the last week of classes (for a final exam).
Finally—and this is a bit tricky, I know—instructors should explain that while some questions might strike students as trick questions, really, what the questions are asking them to do is to demonstrate a mastery of complicated concepts in the material, as well as the ability to apply those concepts.
Take the following question (from critical reasoning) as an example:
- Which of the following may occur in a valid argument?
- true premises, true conclusion
- false premises, false conclusion
- false premises, true conclusion
- all of the above
Students must understand several things: the definition of “validity,” the relationship between the truth value of an argument’s premise(s) and conclusion and and its validity, and the scope of the question (“may” vs. “must” vs. “occur,” etc.).
In my experience, helping students prepare for multiple choice questions involves helping them understand logical operators. It’s hard for students to understand the available answers, especially when those answers have multiple parts.
Suppose this is a wrong answer: “A and B.” Let’s say A is false but B is true. Of course, that means the whole statement is false, but students have trouble with this move. Even when students thoroughly understand A’s and B’s truth values, they may not be comfortable with determining what this means for the statement as a whole. They might mark the answer correct just because they see B is true and don’t know what else to do with that information.
If you want students to be able to parse complicated answers like these, you will have to help train them to do so. Preparing for multiple choice questions involves practicing critical reading skills.
Note, “A and B” may seem like an overly simplified example, but even a conjunction like this can be extremely challenging for a student to parse during an exam. When stressed, one’s reasoning skills can sink very low. Many students need help with managing their emotions during an exam. We can’t really help them with this, but we can offer some advice. I like to remind my students that one of the best things they can do, when they confront a challenging question, is set theirs pencil down and take a deep breath. Help them develop their critical reading skills during in-class activities, and encourage them to find a calm mindset that will let them actually make use of those skills during the exam.
Suggested Additional Resources:
- Sterne, Jonathan, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Multiple Choice Exam Theory (Just In Time For The New Term), January 10th, 2013.
- Teaching Philosophy 101.
- Collins Peter, Examining Philosophy: “Choose the Best Answer,” Teaching Philosophy 16: 2, June 1993.
Do you have insights to add? Join the conversation in the comments below, or email us at PhilTeacherWorkshop@gmail.com. Remember, the best answers are constructive and specific.