How to Make the Most out of Multiple Choice Questions

Multiple choice questions. We’ve all had to take them. After all, they’re easy to grade. Run the scantrons through the scantron machine… 10 seconds/scantron later, you have a printout of what each student received on his/her individual test, as well as an itemized report of what percentage of students answered each question correctly. Multiple choice questions, when written correctly, can also be very rigorous. However, what multiple choice questions fail at, is illuminating student understandings and misunderstandings to help teachers guide their instruction.

Take a look at this multiple choice question, for example, from a released 5th grade science Texas state test:

The correct answer is A, a long neck, which helps the gazelle reach the leaves, twigs, flowers, and fruits on the trees. However, if a student gets this question right, I have no idea whether or not s/he truly went through the thought process of figuring out whether or not each characteristic actually helped the gazelle get food. For all I know, the student might have guessed.

At the same time, if a student gets this question incorrect, I have little idea why the student got it incorrect. S/he might have thought, well, the gazelle doesn’t look like it has a long neck or tan fur, so those can’t be the correct answer. The gazelle does have curved horns though, so I’ll choose C. This student didn’t really understand the thought process s/he should have used to find the correct answer, which requires critical thinking as to how different characteristics may help with an animal’s survival.

But now compare the previous student to a final student who thinks, well, the gazelle doesn’t look like it has a long neck or tan for, so those can’t be the correct answer. The gazelle does have curved horns, though, which it might use to knock fruits off of the trees, so the correct answer must be C. This student used the correct thought process but reached an incorrect conclusion.

Each of these students need different instruction to help them be successful on the next TAKS question that asks about animal characteristics, but, their answers to the multiple choice question alone do not give sufficient information on how to support them.

Enter, the UXE (pronounced “ook-xi”) method.

In the UXE method, students underline the important parts of a question, x -out the incorrect answers, and explain their thinking for multiple choice questions. By doing this for each multiple choice question, they not only prevent themselves from making careless mistakes, they also put their thinking down on paper so that I can return to their tests to see why they chose the answers they did. Tada, I now have both the convenience of scoring a multiple choice test and the illumination of student thinking that I would get with a harder-to-grade short answer test.

The best part about the UXE method is that it’s super easy to get the students invested. All you have to do is explain in a conspiratorial whisper, “Scientists, we know our goal is to grow as scientists, to grow 20+ points on the test, but did you know that the test makers are out to trick you? Yeah, they purposely put all sorts of tricky answers on their tests to try to TRAP you into choosing the wrong answer. But, guess what, we have a secret method to BEAT them at their own game. That method, is called the UXE method. Using the UXE method, you’ll be able to X-OUT all of their tricky answers and EXPLAIN how you knew it was a trick. You’ll be so smart, that they wouldn’t know what to do. Are you ready to learn this super secret way of beating the test makers? Are you ready to learn the UXE Method?”

99% of your students at this point will shout out, “Yeah!”

Ways of using the UXE method include:

  • On a state test style question as a warm-up exercise at the beginning of each class. These state test style questions can be aligned with your lesson objective for the day, or be part of spiraled objectives that you’ve taught before.
  • On tests and quizzes
  • As test correction homework to help your students challenge their own thinking and root out their own misunderstanding

My students loved this method so much that they asked, “Ms. Chang, Ms. Chang, can we use UXE for our other tests, too?”

The UXE Method for Test Taking Success – The student handout I used to introduce them to the UXE Method.
Image from The UXE Method for Test Taking Success:

3 Comments Add yours

  1. Kelly Lack says:

    The UXE method sounds like a great idea, and one that will prove helpful as the students grow older and so get hit with more standardized tests. The seemingly plausible alternative answers (which the test makers are so fond of including) will force the students to be more careful readers; by breaking down the process for them into concrete steps, UXE enables students to better differentiate between the different answers. UXE also is helpful in that by going beyond the process of elimination and requiring students to explain why they are choosing to eliminate the other answers, it makes students aware of common mistakes they might be tempted to make (and why those mistakes are just that–mistakes), and in a way allows the students to re-teach themselves the reasoning behind their answer choice.

    Great job, Deborah!

  2. Anu says:

    Sounds great for standardized testing; we basically do the same thing for SAT prep, though not so explicitly. When I tutor my students, I get them into the habit of justifying their answers to me (and to themselves when they’re doing they’re homework), and we always emphasize elimination, elimination, elimination!

    When I saw the title of this post, I thought it would be about designing multiple choice exams. Any thoughts on that? In Teacher Prep, we talked about how you can effectively design multiple choice questions so that you can tell what was wrong with the student’s thought process based on which answer they chose. Maybe to students it will seem like a “tricky” question, because you’re trying to guess what mistakes they’ll make and catch them, but it can also be informative for the teacher. But, as you point out, it doesn’t show you the variety of ways in which students can solve problems, and it doesn’t eliminate false positives.

    Do you ever design your own multiple choice exams to give to students, or do you avoid doing that so you can see their whole thought process on paper?

    1. debryc says:

      I design my multiple choice questions most times, and yes, I make a point to write choices that align with common student misunderstandings. The powerful thing about UXE is that when confronted with their own misunderstandings and explanations, students are more able to root out their misunderstandings.

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