A New Twist on the Multiple Choice Quiz

by James Mixon, Department of History

Ah, the multiple-choice quiz. An old stand-by for some instructors who love them not least because it can make grading so easy. For others, especially those in more narrative-intense disciplines like mine (history), they are problematic: names and dates and other “data” are only the beginning. What matters is what it all means, and that is best assessed through long-form writing.

Students love multiple choice quizzes and hate them, too. Some like that they can get a right answer and not fall victim to what seems like the subjective whims of an instructor. Others hate the high-stakes: there is no partial credit, no credit for the thought process, no grey area. You study hard (so you think), and still, the grade doesn’t quite reflect what you think you know.

Enter a new twist on the old game, one that Dr. Robyn Puffenbarger swears has improved student learning and understanding of deep concepts across the board in her biology courses at Bridgewater College:

A multiple-choice quiz that uses — wait for it — scratch-off tickets. Like a lottery, only the winning ticket leads not to cash, but to better understanding!

a multiple choice test

Here is how it works: First, you order the tickets from a company called Epstein Educational Enterprises. They are not terribly expensive, especially in large quantities ($90 for 500 ten-question tickets; $170 for 1,000). The tickets come with a preset answer for each question, so you just have to make your otherwise traditional quiz have the answers line up appropriately. In this case, question 1 is answer D.

Then, the fun part. Dr. Puffenbarger has her students take the quiz in the traditional way (7 minutes), weighing their individual score as 60% of the total. Next, students discuss which answer they think is correct (for 8 minutes, in pre-assigned groups). Each group then uses the scratch-off ticket to record their answer. Getting it right the first time — winning the lottery! — is 4 points. The second guess earns 3 points, and so on, down to zero. That number counts for 40% of the grade. So here our group would get a zero for question 2.

a multiple choice test

The result, Dr. Puffenbarger reports, is a marvelous balance: On the one hand, you have individual accountability and reward. Free-riders both fail their quizzes and are eventually exposed, while the quiet kids who always seem to be right earn good grades and become trusted voices. On the other hand, there’s collaborative, often intense and high-level discussion, even heated (if civil) disagreement, to say nothing of the shouts of agony and celebration as the groups scratch off each answer!

To be clear, Dr. Puffenbarger emphasized the importance of both flexibility — adapting the format our own needs, preferences, disciplines, and so on — as well as hard work in preparation and quiz design (blending old and new material, lower and higher-order questions and so on).

And here is why and how all of that is going to work for me: I usually cannot stand multiple-choice (what I call multiple-guess) quizzes in history. Beyond basic names, dates and other facts, the format does not force students to articulate deeper meanings and interpretation as efficiently as traditional narrative answers and essays. Yet these take so long to grade. But with this format, properly designed and deployed, students will first answer (or guess) on their own, and then have to articulate the deeper meanings — how or why they think a given answer is correct — and then convince others.

If the questions are crafted with proper sophistication and difficulty, Dr. Puffenbarger assures us, the resulting discussion is something far more engaging and complex than marking a letter and turning a quiz in for a grade. In fact, her own research suggests a range of ways that the scratch-off quiz promotes learning at many of the higher levels of Bloom’s taxonomy.

James Mixon is an associate professor in the Department of History. He recently participated in the 2018 Teaching Professor Conference in Atlanta, GA.