There is, of course, a solid rationale behind using multiple choice questions in educational materials designed to 'measure' what students 'know'. Actually, the description that accompanies the image above on Flickr is a reasonably good summary of some of the most important issues multiple choice questions address.
Over many years in education as a teacher and materials writer, I've used more than my fair share of multiple choice questions. It's what many teachers expect. My Boost! series has thousands of them (especially in the reading and grammar strands). I have folders with hundreds of tests I've designed for schools over the years, and multiple choice is a mainstay of the overall approach in many of them. An online reading program I acted as consultant to specifically asked me to format comprehension questions predominantly in mutliple choice format. The relationship with that company petered out when I refused to make the so-called writing section of their program all pre-set and multiple choice...
However, looking over some recent projects I've been involved in, I am seeing a huge demise in multiple choice questions. My online Trade-Lit program uses them very sparingly indeed, and mostly as a way to mix up the task work a little. I've been working on an online reading program for the English Raven site, and looking over the initial design I realised there are almost no multiple choice applications at all.
I've come to the realisation that they are just a very second rate means of facilitating and checking comprehension and critical thinking, no matter how scientifically you look at and apply them. They can never compare to short answer and open-ended questions, and reliance on them seriously blinds a teacher to what is really going on in students' heads and how to best address their cognitive and learning needs.
Admittedly, there is an exception to this rule: when students create their own multiple choice questions in response to a task or text. This can be a wonderful way for them to really think their way through content, analyse it and learn at a deeper level. But clearly this is a very different application we are talking about.
I also don't entirely subscribe to the view that pre-provided multiple choice questions save time for teachers. Sure, it can be much quicker to mark a test or task using multiple choice. But is that our job? Just marking tests? Allocating scores? I'm under the impression (and feel free to correct me if you disagree) that our job is to educate and really get to know what our students need in the way of strategies and tasks. Multiple choice is a dangerously enticing shortcut across a corner of a forest for a park ranger whose job it (technically) is to know the overall forest rather more comprehensively.
And anyway, these days I find myself reading and marking those short answer and open-ended questions at a speed not all that much slower than the time needed to sort through multiple choice answers. The difference is that the former inform me a lot more and in the longer run I think this enhances my understanding of learners and my ability to help them progress. Compared to the multiple choice application, overall I think this is saving me time.
Those arguments of mine all might sound fine, but we all know multiple choice will remain with us. The reason for that is very simple. Multiple choice removes the time required for analysis and thinking. It speeds things up and makes it all more convenient. Time is money. Multiple choice saves time and therefore ensures certain stakeholders make more money.
Personally, I believe multiple choice questions epitomise the extent to which education has become industrialised in the pursuit of monetary profit. I also believe the extent to which teachers become addicted to it embodies--to some extent--how much we are losing out as well-rounded, receptive and generally aware educators.
Avoiding the multiple choice temptation for Trade-Lit is fine, because it is a small program made for a small group of teachers. However, I feel a little grim when I contemplate the English Raven online reading program prospect. Just what percentage of schools and teachers am I potentially missing out on by refusing to use multiple choice and auto-correct options (that is, by making a program that requires teachers to actually check and think about the students' responses)? Such a program still represents the opportunity for profit, in my opinion. Profit more of the learning and not monetary kind, perhaps. But still: mouths need to be fed (and not just in my kitchen) and it can be a hard ask to stick to your principles.
So what's your take on the multiple choice questions issue?