Multiple Choice

How exactly does one use multiple choice and SBG/SBAR together?

a. Make a problem be worth a 4 or 1.

b. Make each answer to a question correspond to a 1-4.

c. You don’t. Multiple choice is evil.

I hadn’t even considered this until around November of this year when my first AP physics test was approaching. I like to format the classroom tests similar to the actual AP test, so that my students have exposure to the style of test that they can expect to encounter on that fateful Monday in May. So, I let the class know they could expect approximately 20 multiple choice questions on the test.

“Umm Mr. C…how are you going to grade those?”

“Uhhh…I hadn’t thought of that.”

How do you grade multiple choice in SBG? Traditionally, the problem is either right or wrong. That seems ridiculous. If I want to use these on formative assessments a student should be able to use her choice of answer to inform herself about what she does and does not understand about the topic. Sure, a 4 for a correct answer let’s her know she understood it, but a 1 for any of the other four choices on a question doesn’t fairly report the range of knowledge students display. She may have chosen the wrong answer with switched signs, while a classmate chose the answer that confused energy and momentum equations. Students need to know that difference from the feedback I give them. So, I can’t choose a in my question above.

Prior to this year, I would have chosen c. Sure, when I first started teaching, I used multiple choice for efficiency. After about two years, I realized that I could learn much more about what my students knew by phrasing the same problem as a short question. Requiring them to write a short description revealed what words they didn’t understand and which concepts were turned around in their heads. So, I swore off of multiple choice for the next few years, only making an exception for AP for the reasons outlined above.

This year though, I’m mentoring a new teacher in our school. Her and I have had a few conversations about multiple choice questions and how, when properly formatted, they can do all of those things I wanted from my short answers. This requires time and planning on my part, rather than just trying to find four other choices to slap on the page. Inspired by our discussions, I decided to try it first for a short quiz prior to the test. Each of the four incorrect choices to a problem were written to reveal a common mistake or misunderstanding. The more severe the misunderstanding, the lower the score.

I tried it out and I feel the results are mixed. When we went over the quiz in class, the mistakes students made were those that I had anticipated. However, I began wondering if this does what it set out. Without work being shown, a student may have just guessed the answer that corresponds to a 4. Additionally, I feel like I’m laying traps for my students to walk into by purposefully putting tempting answers that look close to the right one. “Ha! I knew you thought centripetal forces pointed outward!” I’m not sure how that sits with me. At the same time, I think that seeing physics questions in this format helps them score better on the AP test. Ultimately, I think I may just set up these multiple choice quizzes as test prep/review and not grade them. I’m lucky enough that my students will still take them seriously.



  1. I use multiple choice only on summative exams. While formative quizzes and assignments are meant to measure learning of skills and content, I use the exams (1/quarter) to only measure retention of that knowledge. I create them the same way as you (with common misconceptions in mind), but I do grade right/wrong.

  2. Someone who is better at statistics than I am should evaluate how many good four-choice multiple choice questions must be asked to achieve a statistically identical evaluation of student mastery of a standard compared to long-form questions and teacher scoring.

    1. @Jim – I’d love to see that analysis too.

      As the year progressed, I became less and less satisfied with the traditional MC and quickly moved to a MC/short answer combination. The traditional MC choice had to be supported with a brief explanation. I allowed the explanation to be graphical, a description or even short calculations. This satisfied my need to see the student’s reasoning without trying to predetermine their thoughts. And they still had practice with MC for the AP test.

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