Short Answer versus Multiple Choice Examination Questions for First Year Chemistry

Kathleen Mullen, Madeleine Schultz

Abstract


Multiple choice (MC) examinations are frequently used for the summative assessment of large classes because of their ease of marking and their perceived objectivity. However, traditional MC formats usually lead to a surface approach to learning, and do not allow students to demonstrate the depth of their knowledge or understanding. For these reasons, we have trialled the incorporation of short answer (SA) questions into the final examination of two first year chemistry units, alongside MC questions. Students’ overall marks were expected to improve, because they were able to obtain partial marks for the SA questions. Although large differences in some individual students’ performance in the two sections of their examinations were observed, most students received a similar percentage mark for their MC as for their SA sections and the overall mean scores were unchanged. In-depth analysis of all responses to a specific question, which was used previously as a MC question and in a subsequent semester in SA format, indicates that the SA format can have weaknesses due to marking inconsistencies that are absent for MC questions. However, inclusion of SA questions improved student scores on the MC section in one examination, indicating that their inclusion may lead to different study habits and deeper learning. We conclude that questions asked in SA format must be carefully chosen in order to optimise the use of marking resources, both financial and human, and questions asked in MC format should be very carefully checked by people trained in writing MC questions. These results, in conjunction with an analysis of the different examination formats used in first year chemistry units, have shaped a recommendation on how to reliably and cost-effectively assess first year chemistry, while encouraging higher order learning outcomes.

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