Filling you in on short-answer tests

Multiple-choice, written answer, final project: There are many forms a students final can take, but one stands superior to them all.


Written finals test critical thinking rather than memorization and are beneficial for student’s overall grades. Multiple-choice tests are based on memorization while written answers are based on what you know and your ability to think critically. 


According to a study published by the Macrothink Institute, “an excellent critical thinker is able to use various and appropriate reasoning skills to analyze and solve a situation in the learning environment.”



The study notes that skills like these are learned, rather than innate. Students should strive to attain and professors should strive to instill these qualities. Written answer formats can help cultivate these abilities. 


According to studies, multiple-choice tests actually hinder a student’s ability to utilize critical thinking skills that many college students already struggle to develop. Answers that are synthesized can build these skills. 


In addition, multiple-choice tests can serve as an excuse for students to spend less time studying and can encourage the retention of misinformation. Studies published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology show that incorrect answers, when chosen during tests, can stick in a student’s memory even when a professor corrects them later. 


There are aspects of multiple-choice exams that are appealing. It takes a lot less brainpower to fill in a bubble and use a process of elimination to find an answer that has up to a 50% chance of being correct. Sometimes, looking at the correct answer in front of you can help jog your memory when you’re struggling to recall a concept. But there’s always that potential to be incorrect. 


With written answers, it is a matter of synthesizing what you know about a subject rather than your ability to cram data into your head. 


And if you don’t know all the details of an answer, you can put bits and pieces together. Even if you get a bad score, you can show that you know something about the question in front of you and even score some partial points. If you get something wrong on a multiple-choice test, you’re 100% wrong, even if you know a thing or two about the topic. 


This is especially beneficial for the self-confidence of test-takers. Partial points don’t make you feel like a complete failure. At least you have some grasp of these concepts, and there is room to grow. 


On top of this, partial points can be great for your grade. It is probably a safe assumption to say that students like myself have once or twice BSed their way through a short answer question while being unsure if they are completely correct or not. 


Partial credit shows there is no black and white as to what you should know and what is considered “right.” For most questions, there are multiple answers.


And unless you’ve completely checked out of a class, there are bound to be concepts that you have retained and can apply to your answer. (On a personal note, these were especially helpful to me in calculus, where partial points were my saving grace.)


Usually, professors are kind enough to see that there is some knowledge to your answer and will spare you that pity one-half point. And they’ll appreciate that you used some critical thinking to get your answer the way it is. 


So educators: Next time you’re formatting a test for students, consider that essay questions may take longer to grade but will add value to your student’s education overall. 

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