Should we use auto-graded multiple-choice quizzes?


Assessment | Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Should we use auto-graded multiple-choice quizzes?

Scantron was one of the early auto-grading innovations. It cut your grading time down significantly. (Of course, there were those little plastic templates you could lay over bubble sheets, too.)

Then digital devices came to the classroom. This democratized auto-grading. Anyone with the devices could reap the rewards. Free tools like Flubaroo made the process even smoother.

Some of us jumped for joy when Google Forms quizzes integrated with Google Classroom. And when auto-grading became part of Google Forms quizzes. And when they announced locked mode for Google Forms quizzes.

Now, there are even more apps. Websites. Software from textbook companies.

If you want an auto-graded multiple-choice quiz, it’s there for the taking.

They’re quick and easy. But should we use them?

Or, more importantly, if we do use them, can we make them better?

In defense of the auto-graded quiz

On Twitter and in other education circles, you don’t have to scroll very far to find the tweets.

“If you can Google it, you shouldn’t ask it on a test!”

“We can do better than a multiple-choice quiz!”

I get what they’re saying. But I think it’s not quite that simple.

Multiple-choice quizzes and tests have their place. They’re good for a few things:

  • Super quick grading
  • Super quick feedback
  • Basic fact recall
  • Problem-solving practice (if questions are written well)

When you can’t grade and return student work quickly, auto-graded quizzes give students feedback in a more timely manner. (“Timely” is one of the seven keys to effective feedback.) Students may get more from an immediate auto-graded quiz than a complicated assignment that takes days — or even weeks! — to grade and return.

We can’t knock timely feedback. Auto-graded quizzes provide it.

Plus, they do give students repetition with new material. Research shows retrieval practice improves classroom learning.

Criticism of auto-graded quizzes

In the article I referenced above, there are seven keys to effective feedback:

  • Goal-referenced
  • Tangible and transparent
  • Actionable
  • User-friendly
  • Timely
  • Ongoing
  • Consistent

Some of those essentials — goal-referenced, transparent, user-friendly — get pretty murky with auto-graded quizzes.

There’s the cheating issue. Open a new tab. Search for the right answer using a search engine. Plug it in the quiz.

Of course, that line of thinking opens a new can of worms …

  • Google isn’t going anywhere. Is there value in finding accurate, relevant information through a search engine?
  • The cheating issue makes teachers want to lock down quiz apps or go offline with paper and pencil. But can’t we do better than simple fact recall? Shouldn’t we change our teaching practices to reflect our changing world?
  • What’s more valuable — the information students can call out of their brains or what they can do with it? Can we provide them with a better way to show what they know — and what they can do with it?

Plus, auto-graded quizzes are pretty limited.

  • They don’t support the 4 C’s — communication, collaboration, critical thinking, creativity.
  • Students can understand concepts, having learned a lot, but misunderstand a poorly-worded question.
  • Multiple-choice quizzes can be a game of “gotcha” — focusing on what students don’t know instead of demonstrating what they do know.

We could go on and on and on.

Should we use auto-graded quizzes?

Ultimately, that’s up to you to decide. They have their strengths and weaknesses. Make sure their strengths match up with your goals.

Do you want to check students’ recall and give them quick feedback? An auto-graded quiz can do that.

Do you want students to do “retrieval practice,” recalling information to boost their long-term memory? An auto-graded, “not for a grade in the gradebook” quiz can do that.

If you want students to apply the facts they’ve learned, an auto-graded quiz can make that very hard — especially in an authentic way.

Most of us want our students to do diverse types of learning. Relying on auto-graded quizzes won’t do that by itself.

Trying different types of assessments isn’t always an easy thing. There’s no concrete, foolproof way to do it. But we can design new ideas and try them. We can see what works and what doesn’t, iterating on the bad and hanging on to the good.

In the end, we pick the best tool for the job. We can’t do all of our jobs with this one tool — auto-graded quizzes — and we probably shouldn’t. But it is a tool we can use.

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