Education Quandary: 'Multiple-choice questions can be harder if a pupil reads the question carefully or has a deeper understanding. Surely this is wrong?'

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Hilary's advice

Ticking boxes is never a great way of testing anything but the most rudimentary understanding of a subject. And you don't have to look hard to find examples of multiple-choice questions that are ambiguous or confusing. In a recent ICT exam, for example, pupils were asked to tick one disadvantage of using a software package to work out a budget, over using a pencil and paper to do the same thing. They were given four possibilities: the formulae could be wrong; the wrong prices could be entered; a virus could corrupt the information; and multiple printouts could be produced. The right answer was, according to examiners, the virus one. But any pupil who stopped to think about it would have found it perfectly possible to argue a strong case for two of the items, and make some sort of case for the other two. Recent science and maths papers have thrown up similar problems. Although question setters work hard to eradicate ambiguity, it is almost impossible to reduce a complex world to single right answers except in narrow – or shallow – bands of knowledge.

These questions are very blunt instruments indeed, and it is no wonder that pupils who are tuned in to complexity and nuance have problems with them. Like so much of our exams and testing industry, the questions have far more to do with helping adults rank and sort children for their own ends than with deep learning.

Readers' advice

Exam candidates should be allowed to show their reasoning for their chosen answer. That way, even if their answer is not the one the examiner has identified, they can be given marks for their understanding of the subject matter.

Fay Edison, Essex

You are right to point out the limitations of some multiple-choice test questions – and this is to be deplored – but research has shown that such questions are a highly reliable and efficient way of testing a candidate's knowledge across a breadth of subject matter. The educators who set school exams are trained in the art of drafting clear questions with non-subjective answers, and questions go through further checks before making their way on to an exam paper. Any ambiguity that slips through is closely scrutinised to eradicate similar problems in the future.

Tony Williamson, Sheffield

I agree completely that such questions can tie intelligent children up in knots. My daughter often had problems because she could never believe that the answers were as easy as they seemed. She would turn questions around and around to try to find the "hidden" reasoning that would make a non-obvious answer the right choice. Her logic was often hair-raisingly convoluted, but it made its own sort of sense. Her form teacher always said she should be a barrister, but instead she went into teaching.

Ann McCue, Belfast

Next Week's Quandary

My 13-year-old son is a rap fan. I recently found him watching an utterly vile video on Dizzee Rascal's YouTube page. I also came across an extremely violent rap video showing people fighting. Do parents have any idea what their children look at on the internet, or what the effects might be on them?

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