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Multiple-choice questions overrated: researcher

Posted by Samantha on Jun 24th, 2011 and filed under Gallery, Research, Researcher of the month, Top stories. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

Joe Engemann

Joe Engemann is helping teachers write better test questions.

It’s a device we remember from our younger years as we pored over pop quizzes.

Sometimes the answers were obvious. Often, one was “all of the above” or “none of the above.” Conventional wisdom told us that when in doubt, we should pick C.

But the multiple-choice question, with its firm role in our education system, might not be doing students or teachers any favours, says Joe Engemann, assistant professor in the Faculty of Education.

Engemann has studied the multiple-choice question to find that it is not always the best assessment of how much a student has learned. The “distractors” (wrong answers) are often obvious, the correct answers often written with eloquence and detail, and “all of the above” or “none of the above” are often employed. And when students circle one of four letters on a test page, it’s not necessarily indicative of how well they’ve processed the information, he said.

“Most multiple-choice questions are low-level questions,” he said. “They test for knowledge and knowledge only. If we focus on knowledge only, students will get to the university level without the ability to think and analyze.”

Engemann’s latest mission is to help teachers write more effective test questions. Questions that require students to think and analyze, such as the essay question, offer a better assessment of how much a student has learned, Engemann said.

“Teachers are well intentioned but through no fault of their own, they’re not giving assessment that is valid or reliable to the degree that it should be,” he said.

Engemann, who wrote Classroom assessment: concepts and applications with fellow professor Tiffany Gallagher, has taken what he has learned about assessment to the school system. This year, he facilitated a new workshop with teachers in the Halton Catholic District School Board regarding how to write questions that better assess what students have learned. Teachers then take what they’ve learned and teach it to other teachers.

“Teachers approach me later and say ‘This is what we need,’” he said. “It makes a difference in their day-to-day practice.”

Education is a lifelong passion for Engemann. He taught elementary school for 17 years in the former Lincoln County Catholic District School Board. He taught mostly Grade 7 and 8 math, science and physical education, and also taught in the board’s gifted program.

He entered academia because he had strong ideas about education, but found it hard to implement them as a teacher, he said. Now, his research makes it into schools across the province and impacts teachers’ daily lives.

He is a big advocate of mentorship. He founded the Brock Mentorship Program, which for 15 years has matched gifted students from Niagara high schools with Brock researchers for a semester of intensive learning. He also co-founded Bridging Our Worlds Through Science, which sees Aboriginal high school students from the Grand Erie District School Board spend two days participating in science activities at Brock.

He is also program chair for the assessment strand of the National Association for Research in Science Teaching, past president of the Canadian Association for Teacher Education and former program chair for the science education group of the American Educational Research Association.

In his spare time, he plays hockey and lacrosse, and coached both sports locally for 35 years.

Engemann also received a Brock University Advancement Fund research seed grant this year.

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