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MCQ writing: a tricky business for students?

November 12, 2012 in Use cases

When I talk with colleagues about introducing PeerWise with their students they invariably ask, how can students write good questions when they’ve never done it before?

My answer to this has two parts; firstly, we are teaching students who are used to being examined. In the UK, for example, students take exams at 4/5, 7, 11, 14, 16, 17 and 18 as well as all the end of module/year tests they are required to take to show how well they are progressing. Now I may be wrong, but I would hazard a guess that some of these exams will involve multiple choice question elements? If this is so then I contend that these hugely examined students are very familiar with multiple choice style questions and many will know a poor one when they see it, even if they don’t know that they know it (more on this in a minute).

Secondly, we can share with our students the pitfalls of writing MCQs and how they can avoid them, as well as showing them examples of well written questions and explaining why this is so. Contrary to some people’s concern, this isn’t teaching our students how to cheat (although it might give them a distinct advantage if they are faced with badly written multiple choice questions in an exam, however that’s our look-out, not theirs) but instead it is about scaffolding students’ introduction to PeerWise in a way that allows them to concentrate on authoring correct and challenging questions, rather than getting caught up in the process of question writing.

To scaffold PeerWise to our students I gave them a one hour introductory session (a PDF of most of this session can be found here), using a short quiz (to engage students in thinking about what makes poor MCQs), examples of subject-specific bad, average and good questions (with explanations), screen shots of the software (to show them what PeerWise looks like) and some of the feedback from the year before.

These suggestions are not rocket science. However it is the quiz that seems to illuminate the basics of MCQ writing for many. Originally written by Phil Race and Roger Lewis, the quiz was introduced to me as part of an MCQ writing workshop for staff members by Nora Mogey. (Note: try as I might I am unable to find a reference for the quiz, BUT it came from these people and I am not claiming any ownership of the original!) The questions are written in nonsense English and, as you can see, at first glance the answers are not obvious. However if you relax, stop trying to figure them out and instead allow your brain to listen to your gut response, you are likely to reach the correct answers. This is when students discover that they know a poorly written MCQ when faced with one, even if they don’t know why, and even if at first glance they don’t understand, by the time we’ve been through the answers they groan with recognition, understanding and wry smiles! Then we show students bad, average and good subject-specific questions, and explain what we expect and why.

We also show students what their peers from the year before said about PeerWise, and use comments such as ‘all questions should be checked by a Professor’ and ‘the comments didn’t help me at all’ to explain why repository quality and relevance is their responsibility, constructive commenting is essential, and that each person’s effort impacts upon others. My experience with our students is that if we make our expectations clear, and provide them with good reasons for those expectations, our students rise to the challenge and are more than capable of writing MCQs that are at least as intricate and challenging as the best MCQs we can write on a good day.