Field Note Friday: Multiple Choice Hack

So standardized tests aren’t anyone’s favorite thing, but part of my philosophy of education is to take whatever I’m given and turn it into something that works into my plan. My master plan for the good of all students and the betterment of the human race and for world peace.

Or maybe just for learning to be better readers.  

Multiple Choice gets a bad rap. I know because I often give it one. However, I have found that by de-emphasizing the correct answer and instead emphasizing the thinking and reading skills needed to arrive at that answer, I can turn multiple choice questions into a handy critical thinking tool.

I’m still tweaking and analyzing this, but here’s what’s been happening in my room lately.

A few strategies for tackling multiple choice:

  1. Look for the “best” answer, not the “right” answer.  People who write standardized tests don’t speak in terms of “right” answers and “wrong” answers. Instead, they think in terms of the “answer” and the “distractors.” Some of the answer choices are there because the test writers know that a less capable reader might come to that conclusion. Therefore, more than one choice will seem probable to students.
  2. Think like a test writer.  Students aren’t just trying to answer the questions; they are trying to get at the psychology of people who create tests. I try to explain why a test writer would have included certain answer choices or even selected certain passages.  You can even have kids try to write their own multiple choice questions if you are that ambitious. I haven’t done that yet, but if you do, let me know how it goes.
  3. Approach the test like a game.  Think of the test or the test writer as a competitor. This is not between you and your intellectual abilities. This is between you and some other entity who is trying to stump you.

One activity to practice tackling multiple choice:

I divided my students into groups of 10-12. This is quite a bit larger than groups I normally do; I normally do groups of 6.  I felt like the larger groups were easier in terms of dividing my attention as there were fewer groups to visit with. However, the larger groups were more difficult for students as they sometimes couldn’t hear well and didn’t always keep up with the conversation.

On Day 1, the students worked through the poem, making as many notes as they could about the literary devices and trying to answer the questions we wrote together as a class.  

On Day 2, I gave the students the multiple choice questions and asked them to affix them in composition notebooks.  This took a little bit of time, but they enjoyed the language arts and crafts.  I asked the students to glue/tape the questions in their notebooks, leaving about half the page blank underneath the question.  

photo 4

After craft time, the students began working on the questions in the groups. These were the directions I gave them:

  1. Talk through the question and the answer choices. Define any words in the question or answer choices that you don’t understand or aren’t familiar with.  Write down any notes on the question in the notebook underneath the question itself.
  2. Come to a consensus as a group about the answer.  Don’t move on until everyone in the group feels like they understand how to answer the question.
  3. After everyone is comfortable with the answer, write a 1-2 sentence justification in the blank space underneath the question and any notes that were taken.  
  4. Move on to the next question.

On Day 3, we repeated the steps from Day 2. At the end of the class period, students turned in their notebooks. They will be given a grade for their notes and justification, not for how many questions they got right.

photo 2

Incidentally, I didn’t let groups turn in their notebooks UNTIL they had every question correct, even if I had to guide them to the correct answer. What I was interested in was how well they were able to think through the process and write a justification for their answers, not how many answers they could get correct.  Later, of course, we will spend time practicing individually, but the purpose of this exercise was to learn different ways to attack multiple choice questions, see how other students approach particular questions, and to see any problems that are occurring in their own reading processes.  

photo 3

Anyone else have any good strategies for helping students think critically about multiple choice questions?

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