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01/14/2013

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Rob Gressis

In my experience, it seems to me that my undergraduates also prefer multiple choice exams to, say, short answer exams; this, despite the fact that they seem to do worse on multiple choice exams (I give partial credit for answers to short answer questions that are wrong but at least in the ballpark, but I don't give partial credit for wrong multiple choice answers).

My suspicion is that -- and this may sound insulting, but I mean it to apply not just to undergraduates, but to all people -- people don't like short answers or essays because you have to think more to write answers to those questions, and thinking is unpleasant. (I get the notion that thinking is unpleasant from Daniel Willingham, the cognitive scientist of education at the University of Virginia.) With multiple choice exams, the range of possible answers is presented in front of you, so the thinking you have to do is more constrained, whereas on short answer questions (and especially on essay questions) it's more wide-open.

Marcus Arvan

Moti (and Rob): I think it's important to pay attention to the way the question is worded. It is not at all surprising to me that students find multiple-choice exams more *comfortable* than other forms of assessment. But that is not the only relevant issue. In my student evaluations, many of my students express their sincere thanks that my classes are so difficult and *uncomfortable* -- as they think they learned far more than in their easier, more comfortable classes.

This brings me to a broader issue that I will probably write a post on shortly: namely, that I don't think many people give our students enough credit. I have consistently been warned, *everywhere* I've been, that students want to coast by on as little effort as possible. The problem is that I just haven't found this to be true.

My courses are very, very hard, with a lot of reading and a lot of writing. And initially, yes, early on in the semester, I often do receive some blow-back (students complaining that my courses are much harder than their other ones). Still, I've found that if I frankly explain to them why I'm so hard on them -- I always tell them "I am not here to make you happy; I am here to make you *better*" -- and provide them with opportunities to improve (I encourage paper rewrites), the vast majority of my students appreciate the challenge and discomfort by the end of the course.

I would also like to say that, at least in my experience, many students don't even seem to know that they want to be challenged until they actually have been. When I hand back the first drafts of term papers (which tend to be C's, D's, even F's), I always show my students a few short clips from The Karate Kid -- the clips where Mr. Miyagi is having Daniel wax his cars and paint his fence. Daniel, of course, gets pissed at Miyagi because he doesn't see the point of all his hard work. But when Miyagi shows him that his waxing and painting has taught him how to block punches and kicks (silly, I know), Daniel finally gets it. I've found the same is true of most students. They don't like being made uncomfortable at the *time* -- but if, by the end of the course, they *see* that they can write, and argue, far better than they did when they walked in the door, they tend to appreciate it.

Moti Mizrahi

Thanks for the comments, Rob and Marcus. I should say that by a "comfortable method of assessment" I mean a method of assessment that the student feels is one that allows him/her to showcase their skills and/or knowledge of the material. As you probably know, students often complain that they know the material and/or have mastery of the required skills, but they just can't demonstrate that in exam settings.

Anon87

I did my undergraduate in Australia where things are much more research orientated. Every philosophy class had as assessment: major essay, oral presentation, and participation. it was only when I went to Canada that I saw that short answer exams and MC as common place. This, of course, struck me as strange.

I also share some of Rob's suspicions that it may be less cognitively taxing, requiring less thinking. But I also share Marcus' point that students aren't given enough credit. I do, however, think it is important to make the distinction between people who are taking the course just to get credit, and consequently a degree, and those who are doing the course for the major. Those who are not in a philosophy major and doing a philosophy course may not want to be challenged, and simply wanted an easy course credit. One bit of advice that was given to me, which I think is great advice to keep in mind, is that you can't hold all students to your own standard. The fact is, you are where you are (either as a grad student, or professional philosopher) because you are above the curve and specifically look for the challenge. This is partially the reason why grad students and young professors tend to be the harder markers.

That being said, when I teach I refuse to make things easy for others just for the sake of it. There should be no 'bird courses.' My classes tend to be difficult, but I am very candid and blunt about this from the beginning and throughout the semester. I'm particularly unsympathetic to those who don't show up, read the material, and/or read the instructions/syllabus properly.

I think the results from the survey aren't that surprising. I do think, especially for courses from 2yr onwards, should have essays and/or oral presenations as major components. These are the skills one needs to do philosophy. These are also skills that can always be improved and refined. They are useful, not only if you go on to be an academic, but also for non-academic jobs. But the context of the course always needs to be taken into account. (--Short answer exams may be a better option to engage students then a long essay.)

Moti Mizrahi

Anon87: Could you elaborate on why you didn't find the results surprising? I, for one, found it rather surprising that undergrads seem to prefer multiple-choice exams in class to take-home essay exams. I would have thought that most students would rather work on essay questions at home than take an in-class exam with the pressure and time constraints that come with it.

Anon87

When I moved to Canada for my grad work I noticed that the academic culture seem to focus more on quantity. People took more classes, and always seemed to have exams around the corner (by the time mid-terms were done, final exams weren't that far behind in some cases). There was a culture of constant assessment, and as such, constant high level stress throughout the term. I think the results weren't that surprising because, for one, to take an in-class MC exam means you don't have to worry about extra time for exams during the exam session. Some students also probably think they wont have to study as much since they will be given a list of possible answers. And when this is out of the way, they can focus on their other classes. Thus, I think there is at least a perceived sense of less stress and less time-management skills needed for those kind of exams.

I think some students wouldn't like the take-home essay questions as much as MC exams because a take-home essay exam is an essay with a short deadline. This benefits some students if they leave their essays to the last minute anyway, not to mention the same quality as a long essay isn't expected. Time is still an issue, but they at least have time to breath and think a little. So while it isn't as preferred as an MC exam, it's at least a better alternative to a long essay.

I'm not sure if this reasoning is applicable to your context, but the results at least reinforce certain differences in academic culture that I noticed.

Melinda Osteen

It is absolutely true. Multiple choice exams are more preferable among students and they would rather order their essay at Papers Gear service than write it themselves.

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