By Dr. Gary Deel, Ph.D., J.D.
Faculty Director, School of Business, American Public University
This is the first article in a three-part series about quantitative assessments for graduate students.
Many universities frown upon the use of quantitative assessments in graduate programs. Instead, most graduate coursework relies on the use of essays and short-answer questions for assessing student understanding and proficiency.
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This trend is based on the assumption that quantitative assessments are inherently less rigorous than a test which requires students to synthesize their responses in the abstract without the prompting of choices. Quantitative assessments include true/false questions, multiple choice questions, matching questions, and any other kinds of questions with categorical, ordinal, or numerical predetermined responses.
In certain contexts, this assumption about quantitative assessments might be true. For students, it can sometimes be easier to answer questions when pre-established choices allow for the kind of deductive reasoning that would make much quicker work of a test.
For example, suppose an exam question asks “Why is the ocean blue?” If answers are provided in a multiple-choice format allow for easy filtering and elimination, then this question could become a lot less challenging than if you had to write out an explanation.
Let’s say the answer choices provided to graduate students are:
A) Because the blue color allows coral to grow.
B) Because the ocean reflects the blue color from the sky.
C) Because water molecules scatter blue light more than other colors in the visible spectrum.
D) Because God decided on blue.
In this example, we can dismiss option D right away as obviously wrong. We can also easily dismiss option A after thinking just a little bit about the premise and realizing that the needs of life on our planet are shaped by the circumstances of the environment and not the other way around.
That line of reasoning leaves us with answers B and C. Even if a student had no idea which was the correct answer, he or she would at least have a 50 percent chance of answering correctly with a blind guess. And 50 percent odds would obviously be better than the odds afforded to the same student who was not given the assistance of answer choices.
Unfortunately, multiple-choice questions are commonly written in this simplistic way. As a result, tests can prove subpar in their levels of challenge to students.
Multiple-Choice Questions in Quantitative Assessments Can Be Made More Challenging
But subpar tests don’t have to remain that way. Multiple-choice questions can be as challenging as free-form answer questions, and if written properly, even more so.
Don’t take my word for it. Ask any law school graduate or bar examinee.
When I went through law school, I was surprised to learn that significant portions of law school exams and state bar exams consist of multiple-choice questions. If any profession demands high levels of academic rigor from their students, surely it would be the practice of law.
Yet multiple-choice questions are an integral part of assessment for law school students and bar applicants. How is this situation possible?
At first, I thought this test format would make work in law school as easy as I had found a lot of my undergraduate work to be. After all, most of the assessments in undergraduate classes were multiple-choice questions, and I had no problem reasoning through them with a moderate level of studying.
I thought law school questions would render the same advantage. Boy, was I wrong.
In the second part of this article, I’ll discuss how law schools and state bar examiners create rigorous and challenging quantitative exam questions with the use of several key strategies.
About the Author
Dr. Gary Deel is a Faculty Director with the School of Business at American Public University. He holds a J.D. in Law and a Ph.D. in Hospitality/Business Management. Gary teaches human resources and employment law classes for American Public University, the University of Central Florida, Colorado State University and others.