Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Alternatives to multiple choice science tests

I have blogged about alternatives to multiple choice reading comprehension tests and now I want to offer an alternative to multiple choice science tests.

For the most part, multiple choice science tests end up being glorified vocabulary exams. I'm not prepared to end a year's worth of class that was filled with cool experiments and thought provoking discussion with a vocabulary test that asks students to fill in bubbles.

For my grade 8 science final exam, I break from traditional exam format. Step 1: I provide the students with zero questions.

I have my students select a collection of science concepts that we studied through out the year and ask them to show their understanding. Here is a sample from Matthew:

Matthew Science

Here is a sample from the example that I created:

Teacher Exemplar

Because this project does not resemble the traditional rules of a final exam, I prefer to call it a project.

To complete this project, I have had my students typically use Microsoft Publisher, but keep in mind this project can be done on paper too. Here is a hand written sample from Stephanie's project:

Stephanie Science

Last year, my students did this project in the gym while seated in traditional rows of desks. I allowed them to bring in a folder of their clippings which could include things like pictures, diagrams and paragraph excerpts (the collection of these clippings serves as a very purposeful way of studying) I'm less interested in knowing if kids can draw the changes of state triangle or even recognize it, and more interested in knowing what they can do with that knowledge. Rather than wasting time drawing the diagram, I would rather they spend their time sharing with me what they think of changes of state. As you can see in Stephanie's sample above, she brought in a picture of erosion and paragraph on states of matter and then filled the page with her thoughts, ideas and understanding.
As a class, we decided that on its own cutting and pasting a picture or paragraph does not show much understanding. We agreed that for everything they paste on their project, they need to do something with it. This could include summarizing, explaining, sharing thoughts, feelings and opinions, making connections to other concepts, asking questions, telling stories, describing experiments, making metaphors, labelling diagrams, remembering field trips, etc.

Last year, Lizzie was the first to finish her project. She chose to write for just over an hour. Alex was the last student to finish writing - she chose to write for just over two hours. In contrast, the other students who were writing a 60 question multiple choice test were all done inside of 45 minutes, many were done inside of 30 minutes. On average, that's only 30 to 45 seconds per question...

On average, my students write for about 1.5 hours while showing their understanding for 10-20 concepts. When I gather feedback from students, I hear over and over again from them that this alternative to multiple choice tests, while less stressful, requires far more time and effort on their behalf while actually allowing them to show their learning. I've heard with my own ears students say to me, after writing for over an hour, that they actually had fun learning from this project. When was the last time you heard a student say that they had fun learning from a multiple choice exam?

A students love for showing their learning is not a fire we have to light, rather it is a flame we must be careful not to extinguish. Just as curiousity is the cure for boredom, the cure for curiosity is worksheets and multiple choice tests. Only after years of schooling does a kids thirst for sharing their learning dissipate and die.

If I were to stop now and ask if you had any questions, I would bet the farm you are all wondering how I assess this project.

If by assess you mean how do I calculate a mark or grade... then no, I don't. I've been with my students for 10 months. By the time this final project comes around, I already know all I need to know to assess their learning. And because I abolished grading from my classroom five years ago, I have no grades to average anyways. What we see with our eyes daily is more important than what students bubble in on one day of the year. To fully understand my perspective on grading, I suggest you take a look at this page of blog posts.

If by assess you mean how do I observe the students' learning... then yes, I do. I work with my students while always observing and listening to their learning. I don't labor over reducing their learning to a grade or a symbol - it's simply not a good use of my time. While it is true that this project cannot be ran through the bubblesheet machine, we must remember not to allow our misguided obsession with counting and measuring to narrow the kinds of learning opportunities we provide children, especially when it is easily arguable that the best kinds of learning are in fact immeasurable.

If we are to design authentic learning enviornments for students, we must resist the urge to alter our focus from the learner to the teacher too quickly. Asking how something might be properly assessed is not a bad question, but if it dominates our thinking, we may justify not providing students with projects that they would love to do and love to learn from, but hard on us to assess. If we are not mindful of all this, assessment, ironically, can become a sabateur of learning.

Remember that no project or exam is the end-all-be-all for assessment. Could you imagine the size and complexity of a project or exam that actually assessed all a student had learned in a year? It's important to remember that the best any project or exam can do is provide a sample of the student's learning at that particular time.

This alternative to multiple choice exams provides my students and me with a far more authentic sample of their learning. Next year, I plan on going even further and have my students actually perform a series of experiments or projects to exhibit their real learning. How will I assess that? I will work with my students while always observing or listening.

Remember, friends don't let friends grade, but they do let them learn.


Rachelle Science


  1. What a good idea! We are required to give MC Benchmark tests at the end of units. However, I always wonder what else students know. I plan to share this idea with other teachers in our building.

  2. @terri_science Here's my suggestion. Provide the test with large margins. Remove the left hand margin and double the size of the right hand margin. Then ask kids to show their thinking (similar to how I do it on my alternatives to reading comprehension M/C tests.

    Have them also fill out the bubble sheet. Then ask parents, administrators, students and colleagues to pick which one they find more helpful in gauging the kids' learning.

    Also, compare the high and low scores to the kinds of sophisticated or shallow thinking they exhibit in the margin. I bet many high scores equal shallower thinking and many low scores will equate to more creative and abstract thinking.

  3. Joe, I really enjoy eavesdropping in on your Blog and I am thankful for the discussions I get to see from both sides of the border! What a great international effort. Thank you for your openness.

    I do not administer MC tests to my students. But... I am also not completely dismissive of that scanning tool. The fact is that most teachers have far too little time -- especially at the end of a term. In my own reflections on it, I stumbled on to a use that closely resembles Page Keeley's formative assessment probes:

    1) Select a single concept or idea that you will build the question around.

    2) Provide a scenario. This can be a written description, a picture, or whatever you like.

    3) Provide targeted answer choices. Based on one's learning from curriculum topic study, one constructs answer choices each of which reflects a particular misconception or depth of understanding.

    This way, MC is no longer just a Vocabulary exam; rather, the answer choices inform you of the students' level of mastery. Just $0.02 USD to throw into the conversation.


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