Isolated Facts: The Standardized Multiple Choice Conundrum

Dr. Jonathan Adams is a psychology professor with a Ph.D. in developmental psychology. I am a high school teacher with some… ideas about the failures of standardized testing and its impact on what our students learn, as well as what they come to believe “learning” is. In this excerpt from episode 5 of ConverSapiens, we talk about unprepared college freshmen and the jaded standardized testing-based system that leads them to believe that knowledge is just a set of isolated facts.

At our alma mater, Samford University, a professor of psychology named Dr. Chew gives a presentation for incoming freshmen each year where he talks about the challenges they may face when transitioning to college classes. Dr. Chew emphasizes the word “metacognition,” arguing that those freshmen often bring to the table a high school metacognition that ultimately doesn’t work at the college level. What does he mean when he says that?

Metacognition refers to your ability to assess your own knowledge. Here’s how I demonstrate this for my students: I show a very, very bad American Idol audition. It’s one of the ones where the singer actually thinks that they’re really, really good, but they’re awful. I show that to my freshmen and when they’re done laughing at it I’ll say, “Okay, this is you right now, entering college!”

That may sound a little bit harsh, but then I dovetail into metacognition and this notion that the best students have an understanding of what they know and what they don’t know. Gaining that understanding doesn’t happen overnight. I think the best way to assess your own metacognition is to put your notes away when you’re studying and write down as much as you can remember. You want to simulate the environment you’ll be testing in or at least the demands of that test. If you’re just passively reading and rereading and rereading and hoping it sticks, it’s not going to work.

Dr. Chew points out that those freshmen with “high school metacognition” often believe that knowledge is a set of isolated facts. How do we get away from that isolated fact, multiple choice style “knowledge” to reach a more interconnected picture of knowledge? How do we get students to think about learning in a deeper, more complete way?

Well, it all depends on your learning objectives. If you want students to come out with a certain idea or a certain competency, you have to specify it in your learning objectives. And this is something that I, as a fledgling professor, am still learning how to do. But we have to dictate those learning outcomes and then devise ways to get students from where they are to those final outcomes. If interdisciplinary connectedness is not a part of your curriculum, then students are not going to develop that competency. So you have to intentionally make it a part of your curriculum.

Do you think, on the assessment side of it, there’s a way we can improve?

I think we’ve got to start doing more writing based assignments. We just have to. There’s something about writing that the multiple choice task cannot capture. It can’t do it. And the reason that writing is often not assigned is that it’s a lot tougher to grade. At the end of a long day of teaching, you’re exhausted and you don’t want to look at those papers. But we need to have more writing assignments. If that means that we’ve got to hire more teachers, then so be it.

I have always suspected that the multiple choice standardized test is partly at blame for that shallow understanding of knowledge as well.

So objectives, for educators at the middle and high school levels, are dictated by test outcomes. That’s why you saw that big scandal in Atlanta a few years ago where teachers were actually changing students test answers, because the funding was directly tied to the student’s performance on the tests. Well, if that’s the case, then the entire system is going to be centered around getting students to get good scores on those tests rather than focusing on actually imparting knowledge. As long as they get good scores on the test, that’s fine. Now, if the test measured what you wanted it to measure, that’d be totally fine. But if the test is not sufficiently capturing the outcomes that we want our students to reach, then we think really have to rethink this approach. There’s actually something kind of similar going on in universities right now. In universities, we are really, really tied to our student evaluations.

There’s a subset psychologists and a few ragtag professors from other disciplines who are part of a scholarship that is examining pedagogy as a science. They’ve determined that active learning strategies, (less lecture based, more hands on instruction) produces better learning outcomes. That’s what the science says, and it is literally to the point that some scholars say doing lectures is like a medical professional giving their patients ineffective treatment; it’s actually unethical!

If we’re talking about concepts being imparted, to me that just goes back to the entire testing structure. It’s what I see as the “big bad standardized test” but however you want to frame it, it’s a question of whether the students can actually do something useful with the concepts their learning. If you take a multiple choice test that is easily gamed by cramming, word recognition, and elimination, does that really indicate that you are able to manage those concepts we’re trying to teach?

I’m totally agreeing with you there. And you do see some modified multiple choice testing now, which tries to dive more into why students choose certain answers. It’s a really interesting approach. That way you can give students partial credit for thinking and being on the right track, but even if they can’t demonstrate that they understand the higher level concept, they can still get some credit.

But going back to what I started to say about student evaluations in the university, the downfall of active learning strategies is that students don’t like it as much. They’ve found that they don’t like it as much and they actually would rather be lectured because they see active learning as a waste of time. You’d be amazed just how many students see teaching as a product and a service, especially at the college level.

I feel like a skipping record here, but when you when you talk about the students not liking active learning, perhaps that also goes back to expectations that are based on those poorly designed assessments. For example, maybe in high school I had a science class and I knocked it out of the park. I got a 100 on every multiple choice test and I was able to function in a system where you just kind of sit, half-aware, in class for an hour and then cram the night before the test, take that test and select the right suggestions that are already made to you by the multiple choice format, make an easy A+ and forget it all by the next day.

Yep, that’s exactly right. And students think that past success is indicative of future success.

The whole thing is very frustrating. What do you say to a teacher who wants to cut through that madness and actually teach something? Let’s say they find themselves in a traditional, lecture based classroom but want to change. What are some things they could start doing to make that happen?

One thing that I would say is that we have to work on establishing a better school climate. So forging stronger relationships with our students and getting to know our students on a personal level is going to increase their connectedness to the school. It’s going to make them feel safer in school and encourage them to act out less. They’re more likely to enjoy school and succeed long term when you have that warmer school climate. Another suggestion is that we need a more diverse curriculum. When students are in a school that doesn’t teach about people who look like them, they’re going to disengage. They’re going to unplug. The students need to feel represented in the curriculum.

And finally, I would say this: I recently read this article that shook my mind as a teacher. The title and premise of it was How Did This Class Prepare You for the End of the World? The thesis of the article was that as educators, we are usually teaching our students to succeed and a preexisting world. We’re teaching students to succeed and the world that exists as it is, but that world is not going to exist as it is 20 years from now. We need to teach students to be prepared to address the challenges that lie ahead. Maybe we need to start teaching students more explicitly about climate change and environmental justice. We definitely need to start teaching students about anti-racism. We definitely need to start teaching students about women’s rights and LGBTQ rights. We need to prepare our students to make this world a better place.

I don’t mean to beat a dead horse, but I think we could achieve all of that more easily if we tried to step away that standardized, multiple choice, isolated facts understanding of “knowledge” and instead focused on teaching kids how to think so that they could work to solve whatever problems arise in their lifetimes.

Hear the full episode with Dr. Jonathan Adams on episode 5 of ConverSapiens! You can click the Listen Now! tab for links to the show on all podcasting platforms, or listen right here on our website.

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