Multiple choices on assessment

Is this letter from a) Gijsbert Stoet; b) the concept of envy; or c) Geoff Hurst in the 1966 World Cup Final?

I am worried about the lack of use of multiple-choice question (MCQ) exams in psychology assessments across the UK, both at undergraduate and master’s levels.

In many other countries (e.g. the Netherlands and the USA), as well as in other disciplines in the UK (e.g. medicine), the use of MCQs is extensive because of assessment advantages, such as: (1) MCQ exams have many questions, which means that the exams can cover the whole range of material covered; this encourages students to engage with all of the course material; (2) marking is a 100% reliable; (3) the relation between answers and grades is unambiguous; (4) there is, in principle, a realistic possibility of gaining the highest (but also lowest) grade.

MCQ exams are regularly criticised for the wrong reasons. For example, some argue that MCQs are too easy or that they do not require critical thinking. In fact, the ease of MCQ exams depends on the difficulty of the questions and scoring algorithm; a good MCQ exam has questions from a range of difficulty levels. Further, there is no reason why MCQs cannot tap into critical thinking skills. This is well illustrated by some of the most sophisticated and best designed international educational surveys using MCQs, such as the Programme for International Student Assessment.

My impression is that psychologists who want to use MCQ exams are often asked to justify their assessment method, whereas such a justification is never asked for essay-style exams. This is not only inconsistent, but also unfair, because the most popular exam type in UK psychology, the essay-style exam, has considerable shortcomings, including the lack of explicit criteria in marking, fluctuations in the markers’ attention and energy throughout the process, and the inherent advantage for those who have good verbal skills and can write fast (even though those skills in and of themselves are irrelevant to the examined subject). Further, essay-style exams rarely cover the full breadth of a module, which raises the question of how we can be certain graduates have the desired skills and knowledge.

There is no doubt that essay questions serve a good purpose, but no one should automatically assume that they are better or preferred over MCQ exams. In this respect, the UK can learn much from countries that use MCQ exams extensively and are also known for their high-quality psychological research and teaching.

Gijsbert Stoet
Professor in Psychology
Leeds Beckett University

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