Multiple choice quizzes help learning, especially with feedback

Posted by John Kleeman

I promised in an earlier blog entry to pass on my understanding of research in educational psychology about the unmediated or direct benefits of questioning, i.e., how answering questions helps people learn. I’ve recently read a 2008 paper by Butler and Roediger from the Memory Lab at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri (see here for the 2008 paper and here for a 2010 review paper including the graph below), which includes some fascinating information on how multiple choice quizzes directly aid learning.

The researchers divided students randomly into four groups as follows

  • Study a subject, no quiz
  • Study a subject, take a multiple choice quiz, no feedback
  • Study a subject, take a multiple choice quiz, feedback after each question
  • Study a subject, take a multiple choice quiz, feedback at the end of the quiz

They then tested all the groups a week later and got the results below.

Chart showing quizzes give better retention

As you can see, the students who had taken a quiz (or test as the authors describe it) got better results on average than those who hadn’t taken a quiz. This is expected due to the general principle that answering questions gives retrieval practice, which helps you to be able to recall things later and so helps learning.  This is similar to results I’ve blogged on elsewhere.

However, what is interesting on this study is that on multiple choice quizzes, there is the potential danger that students will choose the wrong answers and so think they have retrieved information which is in fact wrong. What this study showed was that if you give feedback on the quiz, then this improves learning further, as you can see in the graph above. Interestingly, although you might think that immediate feedback right after the question is best, this wasn’t the case in this example. Quizzes with feedback delayed until the end of the assessment gave better results than those with feedback after each question. The authors postulate that a slight gap in giving the feedback allows the incorrect concept to dissipate before the feedback is given and also gives spacing in time, which helps learning.

My summary of understanding from this research:

  • Giving a quiz after learning will help retention, as it gives recall practice
  • Giving feedback helps improve retention, particularly in multiple choice quizzes where there is a danger of learners choosing wrong answers and thinking they are right
  • Feedback is better at the end of the quiz, not after each question

For more information on the research, see Professor Roediger’s publications page at http://psych.wustl.edu/memory/publications/.

One interesting issue this raises is that it’s common in certification exams not to give feedback, to retain the confidentiality of the questions by not repeating them, and because certification aims at measuring rather than learning. What this research shows is that if you want to help your successful and failing candidates learn, then you could consider feedback in some form.

Here’s a question to allow you to practice retrieval on the subject of this blog:

Should you give feedback on multiple choice quizzes after each question or at the end of the assessment?

7 Responses to “Multiple choice quizzes help learning, especially with feedback”

  1. Hello John,

    Just wanted to let you know that I find your recent blog posts very instructive. They are short, clear and the message is backed up by scientific research. Very handy to refer to when discussing the benefits of e-assessments with somebody. Thanks and keep ‘m coming!

    Sander Schenk
    Rotterdam University
    The Netherlands

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  4. […] identifies that a change is in order. Their findings, related to information recall, indicate that “Quizzes with feedback delayed until the end of the assessment gave better results than those with… The article and its resources show that assessments which provide feedback get better learner end […]

  5. Thor May says:

    It is rather remarkable how little attention there has been to multiple choice as a learning mechanism, as opposed to a testing tool. That search is how I found this blog entry. For testing it is an easy option, machine programmable, which explains its popularity. Effectiveness in testing comes a poor last when human effort (by testers) is at stake… However, as a relatively ungifted language LEARNER, I find that multiple choice, especially with immediate feedback, is one of the best ways to lay down the first faint memory traces of a foreign language – traces which can be built upon more robustly later in other ways. At the moment I’m using an Android app’ for HSK Chinese (a bit like English TOEFL or IELTS) to do exactly that. It seems that the act of guessing, if necessary, and choosing, maintains attention in a way that, say, merely flipping through flashcards cannot. This process works best when the multiple choice is combined with a Leitner-type spaced learning algorithm to revise the choices which were made incorrectly.

  6. […] Kleeman, John (2010) Multiple choice quizzes help learning, especially with feedback. Question Mark(blog) @ http://blog.questionmark.com/multiple-choice-tests-help-learning-especially-with-feedback/comment-pa… […]

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