Multiple Guess, the Carpe Diem Solution in Test Construction


Black Jug and Skull 1946 Pablo Picasso 1881-1973

Occasionally, when I head up to the science office to run my Scantron multiple choice sheets through the automatic grading machine, I detect among my colleagues looks of subtle disapproval, the facial equivalents of “tsk-tsk,” as if English teachers should use only short answer or essay questions to test their students.

Of course, any teacher worth the magnificent salary she receives knows that well-crafted multiple choice questions can test, not only factual information, but also provide a chance for students to employ critical thinking skills.

For example, there are 4 types of irony.

Verbal: Words convey the opposite of their literal meaning. E.g., “I can’t think of a mentor better suited to instill integrity than Roy Cohn.”

Dramatic: The reader knows more than the characters. E.g., “Darling, I have a wonderful surprise. I’ve just booked passage for two on the maiden voyage of the Titanic!”

Situational: Matters turn out the opposite of what one would imagine. E.g., You get fired from your teaching position and on the way home buy your very first lottery ticket that ends up being the Super Jackpot Powerball winner.

Morrisettean: (named for pop singer Alanis Morrisette) E.g., It rains on your wedding day. In other words, it isn’t ironic, any more ironic than a “fly in your chardonnay” or discovering the “man of your dreams,” whom you’ve just met, is already married.

Okay, I concede that if I constructed a multiple-choice test and merely provided those definitions of irony with the possible answers A. verbal, B. dramatic, etc., it would be pretty lame.

What you want is your students to recognize irony when they encounter it, not merely to be able to define it.

Here’s how I’d tackle a multiple-choice question on irony.

Rising junior Bennington has been obsessed with WWI aviation since he was ten. It’s always been his dream to see a Sopwith Camel in flight. For his 16th birthday, his father takes Bennington to the prestigious Paris Air Show.

Guess what?

Bennington actually sees a Sopwith Camel take off and land!

What type of irony does this example represent?

A. Verbal   B.   Dramatic     C. Situational         D. Morrisettean

The answer, of course, is D. There’s nothing unusual about seeing an antique airplane at a prestigious airshow.

You do, however, have to be careful and not have any shaded areas in the Venn diagram of your answers.

For example, which of these artists most obviously doesn’t fit.

A. Gertrude Stein

B. Hemingway

C. James Joyce

D. Picasso

Now this question is fraught with problems. All four were expatriates who hung out together in Paris during the Twenties. So who doesn’t most obviously fit?

Student (thinking): Stein was a novelist, Hemingway was a novelist, Joyce was a novelist, but Picasso was a painter, so it must be Picasso, but wait a minute, Dr. Crabapple might be trying to trick me because he’s led a barren, lonely existence.

Okay, Stein was an American, Hemingway was an American, Joyce was Irish, and Picasso Spanish, so that doesn’t work. Hey, English was the native language for all but Picasso. That seals it – D. Picasso!

[cue jarring game show buzzer]

Teacher: Dammit, fool. It’s Gertrude Stein. She’s a woman, the most obvious difference among the four is gender, not genre or nationality or language.

Student: She doesn’t look like a woman. Obviously, she identifies as a man! That’s not fair! That’s tricky!

Teacher: It might be unreasonable, but it’s not unfair. Every student got the identical question. If you had been the only person to get it, it would have been unfair.

Student (bursting into tears): Now I’ll never get into Harvard!

This absurd situation could have been avoided with a simple introductory phrase:

As far as genres go, which of these artists most obviously doesn’t fit.

As far as language goes, which of these artists most obviously doesn’t fit.

As far as gender sex goes, which of these artists most obviously doesn’t fit.

So don’t let your colleagues guilt you into punishing yourself by assessing long, rambling incoherent paragraphs that attempt to present the jumble of facts students remember about a topic.

Gather ye rosebuds, time’s winged chariot, down their carved names the raindrop plows, etc.

“Twelfth-Night (The King Drinks)” 1634-40 by David the Younger Teniers

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