The merits of multiple choice

 6 April 2016

Feedback on the multiple choice questions (MCQs) we have produced as part of the CORE material has consistently been positive. But why do students – and lecturers – like them so much? Do they actually help students learn better, and teachers assess their students?

Dr. Parama Chaudhury (left) is a member of the CORE’s Teaching and Learning Committee – which means she helps come up with the resources we provide to support teachers in adopting and making the most of CORE. What was the motivation behind offering multiple choice quizzes? “We thought that since there was a lot of interesting and quite intense material in the book, an essential component of the teaching and learning material are MCQs which break up the material, but also provide a chance for students engaging in self-study to test their understanding of the preceding text.”

Coming up with multiple choice questions isn’t as easy as you might think, either. In fact, it takes some time to be sure a question is written correctly. “We tested out some earlier questions on our own students, our graduate teaching assistants, and in fact on our colleagues,” said Dr. Chaudhury. “We finalised the choice of questions only when we were satisfied that a question was clear, interesting and provided value-added to a learner.”

For the most part, the questions are appealing to students. At UCL, Dr. Chaudhury notes that students “like them a lot, particularly as they can get instant feedback, and they can find out why they got an answer wrong”.

stephen-wrightProfessor Stephen Wright, who teaches the CORE syllabus at Birkbeck, University of London, suggests that his students like testing their knowledge this way too. He has adapted the quizzes and put them online for students to do each week as optional coursework. “As time went on, more of the students did them,” he says, “by the end of the course, almost all of them were doing the quizzes.”

Research supports our feedback that MCQs do improve learning outcomes (and assessments) in many situations. “MCQs in the ebook are used to test knowledge, comprehension and application, and to provide immediate feedback to reinforce the correct answer with reasoning – and to give a clear explanation of why other answers are wrong” said Alvin Birdi, who leads CORE’s Teaching and Learning Committee. In addition, he notes that “MCQs administered and marked by teachers before lectures can provide important input to teaching and can provide valuable information about students’ learning”.

MCQs aren’t the only testing mechanism that CORE provides. Sometimes, students’ ability to synthesise and evaluate material is better developed and checked by their responses to longer-form answers. In that spirit, The Economy contains a large number of “Discuss” questions, specifically formulated to test the students’ ability to put together their learning across an entire unit, to apply it, and to evaluate the models and concepts they’ve just been studying. To better support those teaching CORE, our team is working on examples of model answers to those Discuss questions which we hope to make available for the forthcoming academic year.

If you have comments or feedback on the CORE syllabus or our ebook, The Economy, do get in touch with us at contact[at] If you’re a student or teacher of CORE and would like to share your experiences of the material – perhaps on our blog! – we’d love to hear from you.