The Lost Art of the Implausible Multiple Choice Distractor*

board-361516_960_720By Nick McDaniels

*Note: Implausible Multiple Choice Distractors are not an art nor are they lost.

Sometimes, well, all the time, really, we in education, take assessments too seriously.  We research and practice writing the most effective multiple choice (or is it selected response?) answers (alternatives?). We add trial questions for next year’s test to this year’s test and we make sure that our data is as accurate (marketable?) as possible.  Of course, by we, I mean the corporate ed-reform testing giants and those complicit in their acts.

I, however, a run-of-the-mill classroom teacher and one of the fortunate few who still has the ability to write his own assessments, often try to deviate from the standardized-assessment norm. In fact, I’d say I regularly deviate by a few standard deviations from the standardized-assessment norm. But just because I think that standardized-assessment, the endless wave of question stems and A through D alternatives, is one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse of good public education, doesn’t mean that I think that all multiple-choice questions are evil. In fact, I employ multiple choice on many of my in-class assessments. But that’s not what this post is about, really.

This post is about finding a way to use multiple-choice assessments in classrooms without triggering the multiple-choice test fatigue which has befallen our young people. I have not found a fool-proof solution to making my multiple choice tests seem less painful, boring, etc…. But I do regularly employ a cardinal sin of multiple choice alternative creation. I seize an opportunity for a play on words, a joke, etc… as a throw-away answer in almost every test I create. And students regularly start laughing during my quizzes. Enjoying a test? What? How could this be? Because, perhaps, I stopped taking my own tests so seriously?

In throwing away an answer every now and again, I am reducing my student’s chance of getting that one question wrong by 25%. I’m not really providing that much of an advantage am I, on a 20 question quiz?

I encourage you, as a teacher, to find a way to bring some joy back to assessments. You can do it! Here’s a corny example from my last Constitutional Law quiz:

Which Constitutional Clause was utilized by the Supreme Court to radically expand Congressional power during the 20th Century?

  1. Necessary and Proper
  2. Commerce
  3. Supremacy
  4. Santa

And when the first student reached this question of the quiz, his belly shook like a bowl full of jelly. Not really. But he did smile. That’s more joy than we see during most assessments. Lighten up. Have fun. And throw an answer to the wind every now and again; a Nobel Prize winner once said that the answers are blowin’ there, anyway.

 

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