Objective tests

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Objective tests are questions whose answers are either correct or incorrect. They tend to be better at testing 'low order' thinking skills, such as memory, basic comprehension and perhaps application (of numerical procedures for example), and are often (though not necessarily always) best used for diagnostic assessment. However, this still affords a great variety of both textual and numerical question types including, but not limited to: calculations and mathematical derivations, MCQs, fill-in-the-blanks questions and short essay questions.

Advantages of objective tests

  • Marking of questions can be easily standardised and, in many situations, even automated.

  • Computer-aided assessment platforms exist for quantitative disciplines (such as Numbas, MapleTA and STACK) that can not only host numerical questions, but also symbolic and graphical questions.

  • Can reduce the marking workload involved, particularly on courses with large student cohorts, while still providing a reliable assessment method.

  • Allows teachers to quickly assess a broad range of topics and provide immediate and direct feedback to both students and staff.

Challenges of objective tests

  • Can be difficult to write successfully, requiring a great deal of time and effort.

  • Without computer-aided assessment platforms, feedback on such assessments can be severely curtailed

  • It is important to strike a balance between the use of objective tests and other forms of assessment if they are to be effective and accepted by the academic community.

  • A common issue that is raised or identified in the use of objective tests is that of guessing on the part of students.

How students might experience objective tests

Various studies have shown that objective tests exhibit a gender bias; for example, male students typically score higher than female students on objective tests in mathematics and science subjects (Anderson, 1989). As students tend to adopt different study strategies for different assessment methods, the use of objective tests may adversely affect the way students approach the subject. A balance of formats may therefore encourage a spread of revision approaches. Moreover, increased use of objective tests as a formative or diagnostic assessment tool does not necessarily lead to increased performance in summative assessments that are not objective test based (e.g. essay-based papers).

Reliability, validity, fairness and inclusivity of objective tests

When introducing objective tests for the first time, their overall weighting should not be too high, at least for the first few sittings, to allow refinement of the process. Submitting questions to widespread review by peers (particularly by teachers responsible for both the course to be examined and those that list it as a prerequisite) can help ensure their validity. As there is some evidence that suggests objective tests may favour some candidates over others (for example, in STEM disciplines), their use as an assessment tool should be balanced against other forms of assessment. Statistical analysis of exam results should also be performed periodically in order to identify potential biases in the examination.

How to maintain and ensure rigour in objective tests

If banks of questions are to be maintained (to allow for rotation of questions, and even randomisation within tests) then there should be a periodic review of these to ensure they remain relevant for the curriculum. Maintaining information about questions and their key topics (and potential difficulty level) in a database can help this quality review. Moreover, by linking student performance on individual questions to their final performance, some empirical insight may be gleaned into the efficacy of the question in assessing student performance, with weaker (non-indicative) questions being removed and replaced.

How to limit possible misconduct in objective tests

For paper-based objective tests, normal examination invigilator procedures should be a satisfactory deterrent against possible misconduct.  However, by their nature, online tests present a different set of challenges, in particular the problem of student collaboration and/or cheating. These may be addressed via technical solutions (for example limiting internet connectivity in computing labs to deter students from finding answers online).  Alternatively, one could allow for, and even incorporate, internet access in the design of questions itself (in a similar manner to allowing open book examinations).

Further resources

Jones, A. (1997) Setting objective tests, Journal of Geography in Higher Education, 21(1): 106-114


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