Thursday, April 27, 2017

Writing Plausible but Incorrect Multiple Choice Answers

It's time to write final exams and many of us are wracking our brains to come up with 3-4 incorrect answers for each multiple choice question. I actually enjoy writing exams, but I've talked to enough faculty who struggle to write plausible incorrect answers that I put together the tips below.

One unrelated suggestion for making multiple choice exams that better reflect your students' learning: if you give an exam on Moodle or some other teaching platforms, you can create multiple choice questions with more than one correct answer. Incorrect answers will lower the point total (otherwise students would just fill in every bubble), but unless students mark all the correct answers they won't get full credit. This gives them less than a 25% shot at guessing the right answer.

Onward to tips for writing plausible but incorrect multiple choice answers:

1) This is obvious, but the first step is to include any common misconceptions. For example, if students frequently confuse evolution in general with the process of natural selection in particular, then include a popular definition of natural selection as one of the options. (If you don't know and are curious, "a" is the correct answer in all of the examples below.)
Which of these is the definition of evolution?
                  a. change through time in allele frequencies in a population
                  b. survival of the fittest 
If there are multiple common misconceptions, include them all:
Which of these is the definition of evolution?
                  a. change through time in allele frequencies in a population
                  b. survival of the fittest 
                  c. progress toward better species
                  d. the improvement of the gene pool

2) Once I've added common misconceptions as answers (or if there aren't any for a particular question), I riff off of the main phrases in the question for plausible-sounding answers that are actually unrelated to the concepts being tested. For example:
What is the Complete Replacement theory of modern human origins?
                  a. Anatomically modern Homo sapiens sapiens originated in East Africa 200,000 years ago, then out-competed all other Middle Pleistocene hominins
                  b. Modern humans originated from the complete (or nearly complete) replacement of chimpanzee genes with new human genes
                  c. Modern humans originated when they exchanged (replaced) a reliance on instincts with learned, cultural behaviors
                 
These answers combine common misconceptions about human evolution (that we have no instincts, that we're 100% different from apes) with plausible meanings of the phrase "complete replacement". Note that the weasel-wording in choice b is what really makes that work. The whole "complete (or nearly complete)" just sounds so plausibly academic.

3) The alternative to #2 (or an addition, I suppose) is to make the wrong answers descriptions of the alternative theories taught. As so:
What is the Complete Replacement theory of modern human origins?
                  a. Anatomically modern Homo sapiens sapiens originated in East Africa 200,000 years ago, then out-competed all other Middle Pleistocene hominins 
                  b. Anatomically modern Homo sapiens sapiens evolved locally throughout the Old World, sharing traits between regions through extensive gene flow 
                  c. Anatomically modern Homo sapiens sapiens originated in East Africa 200,000 years ago, then reproduced with other Middle Pleistocene hominins in the Old World

4) Finally, if all else fails, I include one or more "big word". If a student doesn't really know the material, they may be tempted by an answer that sounds "fancy" or "scienc-y", even if it doesn't make sense. It's best if this is a vocabulary word they're supposed to know (two birds with one stone!) Similarly, a name they don't know (of a person or place) may seem plausible if they're uncertain. Some examples:

Which of these traits was found in Australopithecines compared to modern humans?
                  a. long arms relative to body size
                  b. encephalization 
                  c. holocene adaptations
                  d. reduced prognathism
                  e. glaciation cycles


Denisovans were:
                  a. fossils from the genus Homo found in Denisova, Siberia, whose DNA is found in some  modern humans
                  b. the discoveries of Piotr Denisov, whose research on pre-modern human skulls led to the discovery of Broca's area 
                  c. fossil Homo erectus specimens found at the site of St. Denis in southern France
                  d. a species related to Australopithecus afarensis named for their discoverer, Denis Ovans. 

What tricks do you use? Leave your tips in the comments, please!

No comments:

Post a Comment