Assessing Understanding with multiple-choice questions

The original 1988 National Curriculum couched learning achievement in terms of knowledge, understanding and evaluation (KUE), a cut-down version of Bloom’s Taxonomy. This remains, in my view, by far the most practical version for the working educator.

The easiest way to set up an assessment is via multiple-choice questions. Building the technology to serve and mark multiple choice tests is easy; most VLEs support it and there are plenty of free websites out there that will let you create and administer your own.

But what I’ve noticed looking at them, is that nearly always the authors have confined themselves to testing only knowledge (K). U and E are getting ignored, I suspect because teachers have not been trained how to write for these higher-order forms of learning attainment; perhaps because they believe it’s impossible.

So, how do you do it? Go back to your experience of the most informal form of assessment possible.

Imagine you are talking one-to-one with a young lad, and you want to know if he understands how a bicycle works. What might he say, spontaneously in conversation, that would convince you he really did understand?

How about

“it’s got two wheels, pedals, and a chain”

Perfectly correct, but scarcely indicative of understanding.


“The pedals make it go”

Hmm…linguistically, yes, that’s understanding. But it’s on a six year-old’s level; I wouldn’t accept it from a teenager.


“The pedals drive the wheel through the chain”

Yes! Clearly this person has a mental model of the functioning of a bicycle. Contrast the verb ‘to drive’ with ‘to go’ in the previous example. It’s more specific. The preposition ‘through’ indicates that he understands how two concepts are connected.

How do we translate this into multiple-choice format? Start by getting clear exactly what it is you want to assess. My aim statement will be “I want to know whether students correctly understand how the drive train of bicycle works” The foils should all be written as statements of understanding about the drive train.

Which of these correctly describes the drive train of a bicycle?

  • The pedals drive the wheel through the chain (correct)
  • The pedals drive the back wheel, and the front wheel steers
  • The wheel drives the pedals through the chain
  • The chain makes the pedals and the wheel go round

Note in passing that my aim statement contains the question “how?”, surely the key word for a U question, even though the stem of the question does not.

So, to summarise, to demonstrate understanding, a student should be able to

  • answer ‘how’ questions
  • correctly describe relationships
  • use, or correctly recognise, specific verbs rather than general ones
  • use or, correctly recognise, appropriate prepositions and conjunctions

Next post:
Evaluation questions


2 responses to “Assessing Understanding with multiple-choice questions”

  1. Very useful! As it takes some time to really get the questions right, the right thing to do is to group source! Get a group of teachers together and make write the questions together instead of burning the midnight oil on your own; evaluate and debate, which also form the basics for a just and correct evaluation of the students’ work, as you reach a common basic for evaluation. Much less work on each teacher, much fairer on the students.

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