Multiple-choice trumps essays

St. Lawrence College Certificate Program

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Formal essays are not part of the evaluation for PSYC 100, which boasts an enrolment of 1,450 students.
Formal essays are not part of the evaluation for PSYC 100, which boasts an enrolment of 1,450 students.
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There’s something peculiar about the evaluation of essay questions in the largest course on campus.

“We don’t mark them as essays per se,” said Jill Atkinson, chair of undergraduate studies for psychology. “We’re not looking for style and prose.”

Since approximately 1,450 students are enroled in introductory psychology, an understanding of facts and theories takes precedent over critiquing an article or writing a formal essay during the course, Atkinson said.

“In an ideal world we could actually give [students] feedback about their essay writing skills and give them tips to improve,” Atkinson said.

But the evaluation within the first-year course is already too financially taxing to provide students with this improvement, Atkinson said.

“We still have four exams, but it’s expensive, it’s resource intensive to proctor and mark these exams because they’re not multiple-choice exams,” she said.

Students enrolled in the course write midterms in October and February and term finals in December and April.

The midterms use essay questions to evaluate understanding, while term finals employ a combination of multiple- choice and essay questions.

Like the majority of arts and science programs at the University, course enrolment in psychology decreases in upper years, and core courses thrive on discussions in smaller settings.

Psychology can be similar to other programs like classics and sociology for another reason as well.

A student looking for several opportunities to practice essay-writing skills—developing an opinion, constructing an argument and conducting research—is often denied the opportunity until fourth year.

“It’s really only in those seminar courses that students will be writing term papers where we can evaluate and provide feedback,” Atkinson said.

Neil Goodman, ArtSci ’07, said emphasis on multiple-choice questions and a lack of essay questions are good for people who memorize textbooks.

“It doesn’t give you a chance to express what you know in your own words,” he said.

Catherine Krull, undergraduate chair of sociology, told the Journal that the time allotted to grading projects geared toward critical thinking has decreased in her department.

“Much less time has to be given per assignment,” she said.

Krull also said exams that evaluate specific answers are becoming more popular than exams evaluating an argument.

Atkinson said the skills a student must develop in order to write a strong essay are not necessarily lost within a whirlwind of multiple-choice tests, short answer identifications and in-class tests.

She said a student could learn many of the necessary writing skills through reading.

“We expect that from all that exposure that students will have some essay writing skills,” Atkinson said. “But that is a problem.” “There are not enough opportunities to practice essay-writing early on,” she said.

Bob Crawford, dean of student affairs, said while he served the University as the arts and science associate dean of studies from 1985-1995, he was aware of several schools in the United States where course enrolment was affecting the method of evaluation.

“It was not atypical to go though an entire university career without writing essays,” he said.

While Atkinson said she believes a multiple-choice evaluation can be used for any subject within the Faculty of Arts and Science, she said multiple-choice is best used as one tool among several.

“I would never rely solely on multiple-choice because there are things that it does not do,” she said.

But Atkinson said she values the fine distinctions of multiple-

choice questions when she is assigning marks.

“If I have 25 students writing a term paper for me, I find it very hard as a marker to distinguish between an 84 or 85,” she said. “That’s because it’s more subjective, and that has problems inherent in it.”

Steph Mannone, ArtSci ’06, said relying on multiple choice would not work in her politics classes.

“It’s not all about facts in politics,” she said.

Stella Tsang, ArtSci ’07, agreed.

“It’s just too black and white,” Tsang said.

Crawford said it’s not a large problem if a student isn’t required to write formal essays in one credit of a 19 or 20 credit degree program.

“But I absolutely think it’s critical that the majority of an arts and science degree is devoted to reading and writing,” he said.

He used a section of the arts and science undergraduate calendar to highlight the importance of his point.

A selection from ‘To the Student’ reads “[T]he study of one’s own language—the habit of reflective and critical reading, and exercise in all types of writing, speaking and listening—is essential to the educated person.”

Like David Parker, who replaced formal essays for his Latin American history course with in-class written assignments, Atkinson said many problems associated with evaluating larger classes could be fixed with more money.

“But between the money and our ideal evaluation, you couldn’t just give us money right now and we could improve the evaluation,” Atkinson said.

“We don’t have the number of grad students or faculty to do the marking.”

—With files from Tamsyn Burgmann

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