Some of my professor colleagues and I were recently chatting about end-of-semester type issues, including the excellent exams we were creating to provide our students with challenging and intellectually stimulating experiences that would perfectly and fairly test their understanding of the course material. And that would be easy to grade but that would not involve going over to the dark side of multiple choice exams, except in classes with > 200 students.
We found ourselves focusing on one particular perplexing issue that we had all recently encountered -- that students seem to be having more trouble understanding what a test question is asking for. Let me restate that, in case what I wrote is ambiguous and/or makes no sense: Some students are confused about what some sentences, phrases, or words mean. They may understand the concept the question is trying to test, but they don't know what the question is asking.
It is entirely possible that some of us write poorly worded test questions, but, for the sake of discussion, let's ignore that possibility.
Example: One professor who was teaching a geometrically oriented topic said that some students in a class couldn't deal with the phrase "not all of the angles [of a particular geometric object that was shown in an image on the quiz] are at 90 degrees". They had no idea if this meant that none of the angles were at 90° or if possibly some or all of the angles were at 90° but didn't have to be or if the statement required that some be at 90° and some not be at 90°. In fact, no students asked a question about the ambiguous phrase ("not all of") during the test, which is ideally when such issues are resolved, but that's another issue.
Students in another class had trouble with the concept of at least. In fact, I noticed that many (but not all) of the examples we were discussing involved phrases such as some of, all of, or at least. My hypothesis, which I proposed to my colleagues, is that long experience with multiple-choice type tests leads some students to try to psych out answers that involve quantities or time (never, always, sometimes, often) and to look for the 'trick' of a question rather than taking the question at face value. Even when a test is not multiple-choice, but instead requires the writing of words or sentences, some students may still treat a question as if there is some trick to it.
Every once in a while, a student will ask me "Is this a trick question?" about something on a test; or, retroactively "Was that a trick question?". I do not ask trick questions on tests.
Many multiple choice tests, however, do involve tricklike questions. By definition, you have to provide several wrong answers along with the correct answer, and one way to make this challenging is to make some of the answers similar, or to ask the question in a 'tricky' way (e.g., using those ambiguous time/quantity words or phrases).
The first time my daughter took a multiple choice test at her elementary school, she came home incredulous. She told me that she had just taken an extremely stupid test. She said "They gave us the answer right there in a list and we just had to show them which one it was."
This isn't a rant against multiple choice tests. Sometimes they are the only practical choice in large classes, but I think the multiple choice test culture might be creating a generation of skeptical and suspicious students who are always (or often) looking for the trick in a question. Or maybe there are legions of professors out there who do ask trick questions. I suppose that is possible, but at least I know that not all of them are me.
8 years ago