Posted by: schooleducator | May 25, 2009

Advanced Placement Courses and Multiple Choice – Give Students the Questions

As an AP teacher, I hated having to use multiple choice questions to prepare students for the national exam in May of each year. The College Board has a limited pool of questions that they have released over the years, and I dutifully exposed students to these questions over the course of the year on unit exams. I would keep the questions secure and collect exams at the end of each unit and students would not see the questions again. It was a one shot deal. The bulk of my attention centered on teaching students how to write critical essays, shaped around a strong thesis and supporting evidence. Then, one day in class, a student asked whether I might consider just giving them the multiple choice questions as a study guide, in preparation for the national exam. At first, I thought this was a preposterous idea, but after closer consideration and discussion with my students and a few colleagues, I realized it was actually a good idea. So, I started giving out the questions and still used them on unit exams. One colleague explained the rationale: “You want them to know the information inside of the questions. Why hide it from them? It takes some of the stress away, for the students, and you can still teach the content. Plus, it exposes them to the style of the questions, so they can figure out how to make sense of the questions.” I agreed.

Believe it or not, you can actually be creative with how to use multiple choice questions as a teaching tool. I started to play around with different configurations of the questions. I would give students the question stem, and they would have to come up with the five possible answers, looking at how the AP exam writers constructed their question and response sections. Students were forced to think like an exam writer. Or, I would give them the five answers and they would have to write the question. Sometimes, I would allow them to work in groups, and other times, I had them work independently. These exercises increased and heightened their critical thinking skills, and had them think carefully about audience – the exam writers. One student commented: “I used to think the answers were so random, but now I actually can see how wrong answers are compiled and I can follow the line of thinking. It helps me with my essay writing to think about how to logically construct ideas.”

The most fun activity we used was the Who Wants to be a Millionaire model with multiple choice training. I would put questions up on the screen in the classroom. Students would take turns in the “hot” seat, trying to answer questions. They could use Call a Friend, if they were stuck, or they could knock the answers down to a 50/50, with just two answers left to look at. Or, and this was the class favorite, they had one minute to comb through any classroom books to help them figure out the answer. We would play in teams, and they loved the opportunity to tackle what can be complex, subtle questions that require analytical thinking and deep knowledge of course content. Over the year, we would keep team scores tallied and students looked forward to playing the multiple choice challenge.

As we moved closer to the exam time in May, we would look through sample released exams, and walk through the pattern of questioning, noticing that questions appeared in chronological sequence in sets of 12-16 questions. If we hit a question about which we knew nothing, we would look at the question before and the question after to figure out which time period the question focused on. Many of the questions were time period stamped. For example, one question might refer to the 1648 Fronde in France, and then the question after might not have a time mentioned. We would comb the next question, and sure enough a time was mentioned, either in the question stem or in the answers. Then, we would ask ourselves about the trends going during that 100 or 50 year period of time, and we could then begin to break the question and answers down to arrive at the correct answer. Once we had done this for a full exam, students began to see the patterns, and the mystery around the multiple choice portion of the exam dissolved.

I saw a dramatic increase in student scores after moving toward full disclosure of multiple choice questions. Also, I witnessed a sea change in the attitudes of my students in class toward how to tackle the AP course. Their stress dissipated, and their enjoyment of the course grew. We did focus on the test, to a degree, but we came at it from a playful, analytical perspective, and it was a whole group endeavor. Students no longer felt at sea. They walked into the national exam, armed with the analytical tools to see through the test, and focus on their mastery of content and skill.

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