Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Multiple Choices

By Russell McCutcheon

I went up to Chicago about a month ago to give a talk on teaching the introductory course and in the midst of all the critical thinking talk there was a question that cut to the heart of the theme of my talk (on the tough choices we likely need to make when teaching such courses); it concerned the fact that I use multiple choice tests.
The course I have in mind, and for which I’d shared my syllabus, is one of our main 100-level undergrad classes, and it enrolls between 100 and 150 students per section, with a couple different sections (i.e., different profs teaching their own version of it) per semester. When I teach it (which is at least once a year) I use my own book and I also use multiple choices tests that focus both on lectures as well as content in the book. By the way, the book contains bolded technical terms (i.e., the first time a term that’s defined in the glossary is used in each chapter it is bolded) and also bolded scholars names (they too are discussed in greater detail in the back of the book, with a few quotes that illustrate their approach to defining and studying religion); one of the reasons why the chapters are all so short is because each chapter, somewhat like clicking links on the web, opens onto both a variety of interconnected paragraph-length discussions of terminology later in the book as well as several two to three page discussions of the scholars that are mentioned. This format then paves the way for the tests which, in part, emphasis the terminology as well as the scholars. So I ask the students to learn at least four or five things about every new term we discuss and also to be able to talk about each scholar mentioned in at least three ways: roughly when did they live (don’t memorize birth and death dates but know if they’re a late 19th century writer or a contemporary one); what part (aka academic discipline or department) of the university they worked in; and why they were relevant for us in our course.
But back to that question: why the multiple choice tests? Don’t they cut against some of the things that I’m trying to accomplish in such a course? After all…, multiple choice tests are…, are…, well, let’s just be honest: they’re multiple choice tests.
When I was a teaching assistant during my own Ph.D. at the University of Toronto, I TA’ed for a couple years for the late Will Oxtoby and the late Joe O’Connell’s world religions survey course. (You likely know the two volume textbook that, to a large extent, resulted from that class.) There was a whole team of us (5 or 6?) for a class that likely wasn’t larger than 200 students, and, as I recall, we all ran a couple tutorials (aka discussion or recitation sections), one before and one after the main lecture, so that students had the opportunity to participant in a small (20 students or so?) discussion, thereby not getting entirely lost in the large lecture. Bill Arnal and I did the same for Michel Desjardin’s night course intro to the New Testament one year as well—leading small discussion sections before and after the large, main lecture. The first large lecture class I taught on my own was when I first started working fulltime, back in Tennessee in 1993, and I’ve been doing them ever since, but, unlike those classes I worked for in Toronto, I’ve never had the luxury of a team of TAs able to staff multiple discussion sections; instead, like most people around the country, I’ve mostly done it on my own but, if we’re lucky (as in the last few years here at Alabama), we have one TA, assigned to the course for about 10 hours per week (what we’d call a half TA assignment), but that’s hardly enough personnel to offer smaller discussion sections of 100 or 150 students. That means that our TAs help with grading, keep the grade book, offer office hours, etc.—for just attending the class exhausts three of those 10 weekly hours, leaving not a lot of time to run multiple discussion sections.
So, given this practical setting, writing assignments are likely not a possibility in this course—I’m a Department chair and, besides a 100-level intro course, there’s lots of other things competing for my attention each day and I can only imagine what life would be like if, like earlier in my career, this were one of several classes I was teaching each Fall or Spring—whether different preps or not, all that grading adds up, especially when you’re also trying to do research and write. Which brings me back to those tough choices I mentioned: in those early days of my career, when I was finishing my dissertation and involved in a variety of other projects, I developed some group assignments and a style of multiple choice tests that I was willing to live with in this intro course—it was hardly ideal, given my own pedagogical hopes and dreams, but, given the practical circumstances of my labor, it seemed to be a compromise I could live with. And I’ve happily lived with it since then.
After all, I couldn’t help 150 students develop and write original research papers, much less read rough drafts, comment on them, and then grade them all. So the question became what could I do and what ends that I valued could these assignments help me to achieve.
And that’s how I settled on some small group work to start the class—on the most rudimentary level it’s a good way for students in a large class to meet someone, to learn where the library is, to have a taste, at the 100-level, of a required format for citing a source, and also a great way to discuss what it means to quote a source properly and what counts as plagiarism. So, for the second class of the semester, I send them all to the library, with a partner and with instructions to find 5 or so different definitions of religion, each from a different source (nothing from the web is allowed). They have to hunt and peck and flip through the table of contents and index of a bunch of books—which is a pretty good emulation of what it often means to do research, by the way; for we usually don’t know what we’re looking for when we start looking. Once they turn it in I keep ahold of that assignment and give it back to them at the end of the semester, when they now have to make data of those five definitions for their second group assignment. (Which definition is functionalist? Which might a scholar in a public university opt for—and why?)
It’s an assignment that allows us to apply things from the class, yes, but it also accomplishes so much more that, more than likely, the students don’t even realize.
But what about the multiple choice tests? Well, like that definition assignment, its more about form than it is about content—sure, you’ve got to know something about Freud and something about the notion of etic, but it’s more about how they study for it and how they come to learn, over the course of the semester, that the key is building relationship between the terms, about being able to link one seemingly discrete piece of information to another and then to another, and maybe another as well, making semantic webs, if you will, so that when I come along and throw a little curve at them by introducing a new ball into what they’re already juggling they’ll be able to accommodate the new information and link it to something they already know, which in turn they’ll link to yet something else and, like solving for X in a quadratic equation, they’ll then look among the various choices I’ve offered for the correct answer. For, come to think about it, that’s what the course is all about: studying how we create knowledge, make spaces sensible and habitable, by establishing and then managing a host of relationships of similarity and difference—our field’s been known as Comparative Religion, after all, no? So the multiple test exemplifies the method at the heart of our discipline: comparison.
But it doesn’t just test this, for I tend to write rather long questions, making it a test of reading comprehension as well. (Who among them will write the GRE or the LSAT someday…?) Often, students perform unsatisfactorily though they say that they know the information—their difficulty is linked to reading, to being able to simplify the sentence, to find what it is actually asking, in distinction from the background info it’s also giving them. Did they see the word “not” in the question, to then realize that I was asking the exact opposite of what they at first thought? So, instead of asking how Karl Marx defined religion I’ll instead start off the question by writing two or three lines, beginning with something like: “A 19th century political economist whose functionalist definition was concerned with distinguishing…”; it’s a confusing approach for some students, for they get lost in the verbiage, but, for others, they see that I’ve just given them all sorts of hints and prompts, inviting them to make certain sorts of connections—especially helpful if he’s the only political economist, let alone from the 19th century, whom we’ve studied. But the goal—which I let students in on should they take the trouble to make an appointment to talk over the problems they seem to be having in the course—is, again, to exemplify how knowledge itself works: by making links and moderating that series of like/unlike relationships. And those who come to office hours start to “get” this and, as you’d hope, they tend to stick around a little longer during the tests (why do they all race through them?) and their grades inevitably improve. And since it strikes me that the course—by the way, like a lot of 100-level classes, it counts for what we call a Core Humanities credit, as part of our General Education curriculum—is actually about learning how to learn, late in the semester I often offer all the students a chance to reweight their tests, to minimize on poor early performances by maximizing on their newfound skills.
And for many it pays off. Sometimes dramatically.
It’s not ideal, of course—who wouldn’t rather be teaching 10 students in a small seminar room à la Dead Poets Society, where you can look each student in the eye to figure out whether they understand the material or not, having them each do weekly writing assignments on which you can comment at length, to see them incorporate your feedback and continually improve across the semester. But that’s not where many of us work—and, in the modern university, those conditions are getting further and further away from many of us. So it seems to me that one is challenged to figure out what’s important to you, as an instructor, and to devise assignments that take your time commitments into account but which also strategically address those pedagogical values and goals you have and on which you’re not willing to compromise. And being placed into a setting such as that, where the teaching situation might be far from ideal, is what I think makes good teachers for it prompts us to be deliberate and mindful about what we’re doing and how we’re going doing it.
So yes, I use multiple choice tests in my 100-level intro course, but because of some of the choices I’ve made, I think they’re doing a lot more than meets the eye.