You think taking a bad multiple choice exam is tough? Try writing a good one.

I spent my afternoon putting together my final for medical sociology, a task that was about fifty percent revision of old test material and fifty percent writing of new material. The test itself is a mixture of multiple choice and short essay questions, a conscientious choice that I hope gives students a chance to do something that they’re good at. The latter aren’t hard to write, and are sometimes a nice exercise: I can imagine a set of possible short essay responses, and I can be a little creative. It’s a nice opportunity to ask students to think (with some intelligence, one hopes) in new ways about a piece of information or to combine a couple of bits of reading.

Everybody seems to hate multiple choice questions because they’re either dumb or ridiculously difficult, but until you write an exam, you don’t realize how hard it is to write multiple choice questions that don’t exploit trivia or insult somebody’s intelligence. You first have to identify an idea that seems important, and then key into an aspect of it that’s not immediately obvious, and, in true Jeopardy! style, phrase it in the form of a question. But then you have to present a set of possible responses that require thinking, rather than just memory, to pick the right (“best,” usually) one. Unfortunately, this requires me to really know what I’m talking about; it doesn’t work to generate questions separately from answers, and that’s where the whole business proves to be difficult. A good topic for a multiple choice question implies a set of problems or complications that can’t always be assembled piece by piece.

Even after trying hard to put together an exam that’s worthwhile, the question often remains: How do you ask students to think through the concept? Too often, despite their complaining, they want obvious answers instead of answers that require them to work through a few ideas or analyze how thing A is different from thing B.

In the end, writing exams seems like a good reason to focus on a research career.