But what about multiple-choice questions?

What should retrieval practice "look like?"

We've been reflecting on all of the positive enthusiasm for free recall (aka "brain dump") strategies and one question that frequently pops up is whether retrieval practice is beneficial for student learning beyond writing down everything you can remember.

One question in particular: Does retrieval practice with multiple-choice questions boost learning?

Here's the quick answer, based on cognitive science research: Yes! Retrieval practice with multiple-choice questions produces robust and consistent benefits for student learning, from K-12 to higher education. Read on for researchrecommendations, and this week's multiple-choice retrieval practice.


Multiple-Choice = Multifaceted

When we think about multiple-choice questions, here are three things that come to mind:

  • They may not benefit student learning as much as free recall or short answer questions

  • Students may learn incorrect information from the alternative options

  • They are easy to administer and quick to grade (on paper, clickers, etc.)

While weighing the pros vs. cons of multiple-choice questions for student learning, one educator put it well: "Compared to a free-answer review quiz, is a fast multiple-choice quiz equal or slightly-less-good, substantially less good, or all-but-worthless?"

Our response: Multiple-choice retrieval practice is a very good thing for learning!

Research demonstrates:

  • Multiple-choice retrieval can be just as effective – or more effective – than short answer retrieval (McDermott et al., 2014)

  • Providing students with feedback decreases or eliminates students' learning of misinformation (Butler & Roediger, 2008)

  • While they're are quick to administer and grade, take some time to create multiple-choice questions and alternatives carefully for a larger retrieval benefit (Little et al., 2012)

  • Bonus: Multiple-choice questions enhance learning for related information that wasn't even on the quiz (Bjork et al., 2014)

For more information and research on retrieval practice and multiple-choice questions, we recommend a brief review of the literature by Elizabeth J. MarshAllison (Cantor) Black-Maier from Duke University. 

"Learning from the test: Dos and don'ts for using multiple-choice tests"
Elizabeth J. Marsh & Allison (Cantor) Black-Maier
Chapter in Integrating Cognitive Science with Innovative Teaching in STEM Disciplines, edited by McDaniel, Frey, Fitzpatrick, & Roediger (2014) 
[Download the e-book]


 Multiple-Choice Retrieval: Try It Yourself!

Ever wonder how much you remember from school, including 7th grade science and high school history? Here's our multiple-choice retrieval practice to boost your learning and see what you know!

Our multiple-choice questions are from a recent study by by Kathleen B. McDermott and colleagues at Washington University in St. Louis. Some questions may seem easy and some may seem hard. Which ones have alternatives that are challenging to narrow down? Which ones are easy to narrow down, but ask about a complex topic?

We hope our retrieval practice sparks some ideas for yours. We know it can be hard to create good multiple-choice questions – whether in K-12, college, or medical school courses. Check out this fantastic guide by Cynthia Brame at Vanderbilt University on writing great multiple-choice questions.


Multiple-Choice: More Than Meets the Answer

A leader in cognitive science, Elizabeth Ligon Bjork, Ph.D. from the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) specializes in research on students' metacognition (thinking about their own learning), factors that influence forgetting, and particularly multiple-choice retrieval practice. 

In a recent paperElizabeth Bjork and colleague Jeri Little examined the importance of competitive multiple-choice alternatives. Using carefully constructed materials, they found that students' learning for related but not quizzed information was enhanced when retrieval practice included competitive as opposed to non-competitive alternatives.

What makes for competitive multiple-choice alternatives? Watch this brief video with Elizabeth Bjork, learn about her research, and find out how to implement it in your classroom. Be sure to check out our YouTube channel for more videos with Elizabeth Bjork, interviews with additional cognitive scientists, and recommendations from educators.