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How do confidence-weighted multiple-choice questions benefit students' learning?

How do confidence-weighted multiple-choice questions benefit students’ learning?

4 min read
  • Questioning, Cold-Calling & Wait Times

Multiple-choice tests can serve two purposes; they can check for understanding and they can also accelerate learning. They can act as a very effective form of Retrieval Practice, and can be asked and answered in a very time effective manner. But what if there is a different way to do them, instead of the traditional manner?

A traditional multiple-choice question has three parts; the stem (i.e. the initial question), the correct answer, and the distractors (i.e. the incorrect answers). Research has suggested ways to maximise these. These include:

  • Three to four answer options
  • Avoiding ‘filler’ answer options
  • Avoiding ‘None of the Above’

However, multiple-choice questions do have some limitations. One of these is that if a student gets an answer right, we have no way of telling if they did so because they really knew the answer, or if they got lucky by blind guessing. This is one of the reasons why an alternative way of doing multiple-choice questions may be better…

What are confidence-weighted multiple-choice questions?

Confidence-weighted multiple-choice questions allow learners to indicate how sure they are about their responses. For example, the graphic below shows a triangle with circles along it to illustrate the format of a confidence-weighted question. Each circle represents how confident a student feels about their answer; so, if they are leaning toward Answer A but think it could be Answer B, they would select a circle that is between A and B, but closer to A than B.

taking multiple choice tests to the next level

Additionally, with a confidence-weighted multiple-choice question, if students aren’t sure, they can highlight the “I don’t know” option rather than just guess.

Research has shown that students have better recall when using a confidence-weighted multiple-choice test rather than standard multiple-choice choice tests. But why is this the case? Here are three ways that they can improve student progress…

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Confidence-weighted multiple-choice questions can help with…

Wider retrieval and deeper learning

To assess how confident they are, students must deliberate about all the possible options to see which one could be the correct response. As a result, students unlock more information for retrieval and create stronger memory traces.

When students think deeply about content in this way, they can make links between topics and therefore solidify their learning. The presence of an “I don’t know” option means that students can engage with the questions better as they are discouraged from mindlessly guessing.

Things to consider: Even though confidence-weighted multiple-choice tests can improve memory, standard multiple-choice tests are much easier to mark and administer. So, you might only give your students a small number of confidence-weighted multiple-choice questions so that there is enough time for them to think about their answers and for you to give feedback.

Whole-class reflective feedback and discussion

Completing a confidence-weighted multiple-choice test gives students a good opportunity to discuss their answers with their peers and teacher. Then, teachers can identify which answers students are most confident with as well as any common mistakes. As a result, students can correct any inaccurate thought processes that they had based on feedback from class discussions and retrieve the correct answer next time.

Research has shown that active learning, which happens in group discussions, can significantly improve grades. Also, when students engage in reflective feedback, they can learn how to avoid common misunderstandings and learn from each other’s explanations.

Things to consider: Even though class discussions can accelerate student learning, they also can take up a lot of extra time in lessons. So, you may choose to have a designated time for guided class discussion where students can explain the reasoning behind their answers and where you can give them corrective feedback. 

Targeting specific misconceptions

Confidence-weighted multiple-choice questions are most effective when the wrong answers focus on faulty thought processes rather than being totally random. This allows both you and your students to recognise exactly where they went wrong.

Yes, standard multiple-choice tests can target specific misconceptions, but specifying their confidence levels allow students to easily identify the exact thought process that led them to think that way. From this, students can review their own learning more productively as they can see which answers they were less confident with and decide how to correct any misconceptions.

Things to consider: You may need to think about which topics confidence-weighted multiple-choice questions work best for. It is a great approach for your students to practice factual recall, evaluating concepts and applying theories, whereas it may be less appropriate for questions that need more complex responses (arguably this is true for all multiple choice test formats). Have a look at our advice on creating multiple-choice tests which can guide you along the way.

Final thoughts

When used correctly, confidence weighted multiple-choice questions can make positive differences in your students’ learning. However, it is important that there is a balance between your students’ progress and the practicality of a learning approach.

If you choose to use confidence-weighted multiple-choice tests, it is a good idea to slowly introduce this method in your classroom and ensure that there is enough time for your students to receive corrective feedback.