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How to assess students: MCQs vs essays

How to assess students: multiple-choice questions vs essays

4 min read
  • Delivering feedback

As a teacher, you want your students to become analytical and critical thinkers. You want them to be able to apply their learning to new situations and transfer their learning experience onto solving real-life problems. There are many ways to aid this development, which include assessment methods such as MCQs and essays that foster abilities and provide students with the opportunity to demonstrate the higher order skills they have developed.

Approaches to learning

Students can take either of two approaches regarding their studies:

  • A surface approach focusing on recall and reproduction.
  • A deeper approach that focuses on meaning, understanding and long-term learning.

Now of course, the more students are able to recall the more they are able to apply meaning and understanding to. Students often change their study patterns according to what type of assessment they are given. They can be tempted to concentrate on memorization if their motivation is to do well on a specific multiple-choice questionnaire test for a better grade, choosing the surface approach. On the other hand, a student who wishes to apply a deep approach may integrate the theory and practice of a subject, as they intend to foster a strong understanding of the material.

In some instances, surface learning is particularly useful. Learning is a lengthy process and, before students can develop a deeper understanding of a subject, it is important for them to know the relative basic facts. For example, when learning a foreign language, knowing basic vocabulary, such as numbers and colours, is necessary before you can move on to constructing sentences.

However, deeper learning is often considered to be superior because of its ability to help student build their critical thinking skills; a key aspect of metacognition. When you encourage your students to undertake a deep approach to learning, you are simultaneously encouraging them to develop metacognitive skills that will enhance their academic performance.

So, how can teachers encourage students to use either type of learning? As mentioned above, motivation is an important component. In a school setting, this often involves assessments – by changing the nature of the assessments, you can in turn encourage your students to change their approach to them. In this case, there are two types we recommend: multiple-choice questionnaires and essays.

Let’s compare multiple-choice questions and essays

Multiple-choice questions

Students often perceive MCQ tests as an evaluation of their ability to reproduce knowledge they have learnt by heart. This makes it a perfect approach for when teachers want to assess recall of knowledge and basic facts.

Evidence suggests that students are more likely to apply surface learning approaches when preparing for MCQ tests, possibly because they believe that this requires lower levels of intellectual processing. In this study, students who applied deep learning strategies when filling out the MCQ test even received lower grades. This demonstrates that a deep approach can actually confuse students and waste their precious revision time if they are being assessed through a multiple-choice questionnaire.


Essays are a popular way for teachers to assess their students’ learning. Because of their length and the thoroughness they require, essays give students the opportunity to engage with the material deeply and, as a result, develop and demonstrate higher levels of thinking. Unlike MCQ tests, there isn’t a clear difference between right or wrong answers, requiring students to undertake a deeper approach to learning to present a quality end product.

Research shows that students are more likely to use deep learning approaches when preparing assignment essays, usually perceived as an assessment of higher cognitive processing. In fact, students in this study who employed surface strategies to complete the essay had poorer performance, indicating that writing a good essay requires deeper understanding and the ability to create meaningful links between information.

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Which one should you use?

As mentioned above, different requirements call for different types of assessment, and each one has its advantages. MCQ tests are a great way to evaluate students’ basic understanding of a subject’s foundations.

However, essay assessments are considered a more reliable method of assessment. There is more structure to the questions and marking criteria that allows for students to really demonstrate their skills. An MCQ test will simply be a score out of 100, with each question having a strict right or wrong answer, whereas an essay gives students the opportunity to explore the material they have learnt.

Although some may argue that the subjective nature of essay writing can put some students at a disadvantage, it does provide a much clearer view of their progress. Essay assessments also allow for feedback that can be useful to all students, no matter their academic level. Research has shown that feedback is crucial to improving the learning experience for students, further contributing to the benefits of essay assessments over MCQ tests.

Final thought

The obvious element in the room is time. Multiple choice tests can be very quick to mark, which saves time (arguably the most precious teaching resource there is). Therefore, no one size fits all. It really is a case of matching the assessment to the given situation.