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Modern Manners: On the perils of multiple choice


If you’re a Stanford student, you’ve taken an awful lot of tests in your life, which means there have probably been times when you couldn’t help wondering if you were smarter than the test — or at least, more intellectually vigorous than the TAs were feeling when they wrote the multiple choice section at 2 a.m.

Maybe you are steadily filling in the bubbles until you come to number 14, where you suddenly realize that there are two right answers. One of them is obvious, and one of them is subtle, arguable even, but you remember coming across a technicality while studying that lends it some potential validity. You pick the obvious choice, of course.

But what if it’s one of those devilish check-all-that-apply situations? You have a problem on your hands because now the test isn’t just on what you know, but on what you think the answer key knows. Do you fill in the extra answer, prepared to go in and defend yourself if you get dinged, or do you play conservatively, risking the loss of a point if the test writers are thinking a little deeper than you think they are?

If you think on a deep enough level, there are a lot of multiple-choice questions out there that have more than one answer. There might be an obvious way to read a question, and an obvious answer that goes with it, and there might be a less conventional way to read a question, with another answer choice that fits with it. One of the keys of test-taking is to know how you’re supposed to read the question.

This issue came up in a recent New York Times article on standardized testing in middle school, which described how a reading comprehension passage sparked controversy among students and parents for being too far-out. The passage in question involved a race between a pineapple and hare. Some of the other animals picked the pineapple to win, thinking that it must have a trick up its sleeve if it was daring to challenge the hare. But the pineapple lost because, “pineapples don’t have sleeves.” The surreal passage was accompanied by questions that were impossible to answer definitively, one of them being, roughly, if the animals ate the pineapple at the end because they were hungry or because they were angry with it for losing. My first thought was “Who knows? The whole story is ridiculous.” But the “smart kids” interviewed in the article were able to correctly agree on the answers the test writers were looking for.

In test-taking, there is a difference between an answer being right and an answer being true, and I think this idea is important for the real-world analogues to multiple-choice tests: the dozens of surveys Stanford inundates us with. The groups that send out these surveys are trying to improve Stanford life with the data that they collect, but what if the survey takers do not interpret the questions the way the survey writers intend them to? Unlike our teachers, survey writers do not have the luxury of dictating which interpretations are correct — they must simply take the data as it comes, and try to draw the best conclusions they can.

A survey taken by the Office of Alcohol Policy and Education, recently published in the Daily, comes to mind. At Stanford, 73.6 percent of respondents said that our social atmosphere promotes alcohol use, while only 47.7 percent of respondents to a national survey made that claim. Does this mean Stanford has more of a drinking culture than other schools?

Just like for the pineapple questions, I think the answer is, “Who knows?” Stanford students might simply be more perceptive than average college students, which would make them better able to see the role of the social scene in promoting alcohol. The percentage difference in responses could be due to any combination of differences in perceptivity, real differences in alcohol use, and still other factors. The same problem applies to another question on how central students think drinking is to Greek life.

This is not to say the survey wasn’t useful; indeed, it revealed troubling trends about binge drinking and the number of students who may be drinking to excess simply because they can’t think of anything else to do with their weekends.

Survey writers get a lot of respect from me for the uphill battles they’re fighting. But as readers, it’s our job to be smart test takers and thoroughly examine the answers.


Questions, comments, suggestions, anonymous tip-offs? Contact Jeff at jeff2013 “at” stanford “dot” edu.

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