“Help! I’m Only Graded on Multiple-Choice Tests!”: How to Survive and What to Say

Posted by on Jan 15, 2013 in Communicating with Professors, General, Interpersonal Communication | 0 comments

In some classes, this dastardly little paper is the only way to achieve your grade. Darn that little paper and its tiny bubbles!

Darn this little paper and its tiny bubbles! (I always went outside of the lines) :-(

(Quick programming note! I’m on #InternPro radio tonight at 6 p.m. PST. The topic is important: The Soft Skills Gap and the Young Careerist. I have TONS of thoughts and tips! Call in: (347) 843-4970.

Now on to business: I promised that I’d cover inquiries I received toward the end of 2012. Here is a very universal problem: Grades that are comprised by nothing more than multiple-choice tests! Ugh! Let’s discuss it… As always, please… everyone jump into the comments! What are your thoughts? What did I miss?)


I have never failed a class before. I have always been an Honors student. My lowest grade ever was a B. I am so stressed in my first year of college. I’m taking a Gen Ed (course topic excluded for anonymity) course and the topic seemed somewhat interesting. The teacher assigns zero homework and no quizzes.

Sounds like an awesome class, right? Wrong! Test time comes and we have 50 multiple choice questions which are hard and detailed! I had my first test a few days ago and barely even knew the answer to half the questions.

I can’t fail this class, in fact, I can’t get lower than a C in order to get credit. I’m in the Honors program and am not used to those types of grades! I studied for that test for HOURS every night for a week. I felt so confident going into it; I could remember learning about everything, but all the specifics fell away.

I guess my question is, how can you prepare/raise a grade in a class that is based only on tests and the tests are the hardest things ever? The test was harder than the SATs, ACT, and AP tests combined. It was awful.



Eek! Who can relate??? Here is my response:

Dear Student,

Thank you for writing. I am so sorry this is happening to you and I can relate! I blogged about a time that I received a ‘C’ in a course. The prof gave no homework, but only a series of terrible multiple-choice tests. It was one of the most miserable experiences of my college career.

Knowing what I know now about instruction, I feel disgusted by my experience and yours. In my Post-Secondary Ed program and in grad school, I was taught that using tests, multiple-choice or otherwise, as the only way to earn your grade is not actually “teaching.” One grad school prof used to say, “Teaching isn’t when you’re ‘on’, doing your ‘show’. It’s when you’re alone with those papers or those exams… giving meaningful feedback.That’swhen you’re teaching.” I never forgot that.

When a student spends weeks working up to a test deadline, then fills in a Scan-Tron or circles letters, I just don’t see how this positions a student for real learning. Unless the test is constructed in a way so the student can apply knowledge, I truly believe that students should have varied high and low-stakes ways to “show what they know” to reach a grade.

Why do some profs use the all-test method? Many professors have gigantic lecture classes and it’s practical. However, students in some mega-courses tell me that there are multiple instructors who help with grading. I get that this might not be a universal practice. Other profs may feel that the content doesn’t lend itself to a different format of test, therefore no other work is really necessary. Students, of course, disagree once they realize that their entire grade hinges on the weight of exams.

Regardless of reasons, how do you survive in this environment? None of what I suggest may feel comfortable, but you’ll get great conflict management experience and you never know what change you could spark:

-I would speak to the professor privately in his/her office. If other students are affected (I bet they are), then single voices could make an impact. Say, “Professor, I am struggling in your course. Historically, I am a very strong student (cite your background like you told me). In this class, the only way that we are measured/graded (pick the term you are comfortable saying) is by major multiple-choice tests. We have no other way to show you what we know, like doing research papers, taking quizzes, or doing other types of assignments. What suggestions do you have for someone like myself who is studying very hard (tell the prof what you’re already doing to study hard), but still not doing well on these exams?”

-I would then listen to what the professor has to say and take notes.  Then say, “I realize that you have probably been giving these tests for a long time. Would consider giving our class an additional type of assignment this term so we have another way to show you what we know, other than these tests?”

-I will give you some practical test tips in a second, but if the prof will do absolutely nothing, as much as I don’t believe in extra credit, single-method assessment in a class is the one time I believe you might need to ask for it. Say to your prof, “I do not typically rely on extra credit because my grades are strong enough and I don’t need it. In our class, however, since we are only graded on tests, I may actually need extra credit. Is there some additional work I can do?”

-It sounds like you are going through text anxiety, and for good reason! Let’s talk about how you’re studying: Are you just memorizing? Or are you really retaining/connecting to the material? Do whatever you can to use mnemonics, tell stories, create examples, etc. about the content. The more vivid you can make the information (create songs… anything!) and communicate about it, either within yourself or outside of yourself, the more you will have a shot at remembering it. I wrote a post about how to remember what you’re studying (the post talks about Facebook; ignore that part) that includes helpful links.

-I’d love to say “Go see the Division Chair” for this situation, but your prof likely has the freedom to teach this way within their department. You will absolutely want to use your student evaluation to note your concerns. Have all of your colleagues do the same. If you aren’t offered an evaluation, make sure you ask the department/building secretary where you can submit one. Let a division/department chair know that you believe students deserve to have multiple ways of being graded.

Let me offer hope: My one situation ended in a ‘C’, but I take responsibility for that. I let my frustration get the best of me and I stopped trying. In a different class, but similar issue, I confronted the prof privately and suddenly… quietly… a small change occurred in the curriculum! It benefited the class and I could not believe it.

Hopefully you will encounter other classes that enable you to produce work in other ways very soon. Stay in contact with this professor so he/she can follow your grades. It is important for that person to know how their instruction is affecting a strong student who is authentically trying. I wish you all the best.


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