Why Multiple-Choice Self-Tests Are Bad for Learning

Modified on by haitham

Multiple choice problems, self tests

Quizzes and study techniques generally come in two forms: production and recognition.  The majority of leading quiz engines on the market are of the “recognition” variety.  They ask you a question, and they present you a set of multiple choices (or matching options) in which you simply guess the answer from a list.

While such forms of testing can be convenient for assessment, they are relatively ineffective when used as a study tool, since the activity is so passive.

In fact, a large body of research shows that such active recall is tremendously more effective than recognition even if the goal is to perform well on a multiple-choice test (see Karpicke and Roediger, 2006).

Modern adaptive flashcard engines such as Brainscape therefore lend themselves to the production variety of study, as they require the user to freely recall the target rather than simply recognizing it from among multiple choices.

The Cure for Multiple-Choice Stagnation

Brainscape’s developers and partners create our cue-target pairs in a format that most directly solicits active recall, rather than simple recognition, since this format yields greater benefits with limited study time.   Our foreign language learning content, for example, always asks learners to produce the foreign language word/phrase, rather than simply showing the foreign words and asking the learner to translate to his native tongue (which would have been much “easier” but less effective).

Even though Brainscape only requires learners to think of the answer “in their head” before revealing it (rather than requiring typing or recognizing an answer), our system ensures that learners are making a genuine active attempt to think of the answer, by asking users to rate their confidence in each flashcard (on a scale of 1-5) before proceeding to the next one.  Learners tend to keep their confidence ratings honest since they want our system of confidence-based repetition to help them optimize their study time.

The U.S. Department of Education strongly recommends that students should actively recall specific information in order to “directly promote learning and help students remember things longer” (Pashler et al., 2007).  Whether learners are choosing from Brainscape’s huge public library of flashcards or making their own flashcards, using active recall (rather than multiple-choice self tests) is a key strategy for deeply learning and retaining knowledge.


Karpicke, J., & Roediger, H. (2006). Repeated retrieval during learning is the key to long-term retention. Journal of Memory and Language. Vol. 57, No. 2, 151-162.

Pashler, H., Bain, P., Bottge, B., Graesser, A., Koedinger, K., McDaniel, M., & Metcalfe, J. (2007). Organizing instruction and study to improve student learning. Institute for Educational Sciences practice guide, U.S. Department of Education.

Brainscape is a web & mobile education platform that helps you learn anything faster, using cognitive science. Join the millions of students, teachers, language learners, test-takers, and corporate trainees who are doubling their learning results. Visit brainscape.com or find us on the App Store .

1 comment

paper writing services 5 years ago

Well, there is really a good chance of learning by using the right productions and recognition of the different terms we are going to learn. This way, we could be able to have an effective measure about learning which is very ideal to have for assessing their good skills about different test and exams.

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