When in Doubt, Choose “C”

Two weeks ago I eliminated all multiple choice assessments. Mind you, this was a double-edged sword. Both the test prep and the grading for a written assessment puts an enormously time-consuming strain on my already bulging-at-the-seams schedule. Still, the more the students protested, the more confident I was in my decision. Students have been taught how to take multiple-choice tests; they can work backwards from the answer choices, the quickest among them can “guess” the right answers, and the least ethical always seem to “find” the right answers. Students and well-intended test-teaching “gurus” often tell me that, when in doubt, choose answer “C.” Of course, in written assessments, there are no answers from which to choose, and no letter “Cs” to bubble in.

Rather, the answers must come from within the students themselves.

One student whom I usually see brazenly copying someone else’s homework at the beginning of each class period told me how he spent three hours studying for the new written exam, thinking his effort alone could convince me to bring back the beloved multiple choice. Rather, it strengthened my resolve.

I estimate it will take me eight hours to grade all 120 written exams, whereas a multiple choice exam grades itself and makes for happier students (and often parents). The path I have chosen is the path of fools, I know. After all, most students don’t care about chemistry. They care about the grade.

But the thing is, I care about chemistry. And not in the way you may think. Yes, it’s both scientifically and spiritually satisfying to realize that you, I, and all the stars are made up of the same handful of elements -- carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and a preponderance of metals -- which differ only in the number of positively charged protons housed in their infinitely tiny nuclei. The difference between hydrogen and helium is just one proton, and yet a rigid airship made of the former resulted in the Hindenburg disaster, and an airship made of the latter continues to hover over sporting events advertising tires.

But it’s not about chemistry, really. Rather, it’s about what chemistry teaches. Chemistry teaches you to work methodically through problems whose level of difficulty at times rises exponentially faster than your ability to solve them. Chemistry teaches you to stay the course, make daily effort, even when the effort seems to be fruitless. Chemistry teaches you to show up, be willing to be wrong, and be even more willing to learn from your mistakes. Chemistry teaches you that error is not something to be embarrassed about, but quantified, and learned from. Chemistry teaches you to struggle without the guarantee of ultimate victory. And chemistry teaches you that, if you do show up daily and work through the struggle, the challenge, the failure and the uncertainty, you will master a life skill that no multiple-choice exam in the world can assess, not even letter “C.”

Because the answers must come from within the students themselves.

Which, as we all know, is the only place to find them.

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