As I was chatting online with a friend of mine–yes, I have friends–I’d mentioned some of the work I’ve been doing recently. When I did so, I noted that part of that work is in drafting multiple choice questions and the answers for them–work that is not difficult, as such, but that takes a fair bit of time to do. That part makes sense, really; drafting multiple choice questions requires composing the stem (i.e., the question), the right answer, and three or four wrong answers (distractors). The distractors additionally have to look like they could be right (with the possible exception of one, which can be included as an “obviously wrong” answer and which I often use to make some kind of joke or another). But, anyway, as I was noting the work, I recalled a story that I recounted to said friend, who suggested I write it…
Back in 2009, I started teaching at a two-year technical college in Midtown Manhattan. While the main campus was just out back of Penn Station, south of the big post office, the location where I taught was further up Eighth Avenue, and I remember the wind always smacking me in the face as I rounded the corner of 57th Street to get to the door. And most of the teaching I did there and then was remedial reading and writing, working with students who had been out of schooling for a while and needed to get reoriented to it or who had dropped out of school and were working on their GEDs. Most of them were older than I was, something I’d gotten to “enjoy” the entire time I was on site at grad school, and many of them had had…strained relationships with formal education previously.
Now, my usual teaching practice at the time was still worked with what I’d learned as I was getting certified to teach high school English; within the boundaries set for me by the institution, I offered a large number of smaller assignments, rather than a small number of larger ones. Most of the time, those assignments took the form of short-answer quizzes, usually what I used to close class (i.e., lecture, discussion, and activities happened, then the quiz; students could leave once the quiz was in). I’d generally score them fairly leniently, or what I thought of as leniently, returning them to students at the next class meeting and going over answers. But since I worked from my background and expertise, and the students came from different circumstances, what I looked for and what they offered did not always line up.
As such, one group of students asked me–rather vociferously, as it happened–to give them multiple choice quizzes instead of the short-answer I’d been assigning. At the time, I was doing the preliminary research for my dissertation, which was taking a lot of time, and I was learning how to live with my then-fiancee in advance of our wedding now more than eleven years behind us, which was also taking some time. (I love you, my sweet sopapilla!) Knowing from experience even then how much time was invested in putting together multiple choice questions, I was hesitant to oblige–and I admit to no small degree of annoyance in my “youthful” arrogance. How dare these…students question my assessment methods?
Look, I know I’ve been an asshole at least as often as not. I’ve been trying to be better, but I can’t change what I’ve been.
Anyway, the students kept pressing for the multiple choice quizzes, and I finally had enough of it. My lips curled in what might have been a smile or a snarl, and I asked them if they were sure they wanted the next quiz to be multiple choice–I didn’t have time to draft one that meeting. They said “Yes” in one voice, and they repeated it when I asked again “Really? Are you really sure?” So I nodded, made a note, and moved through the rest of the class meeting as if nothing had changed.
I didn’t do anything when I got home that night; class ran until 9pm, and I had an hour commute back to the apartment. The next morning, though, after I’d gotten showered and some coffee into me, I sat down to work, drafting the quiz I’d give to my students when I saw them next. I spent a while poring over it, working in some detail from the assigned readings (one of the areas where I did not have room to change things was in the reading sequence). And when that class met again, they got to sit for the quiz. Their faces nearly lit in joy when they saw that I had, indeed, given them what they wanted; they got a multiple choice quiz. The difference between the right answer and the distractors was in comma placement and nothing else, but they got the multiple choice quiz they’d asked for.
And they got another one in the next class meeting; every answer was C. On the one that followed, every answer was C–except the second-to-last one, which was A. After that one, the students asked if they could go back to the short-answer quizzes; I was happy to oblige them.
Honestly, I should have been happier when I obliged them the first time. Getting into what amounted to a pissing contest…it’s never a good look. Years later, I find myself regretting it–as I probably should have years ago.