July 18, 2011

The pros and cons of multiple-choice questions

So tell me: The multiple-choice question format is (a) a perfectly fine tool in the quizmaster's arsenal, or (b) a regrettable but handy structure for certain quiz games and questions that demand it, or (c) totally lame and a sign of a waste of quizzing time. You wonder why almost all smartphone trivia apps suck? It's because technology hasn't advanced to the level where you can properly answer a real question on a tiny phone. (Plus, they remind me of standardized tests.)

My answer used to be (c), but lately, I'm not so sure. If you're familiar with the Big Quiz Thing, you may know that I very occasionally utilize the multiple-choice format for my questions. There was an example at our most recent quiz spectacular, to wit: "What’s greater: (a) the number of billions in Mayor Bloomberg’s net worth, or (b) the number of Americans richer than he is?" I dug this question: It took an interesting but basic fact (Bloomberg is crazy rich) and made something more creative out of it than just "How crazy rich is he?"
Some people really like multiple choice; on the surface, it seems to make questions easier, and the challenge-averse are legion. But as a general rule, I very rarely use it. In fact, I've long considered myself to have a bias against multiple choice. Some reasons:

They take too long to ask. An ideal question is an economic one. That's not a hard-and-fast rule, but basically, the more you have to say to ask the question, the worse off you are. Listing the correct answer and two or three others has the habit of slowing the whole process down to a crawl.

They're very easy to mess up. An unseasoned trivia writer often falls into uniquely regrettable traps when working in multiple choice (unlike the pitfalls that a seasoned quiz writer falls into). One thing that particular chaps my hide is stupid multiple-choice questions that flat-out give away the correct answer. I can't find the example, but I once read an explicitly labeled "food and drink" quiz, with a question that included four possible answers: (a) and (c) had nothing to do with food or drink, and (d) was clearly a joke answer. Um…which ever one could it possibly be?

They're less fun. The whole mental journey of getting from question to answer, of discovering the correct response, seems less interesting and enjoyable when your options are so clearly narrowed down. If the question is figureoutable, in some respects, it's already been figured out for you. Or, if you're confident of the answer and proud of your own knowledge, you may feel cheated that you don't have the opportunity to pluck it from your mental foam without any extra assistance. Which leads me to the most important point…

Multiple-choice questions give away the answer. Really. Not that they necessarily tell you which answer is correct (though see that food-and-drink example above), but they do indeed state the answer right off the bat. Even if it's among other, incorrect ones, it's been put out there, so there's no real "a-ha!" surprise moment of interest when the quizmaster reveals which response is the right one, let alone when you manage to figure it out on your own. Multiple choice sucks some of that juicy drama from a great quiz game.
But recently, my thinking has changed a bit. Not long ago, I was hired for a quiz writing/consulting job, and the client asked me to provide 50 trivia questions. No problem; I sent them some of my best. To which I got an e-mailed reply (paraphrasing):

"Oops, sorry! Maybe I forgot to tell you, but I needed multiple choice questions!" (Actually, reviewing my notes, I was told this, but several months earlier when we'd first made contact, and neither party had reiterated the point in subsequent discussions. So blame is shared.)

Being the awesome quiz problem-solver I am, I was able to modify most of the questions to accommodate the format, no sweat. But part of me kept thinking they'd ultimately be happier if we'd left them as is, multiple-choice-free. In modifying them, I felt like more than a few of the questions lost some of their zip.

However, as I entered the next phase of this particular project (sorry, have to be vague on details; I signed a nondisclosure agreement), I realized that I was wrong: For this particular project (an excellent one, I might add), multiple choice was likely the way to go, or at the very least, a valid avenue well worth pursuing. And I started seeing the particular advantages, such as:
Sometimes slowing things down is good. What TV game show comes to mind when you think of multiple-choice trivia? Right, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? And that show is all about slowing things down, to extend the nail-biting drama. Sure, like the rest of the world, I'm completely sick of that damn show by now, but man, no denying that back in '99, that was some of the most compelling TV out there.

Sometimes easier is better. The best question is easily recalibrated for different levels of difficulty. Often, multiple choice is the way to do that: When taking a trip into new territory, it helps to have a map, even if it's a rough one. Yet at the same time…

They introduce a unique element of challenge. A canny multiple-choice question might give you two (or more) possible answers that seem equally valid. Take this one: "On the air from 1955 to 1975, what TV Western is the only American comedy or drama show to exceed 600 episodes? a. Gunsmoke; b. Bonanza; c. Rawhide." Perhaps your first impulse is to say Bonanza—I mean, how else did Michael Landon become such a big star?—but then wait, the quizmaster did say Gunsmoke, maybe your initial impulse was wrong. So Bonanza or Gunsmoke, which is it? Or perhaps it was Rawhide; I mean, all of these shows went off the air so long ago, they all sound plausible to anyone under the age of 45. Multiple choice can lead you to doubt and rethink your thinking in a way you might not with a simple fill-in-the-answer query, inspiring a whole new, often very enjoyable routine of mental gymnastics. You get to experience a different way of thinking through a trivia question.

They add a nice opportunity for comedy. Want to build a little laugh into an otherwise perfectly valid trivia question? Tack on a funny, obviously wrong (d) answer. That TV-Western one above? (d) The Lone Ranger/Howdy Doody Racial Stereotype Comedy Adventure Variety Hour (Fine, not the greatest joke, but the possibility is there.)
So what's my answer to the question stated at top? (a), (b), or (c)? Have I swung from (c)—multiple-choice hatred—to (a)—respect for it as a staple of the quizmaster's tool belt, granting multiple choice the status of perfectly reasonable trivia format? Eh, not quite. On balance, I think open-ended is more fun, more appropriately challenging, more creative. So let's call it (d): Multiple choice is a helpful tool, and it's a good thing for a quizmaster to have a strong understanding of. But if you want it to take center stage in a Big Quiz Thing project, you're going to have to be the one paying the bills.

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