Interacting with lectures and the best use of multiple choice

University lectures are often criticised for the passivity they encourage from students. One person talks for an hour; a couple ask questions; a hundred sit and listen.

There are three contrasting responses to this:

(a) It’s the students’ fault: if students take notes as they listen, the lecture hall goes from being a passive to an active environment.

(b) It’s a problem with the lecture format; universities should do something different and explore more innovative ways of teaching.

(c) Passive lectures can be remedied by adding audience participation.

All worth discussion, but I’m just going to focus on (c) here.

The go-to tech solution for making lectures interactive is in-class voting. In the past, hardware systems like clickers were the standard way of doing this, but now it tends to be easier if students just use their phones and an app like Poll Everywhere or Socrative. The teacher puts a pre-planned question up on the screen, students vote, and immediately you get a bar chart showing the majority opinion within the room. You can use it to poll an opinion on a discussion topic, but more likely lecturers will ask a multiple choice question with a correct answer or two. One minute of voting, and you can tell if everyone’s keeping up. Unfortunately, for some subject areas, MCQs aren’t the greatest way of assessing whether the students can do what they need to be able to do. A typical objective of a philosophy lecture might be that students can summarise an argument in their own words, but assessing this just isn’t possible with MCQs. A philosophy teacher might also want students to be able to look at an argument and identify possible weaknesses with it. Again, this kind of thing really doesn’t fit very well into MCQs. What about in different subjects? MCQs are an excellent way of polling people’s intuitions: if we do action X, what’s going to happen next? ( a / b / c / d ). Physics teachers can have a great time with this, as students who can handle the theoretical ideas about forces and motion often trip up when applying them to real world situations. Here’s Harvard physics professor Eric Mazur:

“[David Hestenes’ research showed that] after a semester of physics, the students still held the same misconceptions as they had at the beginning of the term. The students had improved at handling equations and formulas, but when it came to understanding what the real meanings of these things are, they basically reverted to Aristotelian logic—thousands of years back. For example, they could recite Newton’s Third Law and apply it to numerical problems, but when asked about a real-world event like a collision between a heavy truck and a light car, many firmly declared that the heavy truck exerts a larger force. Actually, an object’s weight is irrelevant to the force exerted.”

An MCQ could assess this knowledge very easily:

A heavy truck and a light car are travelling at the same speed when they collide in the street. Which vehicle is exerting greater force?

(a) The heavy truck

(b) The light car

(c) It’s the same

Armed with responses to this question, you can then ask students to justify theoretical reasons for what they said. This is actually exactly what Eric Mazur does; more info about his teaching methods here. In one fell swoop, a simple MCQ has:

  • allowed students to interact with a lecture;
  • allowed the lecturer to assess their current knowledge;
  • introduced healthy competition into the room.

Most importantly of all, this use of questioning sets up an environment in which misconceptions are flushed out and dealt with. This is a central part of the learning process, and it’s often one that makes learning uncomfortable. But it’s a positive discomfort. As Jay Rosen puts it, “There aren’t any learners until something is disturbed in the student’s world.”

Derek Muller, another physics teacher who runs the YouTube channel Veritasium, found evidence that instructional videos were less effective than videos which directly confronted common misconceptions – something that lends even more support for introducing interaction into a lecture. He explains his research in more detail below.

By their nature, MCQs are favoured by technological systems, and anyone advancing educational technology needs to consider them carefully. Physics teachers have been leading the way for their use in lecture theatres. The tough question is how far the use of MCQs can extend to other subject areas, many of which don’t deal with answers which are so clearly right or wrong.

Image credit

Exam by Alberto G


2 thoughts on “Interacting with lectures and the best use of multiple choice

  1. My friend Paul writes:

    “I thought you missed or perhaps just didn’t inspect the important premise in your last post. In short, I don’t see what’s wrong with the traditional lecture format. I think it encourages independence for the student, even if this isn’t often the result. For me, being tested or polled on understanding undermines and distracts from my method of learning. That is the beauty of the traditional lecture, you take what you want from the professor, with the hope that your interpretation will one day surpass the lecturer’s.

    In the example of the physics prof, I think it’s the student’s job to interpret and apply it to real world situations. At this level of learning students should not be drip fed key performance indicators. I make a comparison to high level sports coaching where you are no longer (as for a novice) coaching how to do a particular skill, but rather are giving expert knowledge to an athlete who is responsible and knows specifically how to apply it. I don’t want the lecturer to invade my intellectual privacy, I don’t want interaction. I want to lay by a leafy river and darkly grapple concepts applying my own understanding. The other danger here is that the lecturer changes approach to benefit the hundred students that don’t ask questions, bringing down the lecture to the level of the common or lowest denominator.”

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