Posts for Tag : higher education

The Negative Consequences of Multiple Choice Testing for Student Learning  0

Exam” by albertogp123 is licensed under CC BY 2.0.


Multiple choice (MC) testing is generally viewed as an efficient way of assessing student knowledge. Up until today it has been a very popular assessment format in higher education. Especially in courses where a large number of students are enrolled, the MC format is often used as it allows for fast and reliable grading. Not surprisingly, as an educational consultant and teacher trainer much of my work has revolved around supporting teachers in creating and/or improving their MC assessments. Throughout the years, I have taught numerous training sessions on Testing and Assessment for the University Teacher Qualification at Leiden University. On the one hand these training sessions are designed to teach best practices, but at the same time the sessions are also designed to cater to teacher needs. As such, a large part of the sessions is focused on giving teachers instructions and tips on how to create good MC questions. To be sure, I have always managed to squeeze in some discussion on the downsides and many limitations of MC testing as well. But still… It always kept me feeling a bit uneasy. In giving the instructions that the program compelled me to, I might have inadvertently been endorsing this practice more than I would have wanted. Thus, this blogpost will be as much repentance as it is a cautionary exposition about some of the negative consequences that MC testing can have on student learning.


There are multiple reasons for why MC exams could be considered as detrimental for student learning. For instance, one often heard criticism is that the recognition-based MC exam format will often result in students preparing for exams in a superficial way. Furthermore, one could argue that the ecological validity of MC exams is low and not representative of real-world situations. Also, the MC test format is by design not suitable for assessing higher levels of learning. These kind of objections are well-known and they have also received considerable attention in the University teacher Qualification courses on testing and assessment taught at Leiden University. I am not going to reiterate them extensively in this blogpost. Instead, I will discuss one particularly negative consequence of MC testing that I think is often neglected: the misinformation effect.


The misinformation effect

Before we consider the misinformation effect in the context of MC testing, we will first take a step back and consider some general research on the workings of human memory and how misinformation can result in misremembering. One of the first general demonstrations of the misinformation effect was provided by Loftus & Palmer (1974). In Experiment 2 of their seminal study, participants watched a short video clip of a car accident. After watching the video, participants were asked to give an estimate of the speed of the cars that were involved in the accident. Half of the participants were asked to estimate the speed of the cars when they smashed into each other, while the other half of participants estimated the speed for when the cars hit each other. The subtle change of the verb used in the question resulted in a difference in the reported speed: Participants estimated the speed to have been higher when they were in the smashed condition. More importantly, one week after giving the speed estimates, participants returned and were asked to indicate whether they remembered seeing broken glass in the video. Interestingly, participants in the smashed condition were much more likely to report having seen broken glass even though there was none to be seen in the video.


The results from the Loftus & Palmer study are often cited in the context of the reliability of eye-witness testimonies (and the effects that leading questions can have on misremembering). More  importantly, the results are also taken as evidence in support for the idea that human memory is reconstructive in nature. During the retrieval of information from memory we reconstruct what we have previously experienced. When previously exposed to some form of misinformation, the process of reconstruction can result in substantial misremembering of previous experiences.


The misinformation effect in the context of MC questions

In the Loftus & Palmer (1974) study, the degree to which participants were exposed to misinformation was rather subtle (i.e., a small change of verb in the leading question). However, if we now consider the situation of an MC exam, the degree of exposure to misinformation seems much more extreme. A typical MC question will often have four alternatives for students to choose from of which the majority (usually three) is incorrect. Thus, by using MC exams, we are intentionally exposing our students to misinformation. MC exams are designed to do just that. Surely, you could argue that the negative consequences of MC exams might be less severe, because students are aware that they are being exposed to misinformation. They are going into the exam expecting this. However, in preparation of the exam, the teacher has also taken careful consideration of phrasing erroneous answers in such a way that they are plausible. Teachers are instructed to formulate alternatives that students are likely to mistakenly select as the correct one. By exposing students to misinformation in the context of MC exams, teachers might very well be sacrificing student learning for the sake of fast and reliable grading.


In a later study by Roediger & Marsh (2005)  the consequences of MC testing on student learning was investigated. In their experiment, participants studied short prose passages (or not) and were subsequently tested on the materials (or not) using MC questions with a number of alternatives ranging from 2 – 6. One week later participants returned and received an open-ended short answer test. Going into the test, participants were also given explicit instructions not to guess. First of all, the results on the 1-week test showed that the consequences of MC testing were not all bad: Taking a MC test increased the retention of (correct) information. This finding, also referred to as the testing effect, is well-established in the literature and has often been replicated across different test formats and settings (e.g., Rowland, 2014). On the other hand, however, being exposed to misinformation in the MC test, also increased the production of erroneous answers on the 1-week short answer test. The degree to which participants produced erroneous (MC) answers tended to increase as the number of alternatives of the MC test increased. Note that this was the case even though participants had received explicit instructions not to guess on the short answer test. Clearly, the misinformation effect is not just relevant in the context of eye witness testimonies, but also in the context of assessment in higher education. MC exams can have an adverse effect on student learning in the sense that students can mistakenly recall incorrect answer options at a later point in time. Later research (Butler & Roediger, 2008) has shown that the misinformation effect as a result of MC testing can be reduced by giving students direct feedback (either after each individual question or after taking an entire test). However, in my experience, summative MC exams in higher education usually don’t provide immediate feedback to students. In the absence of corrective feedback, students might stay under the impression that their erroneous responses on a test were correct.


To end on a positive note, there are promising alternatives for MC exams that teachers are exploring. For instance, at the Leiden University Medical Centre (LUMC) some teachers have started using Very Short Answer Questions (VSAQs) on exams as a substitute for MC questions. Among others, dr. Alexandra Langers (Leiden University Teaching Fellow), and her PhD student Elise van Wijk have started investigating the consequences of VSAQ exam format. VSAQs require students to generate short (1 – 4 word) answers to exam questions. Compared to MC questions, VSAQs require retrieval of correct answers rather than simple recognition and as such these type of questions can be more conducive for student learning. Because answers are short, VSAQs will still allow for some degree of automatic scoring (for some predetermined “correct” responses). This can keep grading time acceptable even for teachers with large classes. Some of the findings of the VSAQ research project have recently been published in an article in PLOS ONE. Replicating previous findings (Sam et al., 2018), van Wijk et al., (2023) demonstrate that VSAQ exams can have added benefits over MC tests in terms of higher reliability and discriminability. In addition, van Wijk at al. found that the average grading time per individual VSAQ was around two minutes. This seems very acceptable considering the cohort in the study consisted of more than 300 students. Hopefully, initiatives like the one at LUMC will pave the way for other teachers to start using assessment types that can be more supportive of student learning.



Butler, A. C., Roediger, H. L. (2008). Feedback enhances the positive effects and reduces the negative effects of multiple-choice testing. Memory & Cognition, 36, 604–616.


Loftus, E. F., & Palmer, J. C. (1974). Reconstruction of automobile destruction: An example of the interaction between language and memory. Journal of Verbal Learning & Verbal Behavior, 13, 585–589.


Roediger, H. L., & Marsh, E. J. (2005). The positive and negative consequences of multiple-choice testing. Journal of experimental psychology. Learning, memory, and cognition, 31, 1155–1159.


Rowland C. A. (2014). The effect of testing versus restudy on retention: a meta-analytic review of the testing effect. Psychological bulletin, 140, 1432–1463.


Sam, A. H., Field, S. M., Collares, C .F., van der Vleuten, C. P. M., Wass, V. J., Melville, C., Harris, J., & Meeran, K. (2018), Very-short-answer questions: reliability, discrimination and acceptability. Med Educ, 52, 447-455.


van Wijk, E. V., Janse, R. J., Ruijter, B. N., Rohling J. H. T., van der Kraan J., Crobach, S., de Jonge, M., de Beaufort, A. J., Dekker, F. W., Langers, A. M. J. (2023). Use of very short answer questions compared to multiple choice questions in undergraduate medical students: An external validation study. PLOS ONE, 18, e0288558.

Rethinking Teacher Quality in University: Embracing Teacher Agency  2

Max Kusters & Arjen de Vetten


How often have you referred to a teacher as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ in your school career? When assessing teacher quality, we often struggle with subjective judgments and varying criteria. Is a teacher considered good because they explain well? Or because the teacher’s students obtain high scores? Perhaps it depends on positive evaluations from students. In this research blog, we aim to redefine the way we assess the quality of university educators and propose a shift toward embracing teacher agency. We argue that educators should be seen as experts in their field, who can not only meet the needs of students but also foster innovation. Educators’ willingness to take responsibility and contribute to institutional progress can significantly foster a transformative educational environment. In this regard, educators transcend their traditional role as mere providers of education and instead become facilitators of educational innovation and development.

Shortcoming of current methods

The current methods of assessing the quality of university educators have been widely criticized. For instance, several studies raise concerns about the interpretation and usefulness of Student Evaluation of Teaching (SET) ratings. These studies revealed that SET ratings were significantly influenced by students’ perceptions of their educators, thereby calling into question the validity of this specific assessment tool (see Shevlin et al., 2000 and Spooren et al., 2013 for examples).

There are also educational concerns, for example, that current assessment methods do not contribute to educators’ professional development. Among other things, assessment methods are often criticized for providing little or no constructive feedback. Without this, educators may find it difficult to improve their teaching methods or address weaknesses. Moreover, critics argue that current assessments often fail to take into account the teaching context, such as subject matter, class size, level (bachelor’s or master’s), and student diversity and background. Each of these factors can significantly affect teaching methods and outcomes and should be considered when assessing educators. Moreover, current assessment methods neglect broader purposes of teaching, such as the value of mentorship and creating an inclusive learning environment.

In some institutions, however, there is already a focus on a more holistic approach that integrates different sources of feedback, such as peer evaluations and self-reflection, to gain a more accurate understanding of teacher effectiveness, for example during the University Teaching Qualification track. The ability to reflect on what works and what does not work, and to understand why, is invaluable to teacher quality. Therefore, universities play a crucial role in promoting these skills, as these skills must be recognized and valued by policy makers by reflecting them in assessments. A change to holistic assessment of educators emphasizes effective teaching and the long-term effect educators can have on student growth. Educators need to actively pursue their own development and make informed choices in any given situation, highlighting the significance of teacher agency in discussions about teacher quality.

Embracing Teacher Agency

Embracing teacher agency in the evaluation of teacher quality is crucial for fostering a culture of innovation, growth, and student-centered education. Teacher agency refers to the ability of educators to make intentional choices and take purposeful actions in their teaching practice. It involves educators’ capacity to initiate and control the learning environment, make informed pedagogical decisions in any given situation, and collaborate with colleagues and students. Teacher agency is often seen as a key factor in promoting effective teaching and learning in higher education. By recognizing and valuing teacher agency, universities can tap into the expertise and unique perspectives of their educators.

Moreover, teacher agency encourages continuous professional development. When educators have the autonomy to explore and experiment with different instructional strategies, they are more inclined to seek out new research, attend workshops, collaborate with colleagues, and reflect on their own teaching practices. This proactive approach to professional growth ultimately benefits both educators and students, as it promotes a culture of lifelong learning and innovation within the educational institution.

Embracing teacher agency also cultivates a sense of trust and collaboration between faculty members and administration. Rather than imposing rigid evaluation criteria, universities can create opportunities for open dialogue, feedback, and collaboration, allowing educators to take an active role in shaping their own professional growth and the overall direction of the institution.


In conclusion, embracing teacher agency is a powerful facilitator for elevating teacher quality in universities. By empowering educators to exercise their expertise, make informed decisions, and engage in continuous professional development, universities can foster a dynamic and student-centered educational environment that nurtures innovation, growth, and excellence in teaching and learning. It is essential to engage in an active debate about the assessment of educational quality and challenge the predominant reliance on quantitative evaluations such as SET. Recognizing the complexity of assessing teacher quality, we propose a paradigm shift towards valuing teacher agency in universities. By fostering a culture that empowers educators, promotes collaboration, and encourages continuous learning, we can unlock the potential for lasting educational reforms. Embracing teacher agency is crucial for assessing educators’ quality effectively. By involving educators in the assessment process and valuing their expertise, autonomy, and professional judgment, we can create a more meaningful evaluation system. Practically, this can be achieved through collaborative goal setting, self-reflection and self-assessment, peer observations and feedback, diverse assessment methods, and continuous professional development. By recognizing educators as professionals and empowering them to take an active role in their own assessment, we create a comprehensive and empowering process that benefits both educators and students. Embracing teacher agency thus not only benefits individual educators, but also fosters an educational environment characterized by its dynamic and student-centered nature. It promotes innovation, encourages growth and strives for excellence in both teaching and learning. And that’s what we call: good teaching!


Biesta, G., Priestley, M., & Robinson, S. (2017). Talking about education: Exploring the significance of teachers’ talk for teacher agency. Journal of curriculum studies49(1), 38-54.

Cherng, H. Y. S., & Davis, L. A. (2019). Multicultural matters: An investigation of key assumptions of multicultural education reform in teacher education. Journal of Teacher Education70(3), 219-236.

Harris, A., & Jones, M. (2019). Teacher leadership and educational change. School Leadership & Management39(2), 123-126.

Imants, J., & Van der Wal, M. M. (2020). A model of teacher agency in professional development and school reform. Journal of Curriculum Studies52(1), 1-14.

Kusters, M., van der Rijst, R., de Vetten, A., & Admiraal, W. (2023). University lecturers as change agents: How do they perceive their professional agency?. Teaching and Teacher Education, 127, 104097.

Shevlin, M., Banyard, P., Davies, M., & Griffiths, M. (2000). The validity of student evaluation of teaching in higher education: love me, love my lectures?. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education25(4), 397-405.

Spooren, P., Brockx, B., & Mortelmans, D. (2013). On the validity of student evaluation of teaching: The state of the art. Review of Educational Research83(4), 598-642.

Tao, J., & Gao, X. (2017). Teacher agency and identity commitment in curricular reform. Teaching and teacher education63, 346-355.

Stay connected! Students’ sense of belonging in higher education  0

Students’ access, inclusiveness and well-being

Not all students enter university with the same economic, social and cultural capital. Therefore, access, inclusiveness and well-being for all are key in developments in higher education across the world. Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) are part of the broader social tissue and not just places where students acquire academic skills; they also help students become more resilient in the face of adversity and feel more connected with the people around them. Not least, HEIs are the first place where students experience society in all its facets, and those experiences can have a profound influence on students’ attitudes and behavior in life.

Importance of students’ sense of belonging

As higher education becomes increasingly competitive, students come under more pressure to succeed in their grades, which increases their levels of stress. Stress has been linked to mental health problems, which are highly prevalent among the student population and have been shown to impact learning and well-being (Stallman & King, 2016). A number of factors can affect student retention and well-being, including the student’s social experience within the higher education environment. Students’ sense of belonging to their institutions – personal feelings of connectedness to the institution occurring in academic and social spheres – has come to be recognized as one of the most significant factors in students’ success and retention in higher education. While individual characteristics such as personality and propensity to connect may have some impact, it is also acknowledged that institutional factors play an important role. Elements such as the culture of the university or curriculum design may affect the students’ experiences, including their sense of belonging and connection to other students, staff and the institution (Kahu & Nelson, 2018).

COVID-19 pandemic

The lockdowns in response to COVID-19 pandemic have interrupted conventional schooling and in many countries online teaching is now a new routine for many students in higher education, but it presents significant challenges. Many students experience challenges with respect to keeping a sense of belonging to their peers, staff and institution. Students in the most marginalized groups, who don’t have access to digital learning resources or lack the resilience and engagement to learn on their own, are at risk of falling behind. Universities from around the world have been uncertain about how long the COVID-19 crisis will last and how it might affect the mental health of students and faculty.

What to do?

Students have to cope with many challenges, both inside and outside HEIs, which can have immense consequences varying from poor access, low engagement and feelings of distress to delays and drop-out. Yet these challenges and consequences can be different depending on students’ social, cultural, economic and language backgrounds leading to a discrepancy between inclusive access and inclusive outcomes. But how should HEIs take up this massive challenge of access, inclusiveness and well-being for all? For sure not the umpteenth study on how students experience higher education in COVID-19 times. More attention for connecting students, socializing activities, and embodying social settings; less lecturing, testing and calls to account. Let’s stay connected to take up this massive challenge!

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