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Multiple-choice Tests as Learning Events: The Role of Desirably Difficult Alternatives


Retrieving information is an effective learning strategy to promote the long-term retention of materials (see, e.g., a meta-analysis by Rowland, 2015), so tests can foster learning as well as assess learning. Multiple-choice testing, however, has often been criticized as not engaging retrieval processes to the same extent as do other test types, such as cued-recall and free-recall (see, e.g., a meta-analysis by Hamaker, 1986). Recent research, however, suggests that as a pedagogical tool, multiple-choice tests can in fact trigger productive retrieval processes, provided the incorrect alternatives are competitive enough to induce the retrieval of why they are incorrect, and can even have benefits over other formats. More specifically, multiple-choice tests can boost the recall of non-tested, related information as learners retrieve and reject information connected to those alternatives (e.g., Little, Bjork, Bjork, & Angello, 2012), especially when the test format requires that learners make confidence judgments about the alternatives (Sparck, Bjork, & Bjork, 2016). Additionally, multiple-choice testing might be an efficient way to study when one is tasked with learning a large amount of information. The experiments reported in this dissertation were designed to explore further the potential of multiple-choice testing as a tool for learning.

The results of Experiments 1 and 2 suggest that taking a confidence-weighted multiple-choice test, which requires that a test taker consider more carefully than does a standard multiple-choice test why a given alternative is correct or incorrect, can lead a learner to transfer that behavior to a subsequent standard-format multiple-choice test. The results of Experiment 3, on the other hand, in which the focus was shifted to the possible benefits of multiple-choice tests as pre-tests presented before a study phase, found no significant benefits of the confidence-weighted format over the standard format.

Experiments 4 and 5 were designed to examine whether multiple-choice testing might be beneficial in the learning of vocabulary words, especially when the to-be-learned words are difficult and confusable. Again, the results demonstrated that multiple-choice testing can have benefits that go beyond the benefits of cued-recall testing, especially for words that are incorrect alternatives on an initial test, but are correct alternatives on a subsequent test. The results have major implications for the design of flashcards.

In summary, the results reported in this dissertation demonstrate that a multiple-choice test, when well designed, can be a powerful pedagogical tool, one that can contribute to optimizing educational practices.

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