Do math multiple choice question exams weaken students' cognitive development?

August 11, 2023 - 09:33
Do multiple-choice math tests for high school students impede the comprehensive grasp of mathematical concepts and hinder cognitive development? Lê Thống Nhất, a math teacher and founder of the online BigSchool, talks to VoV2 Radio (Voice of Vietnam) about the matter.
Lê Thống Nhất, a mathematics educator and founder of the online school BigSchool. — Photo courtesy of

Do multiple-choice math tests for high school students impede the comprehensive grasp of mathematical concepts and hinder cognitive development? Lê Thống Nhất, a math teacher and founder of the online BigSchool, talks to VoV2 Radio (Voice of Vietnam) about the matter.

In 2017, the Ministry of Education and Training introduced the multiple-choice math test as a component of high school graduation exams. Over the past seven years, viewpoints have arisen saying the model constricts the essence of mathematics, undermining students' capacity to grasp its intricacies. What is your perspective?

We must envisage the twelve-year trajectory of high school mathematics education. Current textbooks aligned with the General Education Programme (GDPT) of 2018 vividly underscore that mathematics serves as a vehicle to cultivate students' cognitive faculties. The textbook examples are all elucidated through self-directed study, and educators are likewise guided to impart instruction within the same framework.

The new textbooks further emphasise nurturing students' analytical acumen. Even within the draft high school graduation exam framework slated for 2025, the Ministry of Education and Training reaffirms this objective. Throughout each school year, assessments and periodic evaluations in mathematics predominantly take the form of essay-based tests, occasionally incorporating one or two multiple-choice queries. Examinations in mathematics, both those targeted at proficient students across all tiers and levels, mostly adopt essay-based formats.

Only the high school graduation exam adopts an exclusive multiple-choice configuration, yet it would be overly simplistic to attribute the erosion of mathematical cogitation solely to this examination. I endorse the 2025 graduation exam proposal featuring a multiple-choice math component. However, it is imperative to incorporate an expanded array of multiple-choice formats, extending beyond the conventional one-out-of-four option paradigm.

Many educators voice concerns about the multiple-choice high school graduation exam. They assert that many students resort to solving math problems through tactics, bypassing logical reasoning, and often resorting to luck when making random selections. How do you perceive this situation?

If students find themselves grappling with mathematical problem-solving, it reflects an educational shortcoming. Advising students on tactics might merely assist them in excluding certain options, but relying solely on luck across all 50 questions, where securing a high score resembles winning a lottery, is an inadequate strategy.

Regardless of the assessment format, educators spanning grades 1 through 12 must continue cultivating students' problem-comprehension and solving abilities. Moreover, imparting techniques for swiftly eliminating incorrect options can be integrated, but even these techniques necessitate thoughtful consideration.

The high school graduation exam is a 50-question multiple-choice math test, with a 90-minute duration. Students have on average under 2 minutes to solve each question. Could rapid thinking inadvertently lead to hasty choices, diluting the emphasis on methodical problem-solving?

Real-world scenarios often demand prompt responses or speedy solutions. Cultivating rapid cognitive processing is essential, as occasions arise when decisions must be reached within seconds, leaving little room for contemplation.

Past instances reveal that, in essay-based exams, many students memorised prepared responses and strategically tackled the most challenging questions, even if they weren't otherwise exceptional learners.

Objective tests can counteract numerous drawbacks associated with conventional exams. In a computerised testing environment, the process of question copying, misplacement, or erroneous data entry can be minimised, thus promoting accurate marking. Decreased human intervention engenders objectivity and impartiality in evaluating outcomes.

The ongoing concern within Vietnamese education lies in teaching methods. What do you say to this?

No single approach should steer pedagogy toward exclusively favouring the multiple-choice assessment format, wherein students pick from four options. Consequently, adept management of instruction is necessitated, extending from professional teams to individual schools, and encompassing educational departments and ministries.

Stringent oversight of periodic evaluations across all grade levels is imperative. Worth noting is the widespread practice in many countries where math textbooks feature an array of multiple-choice exercises, with students tackling them directly within the book.

How stark is the contrast between the multiple-choice evaluation method and the mathematical essay approach in terms of student performance assessment?

Such a determination mandates meticulous data analysis. However, each evaluation method presents its own merits and drawbacks. In the context of an examination encompassing nearly a million students, the objective test method, particularly when facilitated through computerised assessments, unequivocally holds an edge over the essay format. It's essential to comprehend that the graduation exam constitutes an evaluative measure rather than a university entrance examination.

What are the issues that need attention when organising multiple-choice math exams in the present?

The focal point of current discourse resides in question bank development. A comprehensive compilation of diverse objective multiple-choice questions, spanning various types and categories, should be constructed.

Establishing a repository of standardised objective and empirical questions is paramount. According to recognised reputable international testing entities, questions should undergo rigorous two-year testing and standardisation processes prior to inclusion in the examination question bank.

How would you rate the quality of recent years' multiple-choice math questions within the high school graduation exam?

I see an excess of certain types of objective multiple-choice questions, with select exam items derived from non-standardised sources. The presence of rudimentary options remains prevalent. In this realm, mathematical methodologies are available for assessing question banks and multiple-choice exams, warranting the attention of examination administrators for comprehensive evaluation.

Internationally, are multiple-choice math exams a prominent feature of large-scale student assessment?

In the United States, an array of tests catering to the evaluation of high school students' proficiency exists, with the General Education Development (GED) diploma serving as a fundamental and prevalent benchmark. Applicable to individuals aged 17 and above, the GED attains equivalence to a Vietnamese high school diploma. Notably, the math section of the GED examination employs a multiple-choice structure, further partitioned into sections that allow calculator usage and those that don't.

Conversely, many universities in the United States opt for either the SAT or ACT tests as their entrance examinations, providing candidates the flexibility to choose one or even undertake both.

In Asia, Japanese high school students encounter the necessity of navigating two distinct examinations if they aspire to secure a university education. The initial comprehensive examination transpires during the initial two days of January and encompasses Mathematics as a compulsory subject, evaluated through a multiple-choice format.

Following the completion of this initial examination, students are required to undertake an examination specific to the universities of their preference. This latter examination assumes a written and oral format.

In Việt Nam, should the results of the graduation examination be employed for university admissions, these outcomes ought to be regarded as preliminary evaluations.

Meanwhile, in China, students surmount the hurdle of a university entrance examination colloquially known as the Gaokao. Alongside compulsory assessments—Mathematics, English, and Literature—candidates opt to undertake an examination within either the social science cluster (history, geography, and politics) or the natural science cluster (chemistry, physics, and biology). This examination predominantly adheres to a multiple-choice format, with the written component reserved for those inclined towards delving into the realm of philosophy.

Russia follows a similar trajectory with its university admission math examination, structured similarly to the Gaokao in order to counter cheating.

The international Kangaroo math exam employs a fully multiple-choice paradigm, featuring questions with five possible choices. The Singapore and Asia SASMO examinations interweave 15 multiple-choice questions each with five answer choices, alongside 10 questions exclusively requiring responses.

What is your perspective on an alternative math examination format that entails 70 per cent of multiple-choice questions and 30 per cent of essay-based questions?

From my point of view, a complete transition to a 100 per cent objective test model, bolstered by the incorporation of diversified multiple-choice question types, housed within a standardised question repository, surpasses allocating a mere 30 per cent to essay-based inquiries. The latter approach could inadvertently lead to instances of excessive reliance on memorisation and fortuity, thereby skewing results towards the evaluative subjectivity of the grader.

An essential reminder underscores that the high school graduation exam is an evaluation predicated upon knowledge and skillset demonstration, serving as an assessment rather than an entryway into higher education. Mitigating fraudulent activities across every stage of this process remains of paramount importance. — VNS