Free-response exams benefit CST

Science majors learn more from test questions that require written responses.

As a biochemistry major, I often take classes in the physics and chemistry departments. In these classes, when it’s time for an exam, I usually hear students ask, “Do we have to know that equation?” or “Will calculators be allowed for the exam?” But the most predominant question I hear asked by students in the College of Science and Technology is, “Will the exam be multiple-choice or free-response?”

In most of the classes I have taken in CST, exams have been offered in a multiple-choice format, with limited free-response questions that require students to write out an explanation to answer the question. But I think free-response questions are actually more effective in testing students’ knowledge and encouraging them to learn the details for scientific processes.

Rhonda Nicholson, a biology professor who has taught for the past 10 years, agrees that free-response exams are a better means of testing students.

“It makes the students be able to understand the material and be able to think,” she said. “Because with a multiple-choice test, the answers are right in front of you. It’s like leaving the keys in a Mercedes-Benz. With free-response, you either know it or you don’t.”

When students answer free-response questions, they must learn to clearly and comprehensively demonstrate their knowledge on a subject, rather than just memorize and regurgitate information.

“Multiple-choice exams are kind of useless,” said Subin Siby, a junior biology major. “They limit you to recall instead of knowing things. A multiple choice problem makes it easy to guess. Free-response questions are more applicable to what you do and are more useful to solving complex problems.”

It’s important that students aren’t just choosing a correct answer by chance, and that they can explain the reasoning behind their answer. Guessing in real life situations won’t cut it.

“Free-response forces you to have a deeper understanding of the content,” said Maksim Bakrenev, a senior neuroscience and Spanish major. “And beyond that, it forces you to apply it to new situations, which is useful in a lab setting or any environment in life”.

When I took Organic Chemistry during my sophomore year, I benefitted most from testing opportunities that included free-response questions. I was able draw out reaction mechanisms and visualize the movement of electrons — clearly something that cannot be done on a multiple-choice exam.

Nicholson said she relies more often on free-response exams in classes like Biology of Cancer.

“It’s not just short answer,” she said. “I also have data that I have my students  interpret and I do put information that they have to respond to, and they have to know their first principles to be able to do that.”

Multiple-choice exams waste a precious opportunity for students to demonstrate the real extent of their knowledge to their professors.

Multiple-choice exams also do not allow students to earn partial credit. Instead, points are awarded on a winner-takes-all basis. The sciences can be difficult. These points can be important for students in CST to maintain their GPAs.

Aliza Abezis, a junior biology major, said she benefits from free-response examinations because she’s allowed to “put down as much information as you know, and pick up as many points as you get.”

Regardless of the logistical benefits of testing, if students in CST are pursuing a career in research, education or the medical field, they’ll need to be able to apply knowledge to unfamiliar situations outside the classroom.

And as future scientists working to address the world’s problems, they’ll need to reason and communicate clearly to find solutions and articulate them to the global population. Free-response exams allow them to gain practice honing the communication and writing skills necessary to be able to do this.

Ultimately, CST majors benefit when they are asked to thoroughly understand and subsequently communicate their scientific knowledge. Free-response exams are the best way to achieve this.

Amer Haffar can be reached at

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