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The Chosen One

The sheer joy of multiple choice

School’s winding down for those of us fortunate enough not to be working in language schools, we’re on the home stretch.

Yup, we’ve started counting down the days and weeks to the summer holiday when, with tears (of joy) in our eyes, we’ll bid farewell to our young charges, wish them an enjoyable holiday and hope that a few of the really annoying little darlings contract incurable diseases or are involved in freak Playstation related accidents at home.

The signal for the countdown to freedom to begin is, of course, the mid-term exams. These, more often than not, take place over the Christmas week at government establishments and everywhere else a week or so later. The subject of testing is one that’s guaranteed to get a few indignant responses from farang teachers – which isn’t really surprising when you compare what goes on in an average Thai school/college with their counterparts in Western nations.

Multiple guess tests are the test of choice in the majority of educational establishments. It’s easy for the teachers to mark – a computer usually does it – and most of the students can manage to make some form of blot in one of the four boxes available – so no loss of face about handing in a blank test paper.

Apart from being a bit of a cop out, relying solely on the results from multiple choice exams, which often happens, doesn’t really give the teacher a clear understanding of the comprehension ability of an individual student. I figure that the whole reason behind students being tested should be to see if they actually understand what the hell the teacher’s been talking about whilst they’ve been sleeping for the last couple of months.

At this point someone will mention the fact that teachers should get to know their students individually and it’s at this point I mention that getting to know, remember and evaluate over 650 students isn’t something that’s likely to happen.

On the exam paper the teacher sets the students the task of reading a short passage and answering several questions. Each question has 4 possible answers, usually comprising of the correct answer, a distractor – a near miss if you like, something too general for this situation and a totally wrong answer that conflicts with the actual sentence or passage that’s been given.

So far so good. Seems pretty straight forward the more correct answers you get the better your comprehension. The test determines who’s actually read their books and not just drawn a pretty picture on the front cover – such as the kid sitting in the far left corner of the room I’m in now. I’m writing this column whilst invigilating an exam.

Pen stuck in his ear, saliva slowly drooling out of the left corner of his mouth – it’s ‘Buffalo Boy’. He’s in his element. He’s asleep. This is the kid who replies “I’m fine thank you. And you?” to virtually any question you ask him, with the exception of “How are you today?” to which B.B. replies, as fast as greased lightning “Today . . . uhh . . . Tuesday” When you look at him quizzically, as if to kindly suggest that the first answer could be improved upon, he corrects himself “Errr . . Beckham”.

Further bemused expressions on the teachers face are met with him vainly blurting out words randomly in an attempt to guess the correct answer to your probing question. “Manchester . . . . 2001 . . . . Britney . . . . sexy (giggle) . . . .KFC” and, just as you’re about to disappear shaking your head, ” . . . . .good ”

Hang on a moment, he said “Good”, I’ll accept that for an answer. Now if I can only get him to repeat that as a direct response to my question I’ll be able to hold my head up high in the teachers room. Here goes. “How are you today?” Another pained expression on B.B.’s face, a lengthy pause, and then “3pm.” Sod it, I give in and allow him to go back to doing a dot to dot (or rather a zit to zit) picture on his friend’s face.

Getting back to the subject in hand. What about the students who get the question wrong but, more often than not, selected the ‘near miss’ answer instead? Has anyone tried weighting choice tests so that ‘almost correct’ answers, which show a degree of understanding on the student’s part, are taken into account? Does this happen anywhere? If so, bearing in mind that some wrong answers are wrong-er than others, are degrees of wrongness ever taken into account as they would be in a written test?

Someone throw some light on this for me.

Next week . . . Declining moral standards amongst teenagers. A Thai Rak Thai spokesman tells us how throwing money, in used, non-sequential notes, at the problem can make it go away.