Advantages And Disadvantages Of Essay Questions

Matching Learning Targets with an Assessment Strategy:

Should I give a multiple-choice test, an essay test or something entirely different?

By Vanessa Rutter

“I didn't fail the test, I just found 100 ways to do it wrong”

- Benjamin Franklin

Learning Targets[edit]

The student will be able to understand the advantages and disadvantages of multiple-choice tests

The student will be able to understand the advantages and disadvantages of essay tests

The student will be able to provide an example of why multiple-choice or essay tests are used

The student will be better informed of the results produced by multiple-choice, essay, and other tests


Throughout school, teachers and other education officials use tests to assess how much information that the students have absorbed. This can be important in different ways depending on how the results will be used.

Figuring out what students have learned in the classroom is an important issue in the education field (Swartz, 2006). Teachers want to know that when they assess what their students have learned that the teachers are using an accurate assessment strategy that will mesh with their learning targets. In the following information, the focus will be on affects of using multiple-choice, essay, or other tests along with why they are used.

Advantages and disadvantages of multiple-choice tests[edit]

Multiple-choice testing became popular in the 1900's because of the efficiency that it provided (Swartz, 2006). According to Matzen and Hoyt, "Beginning in 1901, the SAT was a written exam, but as the influence of psychometricians grew in 1926, the SAT became a multiple-choice test" (2006). Until recently, multiple-choice have been favored especially for SAT and ACT testing. For many years now, the SAT test was used for mostly multiple-choice questions and has changed in the past few years so that it now includes an essay section.

Other advantages of multiple-choice tests include how quickly tests can be graded compared to others. There are machines that can quickly grade scantrons as well as bubble sheets that show right and wrong answers quickly for teachers when grading. It is much more cost efficient than having to read over written answers which take time and possibly training depending on who is employed to grade them (Holtzman, 2008).

Others may say that multiple-choice tests are hard. In college, students have said that multiple-choice question tests are long, filled with many words, and very complicated (Holtzman, 2008). Some argue that multiple-choice question tests are based on testing the level of knowledge only and do not show a student's level of comprehension and application of information (Holtzman, 2008). It is hard to judge on a multiple-choice test whether the student guesses the right answer or didn't get the answer right because they were confused and chose one of the other answers (Swartz, 2006).

Advantages and disadvantages of essay tests[edit]

Essay tests have started to become more dominant because of the results that come along with it. Essay format questions contain a level of information quality that exceeds that of multiple-choice (Swartz, 2006). According to Swartz (2006), "They provide the opportunity to assess more complex student attributes and higher levels of attribute achievement". Another advantage of an essay is that the teacher can clearly see what the student knows instead of being misconstrued with multiple-choice tests were students can guess the right answers. A student that doesn't do well with test taking may find writing an essay to much more efficient rather than testing knowledge through multiple-choice.

There are also problems associated with essay tests. Administering essay test can be harder and be less cost efficient. There is technology already available for grading multiple-choice tests that take up much less time then grading essay tests. Essays cannot be ran through a bubble sheet optical reader machine that quickly grades scantrons used for multiple choice questions tests. For a professor with over three hundred students, it is much more efficient to use multiple-choice tests than grade three hundred essays. Communication is an important factor as well. For a student that can not write well, they may feel at a disadvantage when being graded by writing an essay. This could be true for someone with a learning disability.


“If more testing were the answer to the problems in our schools, testing would have solved them a long time ago”

Bill Goodling, chair of House Education Committee

Multiple-choice and essay tests are not the only test out there. The recently modified SAT test states that if you put the wrong answer you will have points taken off in the multiple-choice section. This is an incentive to not fill in the circle unless the student knows the answer or is pretty sure of themselves. There are also short answer tests and fill in the blank, but the most popular are the ones mentioned before.

Other tests may show an excess of seven different multiple-choice answers to choose from. The first three would be regular answers (A, B, or C). The next three answers will be where a student can get half credit for the answer by choosing D ("A or B"), E ("B or C), or F ("A or C"). Then the student will not get full credit by choosing D, E, or F but half credit by being able to narrow the answer down to the two answers they are certain of. The last choice would be G (I don't know). There the student would get a one-third of the credit for being honest rather than no points for guessing a wrong answer (Swartz, 2006).


In conclusion there are many advantages and disadvantages to both multiple-choice and essay tests. The teacher should pick out what is more suitable according to the classroom. Factors that would favor multiple-choice may be large class size, large amount of knowledge, technology already available for scantrons, less time for grading, and students with low writing scores. Factors that would favor essay tests could include smaller class sizes, many student teacher aides to help grade, assessment of application and comprehension, and students with high writing scores. Other tests are also being developed to bring the most from assessing students comprehension of information.

What did you learn?[edit]

1. What is an advantage of using an essay test?

A) It costs less money

B) It contains a higher level of information quality

C) It takes a long time to grade

D) It can be graded with a bubble sheet optical reader

2. What is a disadvantage of using multiple-choice tests?

A) Students can guess the answers

B) Tests require scantrons

C) Tests are easier

D) Tests can be graded faster

3. If a teacher has a large group of students in their class, what kind of test would be less time consuming to grade?

A) Fill in the blank test

B) Essay test

C) Oral test

D) Multiple choice test

4. Multiple-choice tests assess mostly what type of cognitive information from students?

A) Evaluation

B) Application

C) Knowledge

D) Comprehension


Holtzman, M. (2008). Demystifying application-based multiple-choice questions. College Teaching, 56(2), 114-120. Retrieved on March 22, 2009 from EBSCOhost database:

Matzen, R. N. Jr., & Hoyt, J. E. (2004). Basic writing placement with holistically scored essays: Research evidense. Journal of Developmental Education, 28(1), 2-4,6,8,20,23,34. Retrieved on March 21, 2009 from EBSCOhost database:

Swartz, S. M. (2006). Acceptance and accuracy of multiple choice, confidence-level, and essay question formats for graduate students. Journal of Education for Business, 81(4), 215-220. Retrieved on March 21, 2009 from EBSCOhost database:


1. B

2. A

3. D

4. C

It’s good to regularly review the advantages and disadvantages of the most commonly used test questions and the test banks that now frequently provide them.

Multiple-choice questions


  • Quick and easy to score, by hand or electronically
  • Can be written so that they test a wide range of higher-order thinking skills
  • Can cover lots of content areas on a single exam and still be answered in a class period


  • Often test literacy skills: “if the student reads the question carefully, the answer is easy to recognize even if the student knows little about the subject” (p. 194)
  • Provide unprepared students the opportunity to guess, and with guesses that are right, they get credit for things they don’t know
  • Expose students to misinformation that can influence subsequent thinking about the content
  • Take time and skill to construct (especially good questions)

True-false questions



  • Considered to be “one of the most unreliable forms of assessment” (p. 195)
  • Often written so that most of the statement is true save one small, often trivial bit of information that then makes the whole statement untrue
  • Encourage guessing, and reward for correct guesses

Short-answer questions


  • Quick and easy to grade
  • Quick and easy to write


  • Encourage students to memorize terms and details, so that their understanding of the content remains superficial

Essay questions


  • Offer students an opportunity to demonstrate knowledge, skills, and abilities in a variety of ways
  • Can be used to develop student writing skills, particularly the ability to formulate arguments supported with reasoning and evidence


  • Require extensive time to grade
  • Encourage use of subjective criteria when assessing answers
  • If used in class, necessitate quick composition without time for planning or revision, which can result in poor-quality writing

Questions provided by test banks


  • Save instructors the time and energy involved in writing test questions
  • Use the terms and methods that are used in the book


  • Rarely involve analysis, synthesis, application, or evaluation (cross-discipline research documents that approximately 85 percent of the questions in test banks test recall)
  • Limit the scope of the exam to text content; if used extensively, may lead students to conclude that the material covered in class is unimportant and irrelevant

We tend to think that these are the only test question options, but there are some interesting variations. The article that promoted this review proposes one: Start with a question, and revise it until it can be answered with one word or a short phrase. Do not list any answer options for that single question, but attach to the exam an alphabetized list of answers. Students select answers from that list. Some of the answers provided may be used more than once, some may not be used, and there are more answers listed than questions. It’s a ratcheted-up version of matching. The approach makes the test more challenging and decreases the chance of getting an answer correct by guessing.

Remember, students do need to be introduced to any new or altered question format before they encounter it on an exam.

Editor’s note: The list of advantages and disadvantages comes in part from the article referenced here. It also cites research evidence relevant to some of these advantages and disadvantages.

Reference: McAllister, D., and Guidice, R.M. (2012). This is only a test: A machine-graded improvement to the multiple-choice and true-false examination. Teaching in Higher Education, 17 (2), 193-207.

Reprinted from The Teaching Professor, 28.3 (2014): 8. © Magna Publications. All rights reserved.

Posted in Educational Assessment
Tagged with assessing student learning, designing test questions, grading strategies, multiple-choice tests, test questions

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