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Few reiterations on MCQs

The problem with the Pakistani assessment system

Few reiterations on MCQs

Last week’s column on the system of assessment based on Multiple Choice Questions evoked plenteous but varied response. I had particularly underlined the adverse ramifications of such a system of assessment as it is practised at the levels of matriculation and intermediate (FA and FSc) by the secondary boards.

This practice tests the ability to memorise petty details which are at times no more than a single word. As a result, students while preparing for exams do not focus on understanding concepts and ideas. Thus, they fail to cultivate the capacity to construct a consistent argument as well as the analytical skills required to unravel a given situation.

In view of these observations, I pleaded for a shift to essay-based examination which tests logical and effective composition skills. Responses furnished mostly by historians and social scientists supported my assertion. Some of them have taken it up with the Higher Education Commission and have tried to push the case for descriptive-analytical mode of examination, but a response is still awaited. However, some senior academics — although they refrained from fully refuting my analysis — insist on upholding the MCQ-based testing system, and instead argue for improving the quality of the MCQs. They substantiate their argument in the support of MCQs by flagging the American GRE test in which such questions figure in abundance.

The elite school systems in the private sector prepare their students in essay mode; thereby, they stand a far better chance of securing admission to the top universities of the world. Thus, the class dimension in these two divergent systems of exams should not be ruled out.

I find the analogy — whereby certain exams like matriculation and F.A/F.Sc are seen as the same as GRE — as somewhat misplaced. To me, and to so many others, the two systems of assessment are worlds apart.

The Graduate Record Examination (GRE) is a computer- or paper-based test that is used to evaluate graduate school applicants and it is administrated by the Electronic Testing Service (ETS) at over 1,000 test centres in 160 countries worldwide. The GRE was created by ETS in 1949 and aims to measure Verbal Reasoning, Quantitative Reasoning, and Analytical Writing skills. ETS is composed of a combination of researchers and statisticians, test developers, and educational policy specialists dedicated to social responsibility, equity, opportunity, and quality. It is also the graduate test with the most diverse student base, used by students applying to a great variety of schools and programmes.

As stated earlier, my focus in the previous column was the examination conducted by the secondary boards and not entry tests like GRE. It is also pertinent that the MCQ-oriented assessment in vogue here does not take into account verbal reasoning or analytical writing skills. Through such a system of assessment, we are simply promoting rote learning.

Read also: An anathema for the system

Importantly, this practice is prevalent only in government-owned institutions including the provincial public service commissions. One MCQ set to aspiring History lecturers this time, for example, asked about the exact number of words in the draft of the Lahore (Pakistan) resolution. I fail to understand the practical utility of asking such a question. Similarly, what benefit would it accrue if a candidate is asked to narrate the names of Abbaside Caliphs in their proper sequence?

The elite school systems in the private sector prepare their students in essay mode; thereby, they stand a far better chance of securing admission to the top universities of the world. Thus, the class dimension in these two divergent systems of exams should not be ruled out.

There is another take which appears to be well thought out and very well-articulated yet it draws on functional difficulties rather than matters pertaining to academics. According to this response, “the reason that essay-type questions have been abandoned is because we don’t have an adequate system for GRADING such exams, especially with thousands of exam takers. There is too much subjectivity, and the graders are a diverse lot, typically with insufficient training and even less time. Going back from MCQs may make matters worse”. In my opinion, such inadequacies as not having a proper system of grading essay-type exams should not prevent us from following what is best for our youth and posterity.

Another response, provided by an opponent of the essay-based testing system, incorporates a different dimension. According to that critic, the question worth asking is: what role do we want to assign to education in the arts and social sciences particularly in the socio-cultural constitution of our society and state? My take on that is: if we want our society to be plural, inclusive and dynamic then our youth must be properly equipped with analytical tools so that it can comprehend the social realities on ground and be prepared for taking on any challenge that comes its way. Thus, we need rational, argumentative Pakistani youth who are thinking, articulate and perceptive.

My concern is that the social sciences and humanities cannot inculcate the requisite capability among the youngsters if they are not adequately instructed and assessed in those disciplines. Critical engagement with ideas and discourses, in all likelihood, will also serve as an antidote to extremist tendencies which invariably lead to terrorism and militancy. For that to happen, it is imperative to train students to organise their thoughts, which comes through writing extensively. The thoughts once organised may evolve into concrete theory and then the process of indigenisation of knowledge gets underway.

In order to reach the stage where theory becomes possible, the young scholars will have to be initiated into the descriptive phase of instruction followed by the analytical phase which may lead us into the phase of synthesis. Synthesis is the prelude to theorisation. In our current situation — where we are creating theory by putting together myriad intellectual strands — this systematic theorisation seems a distant dream. However, we can start that process by initiating our youngsters into the realm of creative writing which obviously does not come by assessing them through MCQs.

I earnestly believe that by employing such a system of assessment we have gone many steps backward. The system of assessment, in most cases, determines the contours and the nitty gritty of the way instruction is organised in any milieu. The Pakistani assessment system is in dire need of reform. 

Tahir Kamran

tahir kamran
The writer is Professor in the faculty of Liberal Arts at the Beaconhouse National University, Lahore

One comment

  • Sir what we need is to rectify our primary education. Then we can have an idea of how to assess our youth in matric amd FA/FSc. with this base provided by our primary education we can only expect memorusing.
    What is the need of teaching a 2nd class student structure of retina , ear and systems of body.
    What they need at that time is focus on their personality and character building. Teach them languages and arts….

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