Social studies courses need to use essay-based tests

Maggie Lazaroski

Six hours of government, six more hours of history and three more hours of a social and behavioral science. These core requirements equate to an entire semester (or more) of classes — a whole eighth of every student’s time spent at UT. These classes are incredibly important to understanding the world we live in today and have the power to give students perspectives for a brighter future. 

For students to get the most out of their social studies courses, the guidelines for mastery should exceed memorizing and recalling facts. In order to understand the importance of such capacious disciplines, professors in these fields should replace multiple choice testing with essay-based evaluations.

The differences between multiple choice and essay tests are well researched, and each assesses a different set of objectives and type of understanding. Essay questions are best for testing higher level learning objectives, while multiple choice are better for testing students’ knowledge of a topic in a short amount of time.

“Being successful in a history class doesn’t mean just learning a bunch of names and dates,” history lecturer Rachel Ozanne said.  “It means learning how to think about, interpret and understand the past, and I think essay tests get at that better than multiple choice.” 

Studies show the majority of students find multiple choice tests difficult because they need to know minute details. With essay tests, they feel like they need to know the topic completely in order to produce a good answer. 

“Politics is complex, so I want students to have an understanding of that complexity — of links between different concepts and aspects of concepts, not just targeted knowledge,” government professor Kurt Weyland said regarding his use of essay testing. 

Essays, unlike multiple choice tests, require students to understand the meaning and significance of the topics they’ve learned in their own words, which both necessitates a thorough understanding of the material and proves mastery. 

“I feel like with multiple choice, it doesn’t take a lot of thinking,” public health sophomore Lawrence Robinson said. “You don’t have to formulate ideas because they’re right there in front of you.” 

In addition to developing these critical thinking skills, essay-based assessments contribute to greater retention rates, as handwritten ideas tend to translate well to our long-term memory.  

“I feel like I retain more information from essays because with multiple choice tests, I’ll memorize it for the test day, and the next day, I’ve no idea what I was tested on,” studio art sophomore Hope Harlow said. 

Subjects like chemistry or biology require more objective knowledge, but the social sciences contribute to a more theoretical understanding of topics. In order to serve students in the greatest capacity, professors in subjects such as history, government, international relations and sociology should remove multiple choice components from exams and use essays in their place. To ensure students still know some concrete facts, the use of specific examples should be included in the grading criteria. 

The utility of our education lies in the progression of our critical thinking skills and worldliness, not memorizing information that will slip out of our memory before we’re able to do anything with it.

Lazaroski is an international relations and global studies sophomore from Dallas.