If this question is more appropriate in main (perhaps tagged "education"), please let me know and I will relocate it.

Every so often, I see a multiple choice question pertaining to advanced undergraduate or beginning graduate material. I am only familiar with my own (American) education, but I have never once encountered a multiple choice question beyond calculus. Is it possible these questions come from an online course offering, or is it simply more common to see multiple choice questions in other cultures?

(Let me stress this question is decidedly not an attempt to root out potential cheating. I'm simply curious about the phenomenon of multiple choice questions in advanced courses.)

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    $\begingroup$ When I was a first-year graduate student at a very well-regarded university in the US, one very lazy professor gave us true/false exams. They were very hard -- the average score was below 50%! $\endgroup$
    – Adam Smith
    Commented Dec 21, 2012 at 19:50
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    $\begingroup$ The other day, I was looking at some old exams from Calculus, Linear Algebra, and Diff. Eq. at Wash. U. - St. Louis and quite a few of the exams posted were 50% (more or less) multiple choice - with options ranging from a) to k) usually. The other part of the exam was actual "problems" or free response portion where it seems partial credit was possible. $\endgroup$
    – Joe
    Commented Dec 23, 2012 at 2:25
  • $\begingroup$ The only multiple choice questions I encountered in higher education were as a part of the sieve test at the beginning of the first semester, and as the first half of bachelor's exam, but neither of these really qualifies as advanced. Other than that, I've encountered some yes/no questions in like two or three exams, but never an exam that would consist only (or even significantly) of those. On the other hand, from what I hear, multiple choice exams are a lot more common in the nearby technical university... $\endgroup$
    – tomasz
    Commented Dec 23, 2012 at 20:44
  • $\begingroup$ Of course, that doesn't include language tests. These tend to have a lot of multiple choice and true/false questions, but are probably not what you meant to ask about. ;) $\endgroup$
    – tomasz
    Commented Dec 23, 2012 at 20:46
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    $\begingroup$ FWIW, I can't recall ever seeing a multiple choice question in any university level math course I've taken here in Finland. The closest thing I've seen would've been something like "Which of the following statements are true, and why?", and even then I'd expect the "why?" part to count for at least half the points, if not all. $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 24, 2012 at 1:20
  • $\begingroup$ Here is a complex analysis exam given at UC-Berkeley by a future Fields medalist. $\endgroup$
    – user53153
    Commented Dec 24, 2012 at 1:53
  • $\begingroup$ I regret to say that I’ve known some of my former colleagues to give multiple-choice questions in advanced undergraduate courses, though not, I think, a whole exam’s worth of them. $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 24, 2012 at 13:31
  • $\begingroup$ @BrianM.Scott Do you find multiple choice questions inherently inferior? My (not fully-formed) thought is that they have some utility for testing factual knowledge, whereas conceptual knowledge is better address by a more open-ended question. $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 26, 2012 at 22:40
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    $\begingroup$ Yes, I do: I want to know why that particular answer was chosen. This isn’t to say that they cannot provide meaningful results; they can. They’re just an inferior tool for the purpose. $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 27, 2012 at 0:34
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    $\begingroup$ @Adam: Were these included in the said exam, "$\exists x.x=\{x\}$" and "$0=1$"? $\endgroup$
    – Asaf Karagila Mod
    Commented Dec 28, 2012 at 17:28

2 Answers 2


I haven't used multiple choice in advanced courses myself. But (if done carefully) they can be effective. The general wisdom is that a well-made multiple-choice exam takes much more time to prepare it before the exam, but much less time to grade it after the exam.

The poorer students tend to hate these exams, since you have to know your material. You can't get a good score on partial credit only.


One thing I've noticed, and may explain, in part, the multiple choice questions:

It seems that some users are practicing for standardized examinations (national scholarships, standardized qualifying exams of sorts), using older exams of that sort to study/practice.

I don't think this explains the phenomenon entirely, but I do recall one particular question at a more advanced level, which was in multiple-choice format, and for which the OP explained was an old national examination which determined qualifying for entry to/funding for graduate study. I can't recall the nation, however.


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