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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Assessment of higher order cognitive skills in undergraduate education: modified essay or multiple choice questions? Research paper

Edward J Palmer12* and Peter G Devitt2

Author Affiliations

1 Centre for Learning and Professional Development, University of Adelaide, Adelaide, Australia

2 Dept of Surgery, University of Adelaide, Adelaide, Australia

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BMC Medical Education 2007, 7:49  doi:10.1186/1472-6920-7-49

Published: 28 November 2007

Abstract

Background

Reliable and valid written tests of higher cognitive function are difficult to produce, particularly for the assessment of clinical problem solving. Modified Essay Questions (MEQs) are often used to assess these higher order abilities in preference to other forms of assessment, including multiple-choice questions (MCQs). MEQs often form a vital component of end-of-course assessments in higher education. It is not clear how effectively these questions assess higher order cognitive skills. This study was designed to assess the effectiveness of the MEQ to measure higher-order cognitive skills in an undergraduate institution.

Methods

An analysis of multiple-choice questions and modified essay questions (MEQs) used for summative assessment in a clinical undergraduate curriculum was undertaken. A total of 50 MCQs and 139 stages of MEQs were examined, which came from three exams run over two years. The effectiveness of the questions was determined by two assessors and was defined by the questions ability to measure higher cognitive skills, as determined by a modification of Bloom's taxonomy, and its quality as determined by the presence of item writing flaws.

Results

Over 50% of all of the MEQs tested factual recall. This was similar to the percentage of MCQs testing factual recall. The modified essay question failed in its role of consistently assessing higher cognitive skills whereas the MCQ frequently tested more than mere recall of knowledge.

Conclusion

Construction of MEQs, which will assess higher order cognitive skills cannot be assumed to be a simple task. Well-constructed MCQs should be considered a satisfactory replacement for MEQs if the MEQs cannot be designed to adequately test higher order skills. Such MCQs are capable of withstanding the intellectual and statistical scrutiny imposed by a high stakes exit examination.