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Using Multiple Choice Questions to Assess Higher Order Thinking

Instructor time is valuable, and assessment feedback should be quick to inform ongoing learning. While essays, problem sets, and term papers are customary ways to evaluate higher order thinking skills, instructors can get quickly overwhelmed using and grading these types of barometers, particularly in large class settings. Assessments, such as these, are more complicated, thus are more time consuming, and are subjective. Although not as in-depth, multiple choice questions can efficiently and effectively be used to assess higher order thinking skills too.

Understanding Bloom’s Taxonomy

The goal of instruction should be critical thinking rather than rote memorization. Most educators are well versed in Bloom’s Taxonomy, published in 1956. Although it received little attention at that time, it has since been translated into 22 languages and is widely applied.

Here is a quick review of Bloom’s Taxonomy as it relates to the teaching of college science.

  1. Remembering: the ability to remember/recall previously learned materials.
    Examples of behavioral verbs: list, name, identify, define, show
    Sample learning objectives in science: know common terms, know specific facts, know basic procedures and methods
  2. Comprehending: the ability to grasp the meaning of material, and to explain or restate ideas.
    Examples of behavioral verbs: chart, compare, contrast, interpret, demonstrate
    Sample learning objectives in science: understand facts and principles, interpret charts and graphs, demonstrate laboratory methods and procedures
  3. Applying: the ability to use learned material in new situations.
    Examples of behavioral verbs: construct, manipulate, calculate, illustrate, solve
    Sample learning objectives in science: apply concepts and principles to new situations, apply theories to practical situations, build graphs and charts
  4. Analyzing: the ability to separate material into components and show relationships between the parts.
    Examples of behavioral verbs: classify, categorize, organize, deduce, distinguish
    Sample learning objectives in science: differentiate between facts and inferences, evaluate the relevancy of data, recognize unstated assumptions
  5. Synthesizing: the ability to put together separate ideas to form a new whole or establish new relationships.
    Examples of behavioral verbs: hypothesize, create, design, construct, plan
    Sample learning objectives in science: propose a plan for an experiment, formulate a new scheme for classifying, integrate multiple areas of learning into a plan to solve a problem
  6. Evaluating: the ability to judge the worth or value of material against stated criteria.
    Examples of behavioral verbs: evaluate, recommend, criticize, defend, justify Sample learning objective in science: judge the way that the data support conclusions.

It is a common misconception that as one climbs the scale of Bloom’s Taxonomy, the difficulty of the questions increases. The increase in cognitive demand associated with higher-order questions refers to the complexity of the questions, not the difficulty. Higher-order questions require a different set of cognitive demands, but they are not necessarily more difficult.

Next week, we will show different examples of multiple choice questions from Bloom’s Taxonomy used by the University of Texas at Austin, Faculty Innovation Center.

Mark Espinola
CEO + Founder of GradeHub




Lord, Thomas R., et al. College Science Teachers Guide to Assessment. National Science Teachers Association, 2009.

Hellyer, S. (n.d.). A teaching handbook for university faculty. Chapter 1: Course objectives. Retrieved October 1, 1998, from Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis.