UCARE: Undergraduate Creative Activities & Research Experiences


Date of this Version

Spring 4-11-2016

Document Type



Potts, M., Couch, B., & Hubbard, J. (2016, April). Assessing Student Comprehension in Introductory Biology: A Comparison of Free-Response and Multiple-True/False Exam Formats. Poster presented at the Undergraduate Research Fair, Lincoln, NE.


Copyright (c) 2016 Macy Potts, Joanna Hubbard, Brian Couch


Question format is an important consideration when designing instruments to gauge student comprehension. In many lecture-style courses, instructors must decide how to effectively test a large group of students. Two common types of question formats used for introductory biology exams are free-response (FR) and multiple-true/false (MTF). FR questions include a question prompt which students respond to with essay-style answers. Conversely, MTF questions include an opening question stem with accompanying statements to be marked as either true or false. The goal of this study was to determine the advantages and disadvantages of FR and MTF question formats for assessing student comprehension in introductory biology. We found that FR format gives students the opportunity to articulate their thoughts & allows for more synthetic thinking, but answers can be vague or off-topic making it difficult to gauge student comprehension of content they omit from their answer. On the contrary, MTF provides instructors with clear answers that can be used to gauge student comprehension, but it is unclear if students use cues in the statements to select correct answers without fully comprehending the concept. In conclusion, regardless of question format, the quality of a question will affect its ability to evoke the desired answer and accurately gauge student comprehension. Meaning, instructors should consider using a variety of question formats in order to gain a more complete understanding of students’ comprehension of topics.