How to ask multiple-choice questions when specifically wanting to test knowledge, comprehension or application

Multiple choice questions at different levels of Bloom’s taxonomy.

Let’s assume you are convinced that using ABCD-cards or clickers in your teaching is a good idea. But now you want to tailor your questions such as to specifically test for example knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis or evaluation; the six educational goals described in Bloom’s taxonomy. How do you do that?

I was recently reading a paper on “the memorial consequences of multiple-choice testing” by Marsh et al. (2007), and while the focus of that paper is clearly elsewhere, they give a very nice example of one question tailored once to test knowledge (Bloom level 1) and once to test application (Bloom level 3).

For testing knowledge, they describe asking “What biological term describes an organism’s slow adjustment to new conditions?”. They give four possible answers: acclimation, gravitation, maturation, and migration. Then for testing application, they would ask “What biological term describes fish slowly adjusting to water temperature in a new tank?” and the possible answers for this question are the same as for the first question.

Even if you are not as struck by the beauty of this example as I was, you surely appreciate that this sent me on a literature search of examples how Bloom’s taxonomy can help design multiple choice questions. And indeed I found a great resource. I haven’t been able to track down the whole paper unfortunately, but the “Appendix C: MCQs and Bloom’s Taxonomy” of “Designing and Managing MCQs” by Carneson, Delpierre and Masters contains a wealth of examples. Rather than just repeating their examples, I am giving you my own examples inspired by theirs*. But theirs are certainly worth reading, too!

Bloom level 1: Knowledge

At this level, all that is asked is that students recall knowledge.

Example 1.1

Which of the following persons first explained the phenomenon of “westward intensification”?

  1. Sverdrup
  2. Munk
  3. Nansen
  4. Stommel
  5. Coriolis

Example 1.2

In oceanography, which one of the following definitions describes the term “thermocline”?

  1. An oceanographic region where a strong temperature change occurs
  2. The depth range were temperature changes rapidly
  3. The depth range where density changes rapidly
  4. A strong temperature gradient
  5. An isoline of constant temperature

Example 1.3

Molecular diffusivities depend on the property or substance being diffused. From low to high molecular diffusivities, which of the sequences below is correct?

  1. Temperature > salt > sugar
  2. Sugar > salt > temperature
  3. temperature > salt == sugar
  4. temperature > sugar > salt

Bloom level 2. Comprehension

At this level, understanding of knowledge is tested.

Example 2.1

Which of the following describes what an ADCP measures?

  1. How quickly a sound signal is reflected by plankton in sea water
  2. How the frequency of a reflected sound signal changes
  3. How fast water is moving relative to the instrument
  4. How the sound speed changes with depth in sea water

Bloom level 3: Application

Knowledge and comprehension of the knowledge are assumed, now it is about testing whether it can also be applied.

Example 3.1

What velocity will a shallow water wave have in 2.5 m deep water?

  1. 1 m/s
  2. 2 m/s
  3. 5 m/s
  4. 10 m/s

Example 3.2

Which instrument would you use to make measurements with if you wanted to calculate the volume transport of a current across a ridge?

  1. CTD
  2. ADCP
  3. ARGO float
  4. Winkler titrator

This were only the first three Bloom-levels, but this post is long enough already, so I’ll stop here for now and get back to you with the others later.

Can you see using the Bloom taxonomy as a tool you would use when preparing multiple-choice questions?

If you are reading this post and think that it is helpful for your own teaching, I’d appreciate if you dropped me a quick line; this post specifically was actually more work than play to write. But if you find it helpful I’d be more than happy to continue with this kind of content. Just lemme know! :-)

* If these questions were used in class rather than as a way of testing, they should additionally contain the option “I don’t know”. Giving that option avoids wild guessing and gives you a clearer feedback on whether or not students know (or think they know) the answer. Makes the data a whole lot easier to interpret for you!

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