Tomorrow's Professor Msg.#63 On-Line Multiple Choice Questions With Rationale Answer Statements .An Interesting Use of the WWW


Here is an edited version of an article in the Stanford, "Speaking of
Computers," Issue #48, 9/21/98 on an interesting use of rationale
statements to complement multiple choice problem sets in an introductory biology class at Stanford. The application has turned out to be so popular that it is being made available universtity-wide in January, 1999. Further information, including the complete article can be found at: (

Please let me know if you are familiar with any related kinds of
approaches that we can share with all subscribers.


Rick Reis
UP NEXT: E-mail Mentors for Women In Engineering, Sciences - MentorNet Update

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"Biology Problem Sets and the WWW - The Use of Rationale Statements to Complement Multiple Choice Answers"

In Spring Quarter, 1998, the Stanford Program in Human Biology and the Stanford Learning Lab experimented with using the World Wide Web to submit weekly problem sets. The process involved an unusual element - students were we required to submit rationales for each of their multiple choice answers, and these written responses were also evaluated.

The course, The Human Organism, involved two faculty members Russell Fernald and Craig Heller), five course assistants, and 208 students.

Multiple choice problem sets were made available to students via the Web at the end of each week's lectures. Within a short time, they were graded by computer and the correct answers were posted on the Web.

In addition to selecting a multiple choice answer to each question in the problem set, students were required to submit short "rationales" explaining their answers. These rationales were sorted so that the teaching team could, for example, explore the rationales provided for frequently-missed questions. According to Professor Heller, "Even though this was a large course, the faculty could give some students direct feedback each week, and that greatly stimulated higher performance levels by the students."

The use of on-line problem sets enabled students and teachers alike to receive rapid feedback on student thought processes. Working together to think about and discuss the problem sets was welcomed and encouraged, but students were responsible for submitting their own responses to each problem set. Because problem set results were available on Monday morning and sorted by section, the course assistants could tailor their sections to cover the concepts that seemed to give students the most difficulty. They could even know beforehand which students needed extra help.

As Larry Leifer, Director of the Stanford Learning Lab and Professor of Mechanical Engineering, explained,

"The on-line homework submission protocol developed for Human Biology expresses two important rules-of-thumb in learning activity: nothing is more important for the student than rapid feedback on their work; and for the professor, nothing is more important than the rationale for why students do what they do. Now they both get it.
Student/Faculty Reactions:

Student reactions to the required inclusion of rationales was mixed (e.g., "The rationale was a pain to do, but I can see how they help"). Three-fourths of the students felt that they spent more time thinking about the problems because they had to provide rationales.

Faculty and course assistant response to the use of on-line problem sets was very enthusiastic. As Professor Fernald put it: "We were all quite surprised at how well this approach worked! We had an up-to-date record of how the students were doing at every step along the way. Trying to 'push the envelope' can be very difficult, but it's very rewarding."

"One of the most powerful aspects of the rationale part of the Q&A was that we could 'see' the students' knowledge base," Professor Fernald said. "We learned what and how they thought about questions; this insight into the students' starting point was a first for us and ultimately very useful."

For More Information:

(1) A more complete version of the above article can be found at:

(2) To see a student's view of the corrected problems or a course
assistant's view of frequently-missed questions and class histograms, see: