Fill-in-the-blank questions are fundamentally different from multiple choice questions in that the examinee provides his or her own answer. This advantages and disadvantages of this question type spring from this essential feature, because coming up with something by yourself is fundamentally different from choosing one of the options that the test creator provides.
First, let’s look at the positives: By requiring examinees to write an answer rather than selecting one, fill-in-the-blank questions better mimic real-world decision making. In the workplace, in organizations, and pretty much any time a decision needs to be made, we want people to be able to come up with their own answers. In contrast, multiple choice questions and their close cousins reward examinees for recognizing the correct answer in a field of distractors, a task that almost never occurs outside of educational assessment.
For example, suppose your learning objective is to “identify the advantages of e-commerce over traditional means of doing business.” A multiple choice question can only directly assess whether the examinee can recognize something as one of these advantages. A fill-in-the-blank question could ask them to come up with advantages without any prompting.
A related advantage of fill-in-the-blank questions is the lack of unintentional clues in the choices. Unless multiple choice questions are written very carefully, examinees who are “test savvy” will be able to make educated guesses and get higher scores than they should. With fill-in-the-blank questions, there are no choices, so there are no clues.
At first, fill-in-the-blank questions would seem to be a revolutionary improvement upon multiple choice questions. Yet they are relatively rare in most assessments. Why?
The simple answer is that most assessments are scored automatically. Grading multiple choice questions is straightforward, since you either picked the correct answer or you didn’t. In contrast, grading fill-in-the-blank questions is complicated because you have to decide what counts as a correct answer, whether something should earn partial credit, and so on. For each question, the item writer must specify each and every combination of letters that earns credit.
For example, consider this question:
The first President of the United States was _____________.
The answer to the question on the right is “George Washington.” However, examinees should also receive credit for entering “Washington,” “President Washington,” or perhaps even “Mr. Washington.” Suppose someone writes “the father of our country.” Should that earn points?
Unless spelling is being assessed, the item writer will also want to give credit for common misspellings of “Washington.” Even without misspellings, there might be a dozen potential answers that should get credit, perhaps a few more that should get partial credit, and you never get them all. In practice, it’s always difficult to think of everything that the examinees might do that should get the point. Some effort in this direction is absolutely mandatory, but too much effort here will make the questions too expensive to produce.
As a result, the correct answer to a fill-in-the-blank question is usually a single word or perhaps two words. It is never a complete sentence. This means that answering fill-in-the-blank questions is not exactly the creative, wide-open experience that it at first seems. Such questions are only appropriate when the precise sequences of characters that should earn credit can be identified in advance. In practice, many fill-in-the-blank questions are better tests of memory than critical thinking or creativity. Of course, sometimes you want to test the ability to recall memorized terms without having choices to help you out, and in those cases, fill-in-the-blank questions are a much better choice than multiple choice questions.
Math applications of fill-in-the-blank questions
That being said, fill-in-the-blank questions tend to get used more often in math. For example, there is exactly one number that is the greatest prime number less than 70, and we know what it is! The answer is 67, and any other answer is wrong.
There are still a few wrinkles when it comes to fill-in-the-blank math questions, though. Significant figures can be an issue. Technically, saying the temperature is 15 degrees Celsius is different from saying that it’s 15.00 degrees Celsius. Questions may also have to deal with equivalent fractions or expressions. If ½ is correct, should 2/4 also be correct? Finally, sometimes units need to be considered.
The question on the right may seem acceptable, but note that it does not specify how velocity is to be measured. Is it miles per hour or kilometers per hour?
The average air speed velocity of a European swallow is ________.
Would an answer in feet per second, meters per minute, or furlong per fortnight also be acceptable?
The easiest ways around these is to specify the units in the question, ignore significant figures unless that’s the concept being tested, and either have the program recognize equivalent fractions or instruct the examinee to express answers in simplest terms. These are solvable problems, which is why fill-in-the-blank questions tend to get used more often in math than anywhere else. Sometimes there’s no substitute for coming up with the answer yourself instead of recognizing it among alternatives.