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Dental Hygiene Faculty Member Wins ADEA Award

Martha McComas

Assessing Critical Thinking Using Multiple Choice Questions

Ann Arbor, MI — March 5, 2014 — A clinical assistant professor of dental hygiene at the University of Michigan School of Dentistry has won a major award from the American Dental Education Association for her work that revealed the difficulty in assessing the ability of students to use their critical thinking skills when taking examinations with multiple choice questions.

Martha McComas will receive the Olav Alvares Award during the organization’s annual meeting this month in San Antonio.  The award recognizes the work of a junior author whose research has been published in ADEA’s print and online magazine, the Journal of Dental Education. Her article was published last April.

In her research, McComas asked 50 senior-year dental hygiene students to take a five-part test with questions similar to those on a national board examination for dental hygienists.  The test was designed as a Modified Objective Structured Clinical Examination that attempted to evaluate critical thinking skills among dental hygiene students.

The test utilized a patient case and included 24 multiple choice questions, one fill-in-the-blank question, and a section where students were instructed to develop a dental hygiene treatment plan.  Students had 40 minutes to complete the multiple choice questions and 20 minutes to complete the fill-in-the-blank test and then develop a patient treatment plan

“The results of the tests showed that multiple choice questions do not accurately assess a student’s critical thinking skills,” McComas said.  “However, asking the students to design a dental hygiene treatment plan did show us if a student was able to 'put it all together' which, ultimately, is critical thinking.” 

McComas also said that “as much as instructors don’t like giving and grading written examinations, answers on written tests are probably a truer reflection of a student’s critical thinking skills than answers on a multiple choice test.  Written tests also allow instructors to see where gaps are in the education and learning process, which encourages curriculum change and innovation.”