From experience, students sometimes have trouble ‘getting’ the quizzes. The below is about the design of the quiz questions and what we are looking for. Maybe it will help you in preparing and answering the questions, I’m not sure. But hopefully, it will help you avoid some false trails and appreciate where your instructors are coming from.

The quizzes are not meant to be about pure recall. This is partly because the quizzes are take home and thus Open Book (and keep in mind that the Final Exam is open book as well), so in principle, you can always look up the answer for purely content recall questions. But more importantly, it’s because we are more interested in testing for something else.

So what are we testing for? We are ultimately testing for your understanding of concepts and your making careful, precise applications or inferences from them. And these are usually difficult, interesting (hopefully as interesting to you as they have been for us), and intellectual-historically significant concepts in philosophy.

It’s one thing be able to state: “Consequentialism is the doctrine which says that the moral status of an action is a function of its relation to the goodness of its outcome for the world.” We could test whether our students are able to say that–pure recall. But what we are asking ourselves is whether our students understood what those words mean. And a very effective way to test that is, for instance, to ask you, if, given a certain scenario, or fact, or condition, what someone consistently holding the doctrine would or could or should say about it. Or whether, a certain line of thinking, or response to an argument, and so on, is or is not plausibly from a Consequentialist perspective.

The negative (the not in the previous sentence) is more important than you think. Understanding a concept and being able to make careful applications of it cannot be separated from being disciplined in not applying it willy-nilly, in being able to see that something is not this.

Highly related is the practiced sharpness in being able to perceive distinctions that less practiced folks fail to notice. Such differences and distinctions include, for instance, the notion that “we know that someone is a Theist” is not the same as “someone is a Theist”, that “p is true” is not the same as “p is necessarily true”, that “p and q contradict each other” is not the same as “p and q are inconsistent with each other–you can derive a contradiction from them with the help of some additional logically necessary statements”. Or that “we feel that we are inescapably free and thus morally responsible” is not the same as “we have free will and are thus morally responsible”. In fact, continuing on that last example, that “we have free will and are thus morally responsible” is not the same as “we have free will, period” without the further notion that we also have moral responsibility–because whether or not moral responsibility requires free will is itself a matter of contention.

This doesn’t mean the questions are completely devoid of the need to recall content. If you go into a quiz (or the final exam) not even recalling that “Consequentialism” is a moral doctrine that we discussed somewhere, or that there are three options when it comes to belief regarding God’s existence–being a Theist, an Atheist, and an Agnostic, and what it means to be each (at least roughly speaking)–you probably haven’t been paying as much attention as you should be to your readings, lectures and tutorials. But maybe you haven’t quite committed an exact definition in your memory, and that’s probably ok for the purpose of the quizzes and exam, as long as you know where to look for these things to refresh your memory.

Nonetheless, it is a really good idea to commit some basic concepts to memory, and more importantly, be practiced using them. Not because you can’t look them up, but because you life will be a lot easier doing philosophy (and any other domain that requires careful, sharp thinking) when that you do that. These are not mysterious ideas like Consequentialism or Reductive Physicalism, but such workaday notions as a necessary condition, vs. a sufficient condition, vs. a necessary and sufficient condition, a premise, vs., the conclusion of an argument. But being able state the definitions of these things is not the important thing–what we really what is that you to be able to apply them intuitively.

Because of the above aims we set for ourselves in the quiz questions, here’s a piece of advice. Reading the hints is always a good idea, but it is not necessary (yes, as in necessary condition) for getting the right answers for the questions. The hints are posted only upon the requests of students for specific clarifications (or for correcting the unfortunate typo). Technically, everything you need is already in the question itself, the readings and lecture (and lecture slides); and the tutorial discussions would give additional help. The hints exist partly because I don’t want students to be running off to do their own research–not because I don’t want you to read other stuff, but because that can often make the questions more indeterminate than they need to be. This means that if you have an uncertainly, the first thing you need to do is to contact me, or check the blog in case this query has been raised before. Running off to search other sources is not, in general, a good idea for quizzes of this nature.

Another piece of advice is this: keep a log of your reasoning for why you picked an option over the others, and compare it with answers and explanations later. Then clarify any remaining doubts—about the reasoning—by asking specific questions. The MCQs are not meant to be that easy–merely attending the lectures/watching the webcasts will not be enough unless one understands the material in a precise and disciplined manner. But the MCQs aren’t just meant to help us assess whether you achieved that–they are also meant to help you achieve that understanding. Hence the advice to keep a log and checking on one’s understanding.

Finally, as explained in the Introductory Lecture, it is fully our intention that students get together, discuss the questions, debate with each other, when doing the quiz. This is not only totally legitimate, in fact, we have set the entire quiz component up in such a way so as to give you the maximum chance to be able to do it. Peer-to-peer learning is a real thing and I strongly believe in its benefit! But do keep in mind that the point here isn’t about your quiz scores but your understanding. Just as getting a wrong quiz answer is a bad thing only if one fails to learn from it, so likewise getting an answer right may also not be a good thing if one didn’t actually learn. Remember that you do have the individually assessed final exam. There have always been students who didn’t do too well for the quizzes but because they learned, did really well for the finals. Just as there have always been students who did well for the quizzes but only mostly because they just emulated their peers without understanding—and so they crashed in the exams.

(If the assignment is to write a research papers, then it’s a different matter altogether–and I will need a different series of sermons about what is typically tested for in different kinds of papers. The Special Project likewise, though even then, the main aim is not research but being able to communicate your understanding in an informative, creative, maybe even entertaining manner.)

I hope the above has been helpful.

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Entirely relevant post by Eliezer Yudkowsky–in a nutshell, the whole point of the quiz is to ensure that you grasp actual ideas, and not just try to guess at our passwords!

Nice video about designing good MCQs from NUS CDTL: