True or false?: College courses should never include true or false questions.

True or false questions are notoriously unreliable for student assessment, but used outside of an exam context, they can enhance student engagement.

As most instructors are aware, two fundamental characteristics of true/false questions make them a poor choice for a final assessment [1]. First, these questions test the most basic level of knowledge: familiarity. True or false questions don’t test your ability to recall information or demonstrate understanding, but rather only recognize if a fact is familiar. Second, it’s the easiest question format on which to guess correctly. Despite the often-touted probability of true/false questions as pure 50/50 odds, any perusal of a “Student Tips for Taking True or False Questions” guide reveals instructor tendencies of tipping the likelihood of guessing correctly in the student’s favor [2][3]. Nevertheless, statistically speaking, even if the instructor writes a set of well-constructed T/F questions, students only need to know the correct answer to 40% of the questions and guess on the remaining 60% to reach a minimum passing score of 70%.

So why are true/false questions so popular? From the instructor perspective, they’re easy to create, administer, and grade. From the student perspective, they require very little effort and they’re non-threatening due to a lack of mental challenge and a high chance of success. These characteristics make them ideal to quickly and easily deploy in the course to enhance student interaction, gamification, self-assessment, feedback, and reflection in a non-graded context. Here are some ways that you can use true or false questions in your course to increase student engagement in your online course (note: these ideas can easily be applied to a face-to-face format as well).

Open a Lecture or Lesson with a Rhetorical True or False Question
Similar to how instructors begin with a thought-provoking quote or fact, questions before a lecture can provide an opportunity for students to reflect on their current understanding and biases while stimulating awareness and thought about the topics. While there are many rules and best practices for true/false questions in graded assessments, a complex question with no definite answer often produces the best results to open a lecture and can be an invitation for discussion. For instance, a lesson on government can begin with, “True or False: that government which governs best governs least.” Rather than simply hearing or reading Thomas Jefferson’s quote, students are asked to consider its validity.

Quick Student Self-Assessment
True/False questions raised during or after a module or lecture will help students reflect on what they’ve learned, and inform their decision to rewind videos, re-read chapters, or revisit any other materials. Questions scripted into the middle of a video presentation (using Powerpoint, for example) can help maintain student attention by providing a gamification/interactive element.

Quick Pretests
True/False questions before a lesson or semester will help instructors pace lesson topics in the limited time they have with students. In online courses, this can be helpful for understanding trends in what students in future semesters are likely to know coming into the course, as well as the effectiveness of the lecture when comparing the pretests to quiz/exam results.

While other question formats may challenge students on a deeper level, the issue for online students, absent of any direct instructor or peer pressure, is whether or not they’ll take the time to address and answer the questions if it doesn’t affect their grade. True or false questions provide a way to quickly test knowledge and inspire critical thinking without the effort (or perceived effort) of other question formats.



[1]There are variations that instructors use, including asking the student to correct a false statement or explain their answer, to make the questions more effective for assessment. This article refers to the most common style of true or false questions, only requiring the student to answer “True” or “False”.