Levels of Understanding Assessed by Multiple Choice Questions


During the 1948 convention of the American Psychological Association, a group of educational psychologists decided it would be useful to classify different levels of understanding that students can achieve in a course. In 1956, after extensive research on educational goals, the group published their findings in a book edited by Harvard professor Benjamin S. Bloom. Bloom's book lists six levels of intellectual understanding, summarized in the chart below.

Label for Level of Understanding

Nature of Understanding in the Level


Recognizing and recalling information, including

  • dates, events, persons, places
  • terms, definitions
  • basic facts, principles, theories
  • methods and procedures.


Understanding the meaning of information, including

  • restating in your own words
  • translating from one form to another (e.g., numbers into words)
  • interpreting, explaining, summarizing


Applying general rules, methods, or principles to a new, specific situation, including

  • classifying something as a specific example of a general principle
  • using an appropriate formula to solve a problem 


Identifying the organization and patterns within a system by identifying its component parts and the relationships among the components.


Discovering or creating new connections, generalizations, patterns, or perspectives.


Using evidence and reasoned argument to judge how well a proposal would accomplish a particular purpose. 

(Adapted from: Bloom, B.S. (Ed.) (1956). Taxonomy of educational objectives: The classification of educational goals: Handbook I, cognitive domain. New York ; Toronto: Longmans, Green.)

Because PSY 002 is Penn State's basic, introductory course in psychology, I expect students to achieve primarily the first three levels of understanding in the course. Consequently, almost all of the multiple choice questions in our exams aim to assess those first three levels of understanding. I expect more of the three higher levels--analysis, synthesis, and evaluation--in my advanced 200- and 400-level courses. In those courses I usually assess understanding with projects, essay questions, or papers rather than with multiple-choice questions. You will probably find that your other instructors tend to grade introductory  and upper-level courses differently.

Examples of Knowledge, Comprehension, and Application Questions

(These are the same sample questions that appear on the review of the first exam.)

Examples of Multiple-Choice Questions for Basic Knowledge

1. Which of the following is one of the major approaches to psychology?

a. psychoanalysis
b. structuralism
c. psychiatry
d. New Age Movement

Correct answer:


The textbook describes six major approaches to psychology on pages WIP5-WIP10: behavioral, psychoanalytic, humanistic, cognitive, neurobiological, and sociocultural. This was also covered in the class lecture on Modern perspectives in psychology. Structuralism is an older approach that died out completely. I did not cover it in class; it is described on pages WIP4-WIP5. Psychiatry is a specific branch of medicine, not a major approach to psychology. The New Age Movement, which I did not cover, is described on page WIP12 as a pseudopsychology.

2. Sensation, perception, and memory are of particular
interest to which group of contemporary psychologists?

a. psychoanalysts
b. behaviorists
c. humanistic psychologists
d. cognitive psychologists

Correct answer:


Areas of specialization in psychology are described on pages WIP15-WIP17 of the textbook. Sensation, perception and memory are described in the textbook as topics that involve pure (that is, basic) experimental research (page WIP16).  I talked about these areas in our class on Psychology's careers and areas of specialization. I was more specific than the textbook  in my lecture, describing these three areas as part of the field of cognition.

Examples of Multiple-Choice Questions for Comprehension

 2. Using operational definitions answers which question?

a. who
b. why
c. what
d. how

Correct answer:


To answer this question correctly, you have to understand two concepts: (1) the What-How-Why questions posed by scientists (Who is not one of the questions, so answer (a) can be eliminated); and 
(2) what we mean by an operational definition. An operational definitions (Lecture on the Experimental method is psychology) include objective descriptions of the independent variable (What happened to the subjects) and dependent variable (What the subjects did) in an experiment, so (c) "what"  is the correct answers. The question of how things came about concerns explaining what was observed by identifying the immediate causes. Identifying immediate causes is the goal of experiments. Why questions concern a deeper level of explanation through theories of how the distant past has affected the present. The What, How, and Why of psychology were covered in the first lecture of the course.

2. Why did John B. Watson reject the structuralist study of mental events?

a. He believed that structuralism relied too heavily on scientific methods.
b. He rejected the concept that psychologists should study observable behavior.
c. He believed that scientists should focus on what is objectively observable.
d. He actually embraced both structuralism and functionalism.

Correct answer:


Both the textbook (page WIP5-6) and Lecture 2 (History of basic and applied psychology), emphasize that Watson thought he could make psychology more scientific by restricting itself to what was objectively observable by several persons, that is, observable stimuli in the environment and the observable behaviors that are triggered by the stimuli. Comprehending an issue means understanding the main points. For this question, you would hopefully not be distracted by the technical terms "structuralism" and "functionalism" (which I did not even talk about in class) but target right in on Watson's main point--that in his opinion a scientific psychology must restrict itself to observables.

Examples of Multiple-Choice Questions for Application

1. Explaining a student's poor performance on an exam to the unfair
difficulty level of the questions refers to what kind of cause?

 a. immediate, external cause
 b. immediate, internal cause
 c. developmental cause
 d. necessary and sufficient cause
 e. weak cause

Correct answer:


I talked about different types of causes of behavior on the first day of class. There really is such a concept as a necessary and sufficient cause, but I didn't talk about this in class and it doesn't apply to this example. Any cause outside of a person is an external cause, and the difficulty level of the test is a property of the test. Possible internal causes for poor performance might have been lack of motivation to study, low intelligence, or sleepiness. Developmental causes refer to history, which is not mentioned here. I never mentioned weak causes.

2. A researcher shows erotic films to one group of subjects and violent films to another group of subjects. The researcher then assesses the cooperativeness of each group of subjects. The independent variable in this study is

a. the level of cooperativeness.
b. the type of film seen.
c. the level of sexual arousal in subjects.
d. the level of aggressiveness in subjects.

Correct answer:


The independent variable describes how the groups of subjects in an experiment are treated differently by the experimenter (see textbook, page MET-16 or your notes for the lecture on the Experimental method in psychology). In this example, the difference is in the type of film they were shown. The films might result in differences in (c) sexual arousal or (d) aggressiveness, but these were not even studied by the researcher. Option 
(a) cooperativeness represents the dependent variable in the study.

General Hints for Approaching Multiple Choice Tests

  1. Understand that there is always one clearly best answer. My goal is not to trick students or require you to make difficult judgments about two options that are nearly equally correct. My goal is to design questions that students who understand will answer correctly and students who do not understand will answer incorrectly.
  2. I never provide two options that are nearly equally correct unless I provide a choice such as (e) a and b above, if both (a) and (b) are correct. I don't like to use options such as "a and b above," "all of the above," or "none of the above" very often, but I will once in a while. So make sure you read all of the choices before answering.
  3. You are wise to go back over your answers to verify that you have answered the questions correctly. However, you should NOT change an answer unless you are almost absolutely certain that you either misread the question or options or overlooked one of the options. Research has shown that if you are just plain unsure about a question, your first instinct is most often correct so that changing your answer is not a good strategy.
  4. Don't read unnecessary complications into the questions. There are no hidden meanings in the wordings of my questions. I use college-level vocabulary words, but the meanings of the questions are meant to be plain and straightforward.
  5. If a question really stumps you, skip it and go back to it when you have gone through all of the questions. But don't forget to go back and put down something for every question. A blank answer is always wrong, and there is no penalty for guessing. The last thing you should do before turning in your answer sheet is to check that you have answered every single question.
  6. If the correct answer does not jump out at you right away, see if you can eliminate some of the options as definitely wrong. It's okay to write on the test booklet, so you can cross out options you think are incorrect.
  7. Most questions will have four options, lettered (a), (b), (c), and (d); sometimes I add a fifth option, (e). I do not have a favorite option letter that I use more often. I do not try to make sure to use an equal number of (a)s, (b)s, etc. The pattern of marks on your answer sheet will not spell out a satanic message. So concentrate on the content of the questions and response options, and pay no attention to how many times you are marking a particular letter.
  8. DO make sure you choose the letter corresponding to the answer of your choice. I feel almost as bad as the student who knew the answer was (d) but accidentally marked (c), but there's nothing I can do about that.
  9. DO follow the advice in the textbook (pages xiii-xiv) about spreading out your review rather than cramming and about being in good physical shape through plentiful sleep, proper diet, and exercise. Staying up all night studying is more likely to hurt than help your performance.

Dr. Laurie A. Roades at California State University, Pomona, authored a web page on multiple choice questions that served as a source of ideas for the layout of the page.
I also acknowledge a number of web pages as sources of information on Bloom's taxonomy of levels of understanding. My primary source was:
Multiple Choice Questions and Bloom's Taxonomy from the University of Cape Town, South Africa
Other pages I found useful were:
Bloom's Taxonomy from the Learning Skills Program, Counselling Services, University of Victoria
Bloom's Taxonomy from the Distance Learning Resource Network
Judith K. Welch's page on Bloom's Taxonomy from the University of Central Florida
Günter Krumme's page on Bloom's Taxonomy from the University of Washington

John A. Johnson
Last modified 08-26-2003