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Multiple choice is predictable even without knowledge of the language

I have a problem with the multiple choice questions. Here is an example

<pre>La città ha una popolazione di due milioni di persone. La città ha una popolazione di due milione di persone. La città ha un popolazione di due milioni di persone. </pre>

So, if you don't know any italian, you can predict the solution. Why?

2 x una popolazione to 1 x un popolazione => one of the first two sentences is correct.

2 x due milioni to 1 x milione => sentence 1 is correct.

This logic applies to about 80% of all multiple coice questions.

<pre>Il popolazione della città è grande. La popolazione della città è grande. La popolazione di città è grande. </pre>

2 x La popolazione 2 x della città => sentence 2

It is a bit better in french, depending on the sections.

In my eyes, this is a major bug.

February 25, 2014



I think they are doing it this way because it works. These multiple choice questions are not about doing a fair test of your skills. They are about making you learn the language effectively.

Duolingo keeps trying out new things with some of us, to get statistics on what works best. Most likely they once experimented with different styles of multiple choice questions and chose this one because it works best. Here is why:

  • This type of question is an example of what teachers know as "internal differentiation". It's the same question for all learners, but the level of difficulty magically adapts to the learner's level. Advanced learners can simply read all three lines and decide for each whether it fits or not. Intermediate learners can do the same and check their results by the method you describe. Overtaxed learners can apply that method directly, and will still learn a little bit in the process.

  • Learning works through positive reenforcement, not through punishment. If you get many questions wrong, you learn that you are bad at learning languages. If you get a question right, you learn what the answer to that question is. To some extent this even works when you cheated.

  • Easy questions, especially if they don't look as easy as they really are, give you the satisfaction of being right. This manipulates you into returning to the site more often and longer.


For me there's basically the following categories of multiple choice questions on Duolingo.

Type 1 (the most common by far): One obviously correct option, two very obviously incorrect options. Most frequently, it's something really stupid like "car" replaced by "child" in one option and "much" by "menu" in the other.

When teaching a child one-on-one, it can make sense to tell them that you are going to skip a question because you trust him or her to learn the language in any case. This creates variation and improves motivation. I think type 1 questions are Duolingo's equivalent to this.

Type 2: Two obviously correct options, one very obviously incorrect option. Some people may find these tricky, especially if one correct option is in the 2nd person singular and the other is in whatever the target language uses for polite address.

Type 3: One obviously correct option, one obviously incorrect option, and one tricky option. For example, the tricky option might be using a different preposition that makes perfect sense but may or may not be acceptable in this context in the target language.

Multiple choice tends to be much harder in French than in the other languages I tried because French has some pretty strange rules of when adjectives and participles get marked with gender and number, and when they do not. There are lots of multiple choice questions testing such fine points that are often not even pronounceable differences. I guess multiple choice can be hard in German as well, but as a native speaker of that language I can't easily tell.

Especially in French I have had many "F***, game over" moments when I encountered a multiple choice question with only 20 seconds left. That's barely enough time to discover where one or the other of three superficially identical, extremely long sentences has a silent extra s or something.


I agree, when I am close to running out of hearts I always use that to cheat

holds head in shame


I agree with you sister!


More examples, this time French

<pre>Tout le monde sont égal devant la loi. Tout le monde est égal devant le loi. Tout le monde est égal devant la loi. </pre>


I definitely agree on that one. I take french, but i have a friend who takes Italian and they said the same thing to me. Also, i don't know if this is just for french, but they ask you a question like, "what is the translation of sandwich?". And then all of the words you have to guess from have a picture of what the item is. i guess i get it if you are a first timer, but most words in french are almost exactly the same as in English. But i have to say, to a certain degree, it does make sense. It shows you how to form a sentence and since they are pretty much the same sentences, you actually have to use logic to figure out the correct one.


No, in these cases I don't really read the sentences, I just go into automatic modus, compare and often don't even know what the sentence is about, as I don't need this information to solve the riddle.


There is no bug, the reason you know popolazione is "un/una" is because you know a bit of the language, I'd love to see you trying that out when Arabic or Chinese reaches beta.

Also this is normal with MCQ, which is why some lecturers dislike using it. Sure you can guess, but MCQs are a very small portion of the questions in a lesson. So you could call them bonus questions.


But even if you had no clue whether popolazione is "un/una" you could just guess it correct because it is in there twice. I could have figured the correct answer of this one out without knowing any Italian (I know French and Spanish are similar to Italian, but if someone not learning the actual language can figure it out it is a bit pointless, right?). I am also pretty sure I could do the same with Chinese and Arabic once I'd able to read it a tiny bit.

But as you said, MCQ are tricky that way, and that is why I personally do not like them either (that and the fact that you repeatedly read incorrect answers)…I guess they are popular though, so they won't get rid of them completely. Reducing the guessable ones would be great though!


" I could have figured the correct answer of this one out without knowing any Italian"- That's it exactely. The other sentences need more and different errors additionally.


I disagree, I was able to figure out the correct solution without knowing any Italian.
The hardest multiple choice are when you are given three choice where one word is changed. Examples I can think of in Spanish is being given the option of Esto, Este, Esta or figuring out the correct preposition (given option of a, de, por).


In French it is a bit better. Sometimes so good, that i loose hearts due to stupid multiple choice.

"There is no bug, the reason you know popolazione is "un/una" is because you know a bit of the language, I'd love to see you trying that out when Arabic or Chinese reaches beta." - No, this works without knwoledge of the language, as the examples show. It is like set theory. 3 circles one intersection.


A bug is defined as an unintended/unexpected computer error. This is not by any definition of the word a bug, it could be that way by design or because they overlooked something. Anyway, there are several types of MCQ in Duolingo, and it is doubtful that 80% of them are really like that. Although, there may be something strange going on with the Italian MCQs.


It's true, but you're not here to cheat now are you? You can always try to justify which is the correct answer with your current knowledge of the language, or even try to guess the answer without looking at the choices.

Still, it should be corrected. They should probably make one sentence for every combination of changes they want to make.

So for your first example of two changes:

La città ha una popolazione di due milioni di persone.
La città ha una popolazione di due milione di persone.
La città ha un popolazione di due milioni di persone.
La città ha un popolazione di due milione di persone.

And immediately you can't guess that way.


4 instead of 3 would be the easiest solution for the mathematical problem.


I finished the Spanish tree, but I was always delighted when a multiple choice question popped up--especially on a tough unit. I can only speak for the Spanish tree: the multiple choice options are too easy to think through. In fact, I wish DL had some more complex sentences and a much greater use of irregular verbs, too. Gracias.


I actually like that those are easy, because they show the correct way to form that sentence. It also makes you to some degree think about why the other two are not correct.

When I train my dog to do a new trick, and she has problems understanding it, I have to break it into smaller parts, and make shure that she succeeds at those small steps. If the failure rate becomes to high, she gets frustrated and stops wanting to play/train.

The multiple choice questions are similar, they give you a easy win, to keep you motivated (while still drilling the correct answer into your brain).

And yes, the duolingo style of learning uses a lot of the same concepts as clicker training, it even uses the sound marker.


I like it the way it is!


To tell the truth I couldn't have figured it out any ways!

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