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The Multiple Choice Exam: Friend or Foe?

[Cross-posted at Prawfsblawg, where I am guest blogging this month]

I’m giving my very first multiple choice exam in cyberlaw this semester. I decided to move to a multiple choice exam for a few reasons:

1. Time: I have 85 students (about half 3L) and I just don’t think I can get the exams graded in time for the graduation cutoff. I’ve always believed that I have to read all the exams before assigning grades to some of them.

2. Assessment: More important, I’ve grown a bit disillusioned by the use of essays in this particular class (I’m still giving an essay in Patent Law). Much of the law is factor based and malleable, which you would think might work well in an essay. However, some rules are crystal clear, no exceptions. I’ve found that my students have had a hard time expressing which are which, and also which facts are more important than others in factor based tests.  I want to know if they know the difference, and I think a multiple choice exam will help me find out.

I always told myself that essay exams were better because they help prepare a skill for the bar. However, the bar includes a multiple choice segment, which was much harder than the essays — at least for me.

So, I’m drafting an exam. My students seem worried, in large part because they have no idea what to expect. I wrote several sample questions based on last year’s fact pattern, and I must say that it was very difficult. I’ve always viewed multiple choice exams as easier to grade (which they are), but I have a feeling that I’m going to spend a lot of time writing the exam that I had not spent in prior years.

Any ideas or input on this would be appreciated as I try out something new.

2 thoughts on “The Multiple Choice Exam: Friend or Foe?”

  1. Multiple choice exams have several disadvantages:

    Ambiguous questions may unfairly penalise a candidate whose interpretation differs from the intent of the examiner. Even if candidates recognise the ambiguity, the format of the exam prevents explaining this (e.g. the examiner is likely to penalise a candidate who suggests that two answers are both correct).

    It removes the opportunity for an outstanding candidate to provide an exceptionally good answer.

    It penalises candidates who, if they had the opportunity to write an essay, might have demonstrated knowledge of the subject yet came to a different conclusion than that of the examiner. This is subtly different from the above, yet still important.

    Disclaimer: I used to be an examiner at the University of Cambridge (England). I always set essay exams, and the best candidates would usually write answers that came as a pleasant surprise.

    If you value your students please abandon the multiple choice exam.

  2. We recently had a workshop that focused on writing multiple choice questions and it was really helpful (I would encourage you to talk with others about how they do MC questions). I would highly recommend Susan Case’s and Beth Donahue’s 2008 Journal of Legal Studies article, Developing High-Quality Multiple-Choice Questions for Assessment in Legal Education, 58 J. Legal Educ. 372 (2008). A one sheet guide from the same authors is available here, but I really recommend the complete article:

    Lots of good advice about how to think about, craft, and focus questions. I might not always agree on the big picture questions (some complexity seems appropriate on a less time pressured exam), but it does take a lot to get it right.

    Good luck, Michael, let us know how it goes.

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