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Tuesday, April 05, 2011

The Multiple Choice Exam: Friend or Foe?

It's good to be back for another stint of guest blogging. I've got a few different topics to write about this month.

Up first - 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. 


Posted by Michael Risch on April 5, 2011 at 01:28 PM in Life of Law Schools, Teaching Law | Permalink


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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.

Posted by: Rob Heverly | Apr 6, 2011 11:17:56 PM

In my big enrollment classes, I have come to use multiple choice questions for 1/3 of the exam. In part I do it because some students do better on essays, others on multiple choice questions. Doing essays and multiple choice questions balances that out. Further, multiple choice questions helps to cover the material on the syllabus. I have felt it inaccurate to ask focused essay questions that, as a result, leave much of the syllabus unexamined. Some students do better on some parts of the course and do worse on others. If your essay hits an area of strength the student gets a higher grade than if her understanding of the entire course were examined. And vice versa.

For my own benefit, multiple choice grading is quick and accurate, at least at recording those whose answers match mine. But, deeper, drafting multiple choice questions has helped me pull together different areas of the course and see some connections and other dissonances that I had not recognized. In other words, drafting multiple choice questions is quite challenging and difficult. BTW my multiple choice questions are hypothetical fact patterns.

Posted by: Mike Zimmer | Apr 5, 2011 11:42:43 PM

I concur with Scott's suggestion to include space to challenge questions.

Posted by: AlwaysAnon | Apr 5, 2011 4:13:12 PM

This paper ( http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1372282) does a great job explaining how multiple-choice tests should work and how to go about drafting the questions and answers.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Apr 5, 2011 3:36:56 PM

To alleviate worry, consider giving a few practice, in-class MC questions a few weeks before the final. It's more work for you (because good MC questions are hard to create) but nice for the students. You can also use the exercise to generate class discussion of the applicable rules.

You might also consider giving students a single, in-exam opportunity to challenge the MC question as unfair or unclear, particularly if this is your first time using the questions. I provide a lined page as the last page of the exam for such challenges; the students have to specifically identify the question challenged and explain WHY it is unclear or unfair. I tell them that, absent extraordinary circumstances, this is their only chance to challenge the questions.

Posted by: Scott Dodson | Apr 5, 2011 2:50:00 PM

For business law classes (for undergraduate and MBA students), I have used both multiple choice (based on concepts and on fact patterns) and essays for final exams. I think it is wise to include at least one short essay in addition to MC questions. This short essay can guard against the prospect that the MC portion is too difficult, or worse, too easy and does not yield a reasonable distribution of grades.

Also, the essay question might allow the deeper, creative thinkers to demonstrate their mastery of the material. The type of essay questions that draw out this kind of understanding ask students to provide gaps, recommend reforms, identify inconsistencies and so on. This type of essay answer is far more interesting to read and easier to grade.

Posted by: JT | Apr 5, 2011 2:25:30 PM

I've told my students I reserve the right to use multiple choice questions this year in Civ Pro (for a part of the exam), which I have never done before. So I'm looking forward to the comments on this post.

Posted by: Brendan Maher | Apr 5, 2011 1:38:36 PM

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