Saturday, April 4, 2009

Are Multiple Choice Exams an Appropriate Method of Legal Examination?

In the wake of the delayed law school grades drama, we’ve been confronted with many-a-proposal that would hasten the process. The problem is real, and at least one school has gone so far as to adopt an otherwise unthinkable approach: fining "tardy" professors. But, as Craig notes, fining professors is pretty extreme…and it doesn’t seem like that (potential) solution has caught on.

So where do we go from here? A commenter proposed one obvious answer: multiple choice exams. I had planned to broach the subject of whether multiple choice exams were appropriate as a means of evaluating legal knowledge, and with this recent focus on delayed grades, I figured what better time than now?

An increased use of multiple choice exams would undoubtedly speed up the grading process. Moreover, grading written exams is difficult on other levels for professors. Frankly, I have to sympathize with law school professors who are forced to read our vomit of (often incorrect) legal analysis. It must be time consuming, monotonous, and irritating. So, it seems that multiple choice exams present a win-win option: law students can receive grades in a matter of days (at least in theory) and law professors can avoid what must be a painful grading process.

However, in my opinion, multiple choice exams are a highly inappropriate method of legal examination. The benefit of receiving grades quickly does not, by any means, counter the inherent weaknesses of multiple choice exams. A law school final should test how well you identify issues and apply legal concepts. The ultimate conclusion is insignificant compared to the analysis that the student provides. Further, breaking down a legal issue into a multiple choice question assumes that there is only one correct answer when, in fact, this is rarely the case. And, don’t even get me started on the “A&B” “A&C”, or “All of the above” answers. It’s pure trickery.

I have had professors who swear that a student’s performance on multiple choice questions directly correlates with performance on essay questions. Some even go so far as to say that multiple choice exams are a better indicator of a student’s knowledge of the subject matter because essay exams merely amount to a speed typing competition. Others, however, have vigorously stated that multiple choice exams are better suited for the waste basket than the law school classroom. I agree with the latter bunch.

But the multi-state bar exam is multiple choice, so maybe my critiques are overstated. What is clear is that there are problems to be fixed. In the words of my colleague in a different context, "what innovative solutions can we come up with?"


  1. I escaped MC tests all the way up to 2L spring, and then had a prof who changed his format, at the last minute, to be MC. My grade in that class was a lot worse than my grade in others. It was Evidence (which most ppl say MC is fine for), for whatever it's worth. I can't help but think I would have done better if it was an essay like I'd planned.

    I definitely think MC tests different skills and question anyone who says the grades would be exactly the same.

  2. Josh,

    I was one of the folks who suggested MC exams to prevent grade tardiness on the other thread. Just to clarify: I think MC exams in law school are, on the whole, dumb--and I only suggested one in that context because of the predictable delay in a Dean's grading. In other words, when you teach a fall class and you know your spring is going to be insane with other commitments, giving a MC exam can help ensure you get your students their grades in a timely fashion.

    In most other situations, though, I agree that exams that are entirely MC (as opposed to half-and-half, or some such) are generally inappropriate for law school, especially for classes bearing on litigation. Doesn't it seem counterintuitive to be told, on the one hand, that you can make strong arguments on both sides of an issue, and, on the other, be tested on being able to identify the "right" answer? However, if you're taking a class that is focused on teaching blackletter law or law that is easy to apply, I suppose a MC exam can test plain old knowledge just as well as an essay.

    I do not share your sympathy for law school professors. Oh, they have to grade 200 exams per semester. Boo freakin' hoo. I'll take that over 4 months of document review. I don't doubt that grading is the most objectively unpleasant part of being a professor, but I do think that fact indicates how cushy a professorship is. I'm saving my sympathy for contract attorneys.

  3. I think MC exams are in some ways better...they prevent people from BSing too much, and give professors a means to assess the knowledge of the law

  4. @5:01;

    Thanks for your reply. You're right to state that multiple choice may be appropriate for certain classes focused on blackletter law. Still, it is my personal opinion that even those classes do not a warrant a complete multiple choice exam.

    And a professorship is undoubtedly a "cushy" position compared to that of a contract attorney. But it does not mean that a professor's job is not demanding. Additionally, grading exams is only a small part of what a law professor does. I imagine that the the combination of teaching and publishing keeps their schedules rather full. I only bring up the demands of their job to illustrate that although I understand how busy professors are, I don't believe it ever justifies a full MC exam.


    I understand there are some law students out there who prefer multiple choice exams and I'm glad you shared your opinion.

    MC exams may prevent BSing, but I don't know if that makes them better. I suppose a professor doesn't want to read BS. They may be able to spare themselves from that by instituting a word limit, though.


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