May 05, 2006
Law School Exams, Multiple Choice, and the "Wrong Answer Penalty"
Posted by Christine Hurt

This semester in my BA class I opted to have part of the exam multiple choice.  I did this for a number of reasons.  Obviously, a machine grades multiple choice exams, but it took me quite a bit of time on the front end to create the exam.  Secondly, BA is a survey class that has many unrelated topics.  I'm not creative enough to squeeze most of them into three essay questions, so the exam ends up being a testing just a slice of the curriculum.  Many multiple choice questions seems more thorough.  Anyway, I'm happy with the outcome of part objective, part essay, but I wanted to ask readers what they thought about the "wrong answer penalty" in multiple choice exams.

When I took the scantrons to be graded, I had to answer a number of questions:  how many points per question, were they all the same, and did I want to assess a penalty for wrong answers?  I felt dirty just being asked the question.  I understand that this structure would get a curve in a hurry, but is it pedagogically sound?  Could this format be pedagogically sound in some disciplines but not others?  To me, penalizing wrong answers has but one attractive result: not allowing good guessers to be treated the same as people who know the answers.  (So, at the last minute you circle in all "c"s.)  But unless your test aims for a median grade of 25-30%, then guessers will never be on the same footing as the knowledgeable test-takers, right?

Penalizing wrong answers has the effect of making test-takers very risk-averse.  Students may not circle an answer they are 75% sure of, which is actually correct, and they may take more time per question than necessary.  In affect, you're grading their strategy, not their knowledge.  In law, it's hard to know the answer to an application question 100% (unless you are 100% sure the other answers are wrong).  Maybe the penalty system works better on tests with computations where you are either 100% sure or you're guessing.  In classes like that in my experience, professors have exams where you "show your work" to ensure that there's no guessing.  Maybe in a large university system this is impossible.  Anyway, that is not the typical law school exam.

Anyway, I did not choose that system.  And I had one student who did not circle in the last ten questions.  I wanted to call the student:  "Why didn't you just bubble in "c"?"

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