Explanation Option on Multiple Choice Exams
Law professors may struggle to determine optimal exam format, especially between essays and multiple-choice questions or a combination. Student appetite varies. But many students prefer essay exams. They may express concern that multiple choice questions limit ability to identify and explain ambiguities.
Teachers may find a multiple-choice format optimal for many reasons, including psychometric evaluation, the nature of substantive material to test (e.g., statutory versus common law), or simple time budgeting to grade exams (e.g., a professor teaching both Contracts and Corporations in a single term to large enrollments simply cannot grade 200+ written exams within deadline).
One way to offer multiple-choice exams while meeting that student concern is to give students a limited option to address perceived ambiguities. This can be done for a limited number of questions on a separate attachment to the multiple choice exam. I’ve done this for years, using an approach passed on to me by Bernie Black years ago when he was at Columbia and I taught a course there.
The mechanism is easiest to explain by excerpting below the related instruction that appears on the general instructions page to my exam; it is followed by the form of explanations page I attach to the exam booklet. I always circulate the instruction and sample form of explanations page in the weeks before the end of the term and explain the method in the beginning of the term when summarizing the course evaluation method.
From Instruction Page
6. While there is no obligation to do so, you may, if you think a question is ambiguous, explain why on the “explanations page” at the end of this exam. Then make whatever assumptions you need to resolve the ambiguity and answer the question. If there is a real ambiguity, your assumptions are reasonable, and your analysis is correct given your assumptions, you will receive credit even if your answer is not the one sought. But don’t look too hard for alternative explanations of what a question is asking for, or you may perceive ambiguity that isn’t really there. You can also lose credit if, though you selected the correct answer, your explanation convinces me that you did so for the wrong reasons. You can exercise this option to provide explanations for up to [_____] questions. [NB: I usually make this about 10-15% of the questions.]
From Explanations Form Pages
OPTIONAL: Explanation of Ambiguous Questions (Maximum of _______)
For each Question No. you believe is ambiguous, please write down:
(1) The answer you select (“Student Answer”)
(2) The answer you think I intended or may have intended (“Sought Answer”)
(3) The ambiguity and the assumptions you made in your selection
[Do not exceed space limits indicated by the lines below and please write neatly]
Question No. _______
Student Answer _______
Sought Answer _______