Friday, November 4, 2005

Exams are (a) Scary, (b)....

Multiple Choice exams are definitely more in vogue these days than when I was in law school. We had one exam in my three years of school that had some multiple choice questions and it was considered quite controversial at the time. Yet, today, many faculty members use the multiple choice testing format in first-year classes as early preparation for bar testing since those subjects will be covered in the multi-state part of the bar.

Many first year students haven’t been tested in this format since the LSAT— and were not tested this way for quite some time before it. When a student performs poorly on an exam, I always ask if there were multiple choice questions on the test. Then I ask the student to find out if her score on the multiple choice questions was a key factor in making her grade so low. Often it is, but then what?


The only true method I’ve found for being comfortable with multiple choice questions is the same advice I give to folks who are looking to go to Carnegie Hall: practice, practice, practice!!! Then:

  • I will tell students about roots and foils and distracters.
  • I will divulge the statistical evidence that B or C is often the best guess when all else fails.
  • I will warn them about always and never, etc.
  • I will help a student understand why we test this way, although good advocacy could never be so certain.

We actually give an entire academic support lecture on the multiple choice exams. It is well attended. Our advice is simple: study the same way you would for an essay exam and do a lot of practice questions before the exam. Make sure you include your professor’s “what ifs” in your outline: after all how many ways can the issue arise? Practice using questions written by the same professor would be most helpful, but these are rarely found because the questions are so hard to write.

Yet, many students find this method of testing daunting. Is there really any consistency between our teaching them to “think like lawyers” and the ability to come up with the one best answer to a question? Haven’t we all taken the name of adult protective garments in vain by professing the most accurate answer often is “it depends”?  Advocacy really depends on testing the limits of the law, not confining it to one sentence.

In the end, we may be uncovering students who will not perform well on the multi-state and giving them a “heads up” that they have two more years to practice these skills; or we may be undermining our academic ideals to teach to a test. No judge will ever ask an attorney to answer a question in this format, but no judge will be sitting on the bench without having done so herself. (ezs)

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