Friday, December 9, 2016
Multiple choice questions are dumb. Even so, we've created a society where much of a person's life is dependent upon being good at coloring in computer-generated circles with graphite (PSAT, SAT, LSAT, ACT, etc., etc.). Unfortunately, one's ability to pass the bar exam and practice law falls into this category, which I've always suspected was a decision based on insidious lobbying from the #2 pencil industry.
Multiple choice questions are dumb because they don't seem to test much more than the ability to spot and repeat back a factoid. For example, imagine a multiple choice question like this on an astronomy test:
A sun is a:
A. Gigantic nuclear furnace
B. Helium-containing object
D. Ball of incandescent gas
The best answer is obviously "C," although the other three aren't wrong. I don't think picking "C" in that situation proves the student knows that a star is a "sun" if it is the center of a planetary system or any other important ideas about stars or suns. It certainly does not show the student understood anything important about suns or how to suss out what a sun is. It probably only proves that the student had the definition in his or her notes and could remember it. In fact, I would argue that picking one of the wrong answers might actually show the student understood more about suns than if he or she picked the right one.
So, why do we use the MBE on the bar exam? Being able to fill bubbles proves nothing about writing quality, critical thinking skills, advocacy, ethics, or any other skills society believes a lawyer needs.
Additionally, factoids change. In the law, there's local variations and changes in statutes and changes in interpretation. Even in non-law questions, where one would think a static answer was more likely, the same problem exists. For example,
The tyrannosaurus rex:
A. Walked upright
B. Had feathers
C. Ate brontosaurus meat
D. Was less cool than a velociraptor
The answer to that question depends on what decade the student is living in. In the 1970s, A and C would work, but now scientists don't think T. Rex's walked around like Godzilla and a brontosaurus seems to be more correctly defined as an apatosaurus. In the 1990s, after Jurassic Park, choice D looks pretty good. As of a couple of weeks ago, choice B might be a lock.
For any educational endeavor, the idea of one never-changing factoid a student should have burned into his or her brain tissue seems less than useful.
In the context of legal education, I suppose the one thing a multiple choice exam like the MBE accomplishes is proving that the person can be given a standardized assignment that is somewhat herculean and force himself or herself to put in enough work to pass it. I guess one could argue the MBE shows grit and seriousness and ability to follow directions, but except for the ability to put up with a lot of grunt work, I don't think the MBE proves much of anything as far as being a lawyer goes.
However, at least for the time being, this is the world we are stuck with (much like complaining about social media and the Williams-Sonoma catalog, complaining about the MBE is probably more quixotic than anything else). It would make much more sense for the UBE or any other bar exam to be solely comprised of MPTs and possibly some essays, but I doubt we're ever going to get there.