Multiple-Choice Questions. Don’t We Have More Important Things to Worry About?

March 7, 2014 Beth Donahue

If you are a law professor or administrator, you face enormous challenges today. Some of these challenges—rising student debt loads and the specter of potentially disruptive technologies—are shared by academics across America’s higher education institutions. This is big-picture, systemic stuff, and there are fingers pointing at you and blaming you for all manner of failures related to the woes of that system. In the midst of this, you may not think it’s the right time to explore the tedious construction of multiple-choice questions. But take a deep breath and relax. Systemic dysfunctions are sometimes corrected by dramatic or dismantling change . . . but usually not.

This is because systemic dysfunctions often include inversely correlated problems, such that a seemingly brilliant solution to one problem within the system will actually exacerbate another problem. So it is with the crisis in legal education. Two of the often-cited problems in legal education are that 1) law students are taking on too much debt and 2) law students are ill-prepared for the bar exam and for practice when they graduate. One splashy proposal that solves the first problem is to cut law school to two years. But wouldn’t that make students even less prepared for the bar exam and/or for practice? Another proposal aimed at the second problem is to dramatically increase clinics and externship-like experiences in law school. But surely that would be expensive, and who is likely to foot the bill?

My advice to legal educators is, first of all, do no harm. Don’t put out one fire with a knee-jerk grand solution that fuels or ignites another fire. Instead, go back to the basics of what you’re teaching and why and how you’re teaching it. Re-examine your methods in light of modern research in curriculum design, teaching, learning, and assessment, and gently tease out the ways that you can make positive progress in addressing one problem without impacting any other problems. What you’ll likely find is that you can make some relatively small changes that not only make a positive difference in addressing a single targeted problem, but that also have unexpected—even counter-intuitive—positive ripple effects throughout the system.

Increasing your use of formative multiple-choice tests is one of these “relatively small” changes that I think will go a lot further than you anticipate. In my upcoming webinar, I’ll discuss why using multiple-choice tests in law school isn’t just about bar prep (although I think preparing your students for the bar is a worthy goal in itself). It’s about preparing your students for legal practice(!) and controlling costs throughout the system. In fact, using more multiple-choice questions may just be one of the most important things you could be worrying about right now.

To understand why, I’ll first explain (in my next post) why the process of learning to “think like a lawyer” is a lot like building a complex information system, and your students are the software developers.


About the Author

Beth Donahue

Beth Donahue is a former editor and program director of the Multistate Bar Examination, as well as a former manager of a large technical team developing online assessment programs for K-12 standardized tests. She is the co-founder of BarCrowd LLC, a company that develops crowd-sourced assessment software for use as a teaching and learning tool in law schools.

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