Exams with merit

March 12, 2015

Why do medical faculties have such a problem with multiple choice questions? (“Campus Hunger Games”, Opinion, 5 March).

A chicken pecking randomly at four possible answers will score 25 per cent on average, one correct answer for three wrong ones. To reduce that to zero, while keeping 100 per cent unchanged, you award one mark for a correct answer and subtract one third for a wrong answer. One correct = +1, three times one third incorrect = -1. Total equals average equals zero.

It is necessary to make the students answer all the questions and to treat absent answers as wrong. Otherwise, the terror of unexplained negative marking will prevent students from making educated guesses, which will mostly be correct. Clever but nervous students get all their answers correct, but do not answer enough questions to pass.

Such marking procedures are justified because the purpose of an exam is to see how much students have learned or failed to learn.

Multiple choice questions are difficult to compose well. My daughter, a graduate in modern history, demonstrated to me that she could pass science multiple choice questions by choosing the most carefully written and detailed options and ruling out some distractors using her GCSE knowledge. Multiple choice questions are a useful way of giving marks to students who lack sufficient recall or writing ability to answer “What is…?” questions but can distinguish between right and wrong answers in questions such as “Which of the following is…?” It is easy to boost marks by putting in weak, even silly, “wrong” answers.

Few faculties still have a will for the exam scrutiny that Kevin Fong described.

Even more effective at raising marks is to remove negative marking altogether, so that students who know 20 per cent of the answers and guess the rest will average 40 per cent – a pass in most university exams. Multiple choice questions are an excellent way of cutting staff workloads and the marking can be done by non-specialists or scanners. Multiple choice questions also assist in the essential grade inflation which troubled Fong, but they do tax the intellect of academics.

Hugh Fletcher
Retired director of education
Biological sciences
Queen’s University Belfast

Times Higher Education free 30-day trial

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Register

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments

Featured Jobs

Most Commented

Worried man wiping forehead
Two academics explain how to beat some of the typical anxieties associated with a doctoral degree
men in office with feet on desk. Vintage

Three-quarters of respondents are dissatisfied with the people running their institutions

A group of flamingos and a Marabou stork

A right-wing philosopher in Texas tells John Gill how a minority of students can shut down debates and intimidate lecturers – and why he backs Trump

A face made of numbers looks over a university campus

From personalising tuition to performance management, the use of data is increasingly driving how institutions operate

students use laptops

Researchers say students who use computers score half a grade lower than those who write notes