I wanted to take a moment to respond to a piece in the Opinion section of Broadside’s Mon 26 Mar edition, “What do multiple-choice exams prove?” by Angela Kim.

In my role as an adjunct history professor with 11 years of experience, not just at GMU but at Northern Virginia Community College, I have had the opportunity to write, administer and grade 133 exams (yes – I went backthrough my records and counted!).  I’d say the split between multiple-choice and essay-based exams is about 40/60 – most often, I do rely on essay-based exams, but what Ms. Kim needs to understand is that multiple-choice exams have worth and an important place in the classroom.

Just like no two students are the same, no two classes are the same – neither are any two professors.  We rely on our knowledge of how classes work and how students learn to determine whether a class is better suited to an MC or EB exam.  In the course of any given semester, I have even used both types of tests with one class.

No matter what type of exam I choose to give, I guarantee you about half the class will hate it, call it unfair and feel like they didn’t do as well as they could have done on the other type of exam.  The laws of statistics also kick in here in that no matter what type of exam I give, the old-fashioned bell curve is pretty much how the results pan out, although in their collective defense, my classes’ bell curves aren’t centered solidly atop 75, but more towards the high C/low B range.

It may shock GMU students to hear this, but not everybody that takes a class gets an A.  Blaming the style of exam given by the teacher simply isn’t logical.

It’s also important to take into account class size when critiquing a professor’s choice of exam.  I don’t know about full time professors, some of whom I know have teaching assistants, but my only assistant is my 9 year old daughter.  She’s a great organizer and tracker-of-grades, but when it comes down to determining the subtleties of feudalism as addressed on a midterm exam, she’s a little out of her league.  That leaves me alone to grade the exams.

In a class of 10, 15 or even 25 to 35 students, grading an essay-based exam isn’t really that difficult.  Sure, it’s time consuming to a certain extent, but that’s all part of the job – and by that I mean, that’s part of what we’re getting paid to do.  However, when class sizes extend beyond that – and I have taught a dozen classes of 50+, including several sections reaching 75 and even two that had 110 students – the essay-based exam becomes completely unwieldy at those numbers and due to the sheer volume of information, it’s nearly impossible to quickly, effectively and efficiently grade that many exams.  In classes over 50, a multiple-choice exam is almost a necessity.  If you think grading exams quickly isn’t a priority, then you haven’t met the 53 students in my class at GMU this semester that expected to get their midterms returned in one week.

Success on an exam of any type is a function of preparedness.  Studying is a skill that has to be learned and practiced like anything else.  The fact that Ms. Kim expresses her early college career didn’t return results up to her expectations as far as exam scores go shows that as she proceeded past her freshman and sophomore years, her study skills improved and she was simply better able to prepare for exams in her later years in college.  I would bet she’d have succeeded in those later exams no matter what type of exam was administered.

-Wes Fleming