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Curse or Blessing for Students? An overview of the legal basis for multiple-choice exams
by Tim Reichel
You are happy.
Because your professor has just announced that the upcoming exam will be a multiple-choice test. Little learning, little effort, high chance of passing - nothing easier than that.
What looks like a blessing to some students has long since become a curse for others. Because whether your answers are rated as correct or incorrect is usually decided by technical tools that read your crosses. This is not a problem as long as questions are clearly asked and answers can be clearly assigned - and of course as long as the technology does not fail.
Unfortunately, this is not always the case.
With the professional support of specialist lawyer Veronika Wiederhold, we clarify in this article where the chances and pitfalls of multiple-choice exams lie. You will learn about the legal fundamentals, possible sources of error and ways to take action against an incorrect examination.
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Hello Mrs. Wiederhold. Today you want to teach us something about the legal framework for multiple choice exams. What is special about multiple-choice exams?
What is special about exams in the multiple-choice procedure is the questioning technique, because there are several pre-formulated answers to choose from for each question. As a result, the examinee has no opportunity to answer the question freely or to explain his answer.
The examination performance is not - as is usually the case - subsequently assessed individually by an examiner, but is usually evaluated with technical aids. The actual examiner activity is thereby shifted forward in a decisive way, in particular in the selection of the questions, the elaboration of the correct answers and the definition of the assessment criteria.
What is your general assessment of multiple choice methods: more of a curse or more of a blessing for students?
It certainly depends primarily on the student. For those students who have learned average and thus have mastered the technical fundamentals, the multiple-choice procedure can be a blessing with a little luck. However, for those students who are particularly well-versed through extensive study, multiple-choice exams can also be a bane.
The latter is related to the fact that they sometimes interpret the question and the specified answer options in several directions, have to carefully weigh up between exceptional and normal cases as well as between different answer options and are not allowed to explain their answer in cases of doubt.
Where are common sources of error?
The sources of error are mostly related to the task at hand.
In general, the wording of the examination questions must be understandable, free of contradictions and unambiguous. This applies in particular to examinations in the multiple-choice procedure. For the examinee, who only has a short time to answer the questions, according to the case law of the Federal Administrative Court, it must be clear which performance is required of him on the basis of a simple interpretation of the examination questions. Tasks that can be solved in multiple ways, that contain ambiguous questions or that can only be inferred after a time-consuming interpretation are therefore legally flawed. According to jurisprudence, multiple-choice examination questions must be able to be answered correctly and without errors, especially by students with an advanced level of knowledge.
It often happens that multiple-choice exams require knowledge that can only be assessed in a later exam. An example: As part of a pre-clinical examination in medical studies, knowledge of the fundamentals of important diseases or the basic principles of operative technology is wrongly assumed.
Furthermore, there are also examination questions in the multiple-choice procedure, which per se do not allow reliable examination results. Here, too, an example from medicine: When asked “How many errors does the following sentence on the properties of leucine contain? [...] “it is not reliably determined whether the student has the appropriate specialist knowledge, since candidates wrongly suspect errors or wrongly do not recognize errors, but the result (by chance) arrives at the correct number of errors.
In addition, licensing regulations as well as study and examination regulations often provide for special requirements, for example for the examination scheme, the preparation of the tasks and the persons responsible for them. These regulations are sometimes not adhered to.
Finally, it also happens that the answer to be ticked as “correct” according to the solution pattern is actually wrong.
What do you think of the frequently asked “most relevant” answer?
Indeed, multiple-choice exams are often asked for the “most likely” answer. This type of question is not impermissible per se, but it is extremely error-prone. In multiple-choice examinations, a candidate must assume the normal case - and not the exceptional case - but if - as is so often the case - there are usually several justifiable answers in the specialist literature, there can be no weighing up of these justifiable answers in the sense of a "Most likely" answer may be required.
In the case of examinations in the multiple-choice procedure, the examinee does not have the opportunity to justify his opinion during the examination. However, since this should not result in any restriction of his freedom of choice, it must be sufficient, according to the case law, that the ticked answer corresponds to established knowledge that was published in specialist literature before the examination and that candidates in the relevant examination section were usually accessible without any particular difficulties.
How can the degree of difficulty be taken into account when assessing a multiple-choice exam?
In the case of examinations in the multiple-choice procedure, there is usually an absolute pass limit. This is mostly around 60%. However, since the assessment of multiple-choice examinations is shifted to the area of task creation, according to the case law of the Federal Constitutional Court, the pass limit for multiple-choice examinations must not be based solely on a percentage of the answers given, but must be based on are related to a possible maximum performance or to a normal performance, i.e. take into account the difficulty of the specific test.
With this case law, a relative pass limit was stipulated for examinations in the multiple-choice procedure. Based on this case law, the achievement of at least 60% of the total number of points to be achieved is generally required to pass multiple-choice exams or the fact that the number of correctly answered questions does not exceed the average examination performance of all by more than 22 percent Students. Whether and to what extent this so-called sliding clause also applies to all "reviews" is partly disputed and depends on the individual case.
Do examiners need a normative basis in order to be able to conduct examinations in the multiple-choice procedure?
To this end, I must first explain the following: Because of the fundamental right to freedom of career choice according to Article 12, Paragraph 1 of the Basic Law, the subject of an examination, the performance requirements in the examination and the standards according to which the performance is to be assessed must have a normative basis . However, this does not mean that the legislature also has to regulate the details. In the case of university examinations, the individual performance requirements do not have to be regulated by a law, but rather the regulation in the study and examination regulations relevant for the degree program is sufficient.
To what extent, against this background, an express normative basis is required specifically for the application of the multiple choice procedure, each individual case must be examined separately. A normative basis is usually required when the entire examiner's work is shifted to the task, i.e. an examination is carried out entirely in a multiple-choice procedure, which means that a subsequent individual assessment by an examiner is no longer possible.
To stick with our example from medicine: In the case of medical exams, it is sufficient if the multiple-choice procedure and the associated pass thresholds are specified in more detail in the licensing regulations for doctors (see Section 14 ÄAppO). The legal situation for pharmaceutical examinations must be assessed in a similar way (see Section 10 AAppO). However, it cannot be ruled out that, in the absence of a normative basis, examination committees or individual examiners may be able to use the multiple-choice procedure autonomously in individual cases.
How are errors in multiple choice exams fixed?
Errors in exam questions in the multiple-choice procedure are usually eliminated by excluding the incorrect questions from the assessment of the exam or recognizing the candidate's reasonable answers as correct. Under certain circumstances, a repetition of the examination is also possible.
How can students dispute a multiple choice exam if they think the exam was incorrect?
In principle, an objection can be made to the negative examination result in a timely and formal manner. In individual federal states, particularities must be observed in this respect, for example in Berlin and Bavaria. Depending on the individual case, the initiation of legal action should also be considered. How to proceed in a specific case can be discussed in a legal consultation.
In which cases is such a challenge worthwhile?
A challenge is particularly worthwhile if only a few pass points are missing and legal errors have occurred.
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In the interview
Lawyer Veronika Wiederhold
Veronika Wiederhold is a specialist lawyer for administrative law specializing in university and examination law. Her law firm in Dresden advises and represents students across Germany on many legal problems. In our blog she gives tips and shares her many years of professional experience.
A multiple choice exam is more than ticking a few crosses. Behind this examination process is a whole apparatus of concepts and guidelines that are intended to enable fair, transparent handling. Still, a multiple choice exam can be a blessing or a curse to you.
It is a blessing if your examiner took the legal framework into account when creating the test. In other words, the questions are clearly formulated, the answers can also be clearly assigned and the degree of difficulty is taken into account in the assessment. Of course, on your part, this also means that you have properly and conscientiously prepared for the exam. Otherwise all your professor's efforts are of no use either.
This examination procedure becomes a curse if the sources of error shown in this article occur. If the questions in your multiple choice procedure are not phrased consistently, the rules of your examination regulations have not been adhered to, or you notice other omissions, do not hesitate to point them out.
In the best case scenario, your examiner will not evaluate incorrectly asked questions. However, if he disagrees, you now know what the legal situation looks like and how you can successfully defend yourself.
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