Preparing for the 2011 bar exams

The format of the bar exams comes with many changes for 2011.  The changes are summarized by the Supreme Court on its website.

Two parts – MCQ and essay

The most important change is the use of multiple-choice questions (MCQ), a format already in use for doctors, nurses, engineers, etc. According to the Court, there will be a bar exams team, which will be “assisted by experts, [who] will monitor and evaluate the construction and selection of appropriate MCQs.”

There will still be an essay component, but this will primarily test the writing skills of the examinee, especially his ability to put together coherent arguments.  The essay will not be graded for technical “correctness,” but for clarity and lucidity, i.e. for the “quality of the examinee’s legal advocacy.” There will be an essay portion for each of the eight bar subjects.  The Supreme Court gives an illustrative example of an essay question in Civil Law.

Greater focus on essentials

The Court has given downloadable syllabi for the bar subjects, with the aim of enabling law students to “concentrate on the basics and stay away from the non-essentials.”

An incentive to law school professors

Among them is a procedure by which the Supreme Court will solicit multiple choice questions (MCQ) from the law schools.  Included is the following instruction to law school professors from the Supreme Court website:

‘We suggest that you send us at least 50 MCQs in the subject you teach, 10 “knowledge and recall” items, 20 “understanding” items, and 20 “analysis and solution” items.  We will evaluate these and, if you get it right, we will issue you a certificate as expert, first grade, in MCQ construction. This will qualify you to lecture on the subject and place you in the list of potential bar examiners for the 2011 bar exams and beyond.’

Question:  Will the law schools make public how many of their professors have been certified in MCQ construction?  Should such certified professors be given premium pay?

Exam content for MCQ

As to the composition of the exam, the Court has stated that 40% of MCQs will measure understanding; another 40% will measure “analysis and solution”; so that only 20% of MCQs are of the simple “knowledge and recall” kind.  There will be 100 MCQs per bar subject.  The Court considered various technical questions on the design of the exam, including a raffle process for the choice of MCQs.

Fair play

There is a “fair play” rule in the instructions to those who will make up MCQs.

One such instruction is that:  “One of the advantages of MCQs is that you can ask many questions to cover a good cross-section of a subject. You can do this only if you make your MCQs simple, clear and short. Do not complicate a problem with unessential facts. Include in the stem only the facts needed to make the problem clear. Irrelevant materials in the stem cause confusion. [emphasis supplied] ”  (Comment:  Obviously, irrelevant but seemingly important information would be given in the wrong choices, but not in the correct one.  Note: The “stem” is the part of the MCQ that is presented before the alternative choices are given.)

Still another fair-play instruction is: “Be sure that the choices you provide has only one correct answer that experts would generally agree on. In their desire to make distractors plausible, some writers would include more than one correct answer or choices that remain unsettled among experts and authorities.”  [Note: a “distractor” is an incorrect answer from the available choices offered to the examinee.]

It seems that the Court will not allow MCQs where a potentially correct answer is “all of the above,” or “none of the above.”  This is to encourage the MCQ preparer to make up “good” distractors.  The Court also frowns on the use of a “modified” true-false question, which it says “accomplishes little.” In the example the Court gives, two statements are in the stem, and the choices relate to which of the two statements is true, or whether both are true or false.

How to answer an MCQ

Don’t talk back! Just kidding.  Don’t read is more like it.  I mean, don’t read the answer choices immediately.  Read the stem carefully, and try to formulate the correct answer on that basis.  After that, the answer choice closest to your ideal answer is likely correct.  Of course, if you have no idea, then you’re basically guessing.  The Court said that mere guessing will get a grade of 25%.   Seriously, if you needed counsel would you go to a lawyer who’s right only one-fourth of the time?


In a later blog post, I will give some notes on the essay portion of the 2011 bar exams.


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