Consider the following test question:

Which of the following are US States? (select multiple)

  1. Washington
  2. Delaware
  3. Frankfurt
  4. Memphis

This is a multiple-selection question, so the correct answer is a and b. How would you grade a question like this on an exam?

When I was in school, the Scantron machines we used supported these kinds of multiple-selection questions, but they were graded all or nothing: You got one point if your answer matched the key exactly, and zero points otherwise. I have it on good authority that the MOOC site edX works the same way.

In the era of floating-point arithmetic, all-or-nothing grading for multiple-selection questions is a hard practice to defend. A student who answers a is clearly more correct than a student who answers c and d, because the question above is really four questions:

  1. Is Washington a US state?
  2. Is Delaware a US state?
  3. Is Frankfurt a US state?
  4. Is Memphis a US state?

An alternative to all-or-nothing grading

I propose grading multiple-selection problems as \(n\) true-or-false questions, each weighted \(1/n\) points. In this example, a response of a is correct with respect to questions a, c, and d, and receives 0.75 points. A response of c and d is correct with respect to none of the items and receives zero points.

What about students who guess randomly? A student who guesses randomly receives, in expectation, 0.5 points under my proposal and \(1/ 2^n\) points under the all-or-nothing method. Therefore, one objection to my proposal is that it provides students with a strong incentive to guess. I contend that this is not a real problem, because

  • The incentive for students to guess is still positive under all-or-nothing grading,
  • In creating examinations, there is no objective reason to make “discourage students from guessing” a design goal,
  • Even if you insist that reducing the incentive to guess is a good thing, you can accomplish this by instating a penalty (of 0.5 points) for incorrect answers.

Wrong-answer penalties, however, are a potential source of bias (open-access article) in testing because students vary in their risk aversion.

Better yet

Multiple-selection questions are not very user friendly to begin with. Some students fail to realize that they are allowed to choose more than one answer and agonize over technicalities (Maybe he means Washington, DC?). Others (mistakenly) assume that they will be graded all or nothing, recognize the slim chances of success, and just skip the question to pursue lower-hanging fruit.

Therefore, as long as you accept my argument that multiple-selection questions should be regarded as \(n\) true-or-false questions for grading purposes, why not simply write them out that way on the test sheet? Then there is no way to misread the question as a single selection, and the grading scheme is obvious.