Evaluating multiple-choice exams in large introductory physics courses

Michael Scott, Tim Stelzer, Gary Gladding

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The reliability and validity of professionally written multiple-choice exams have been extensively studied for exams such as the SAT, graduate record examination, and the force concept inventory. Much of the success of these multiple-choice exams is attributed to the careful construction of each question, as well as each response. In this study, the reliability and validity of scores from multiple-choice exams written for and administered in the large introductory physics courses at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign were investigated. The reliability of exam scores over the course of a semester results in approximately a 3% uncertainty in students' total semester exam score. This semester test score uncertainty yields an uncertainty in the students' assigned letter grade that is less than 1/3 of a letter grade. To study the validity of exam scores, a subset of students were ranked independently based on their multiple-choice score, graded explanations, and student interviews. The ranking of these students based on their multiple-choice score was found to be consistent with the ranking assigned by physics instructors based on the students' written explanations (r > 0.94 at the 95% confidence level) and oral inteviews (r=0.94-0.09+0.06).

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number020102
JournalPhysical Review Special Topics - Physics Education Research
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jul 28 2006

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Education
  • General Physics and Astronomy


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