Extra Credit Questions, or, Why I Don’t Do Multiple Choice On Tests

When I started grading the extra credit questions – my warmup to grading the test – I noticed that what I thought were ‘gimme’ questions had in fact produced a wide array of what I thought were incorrect answers. On reconsideration, and after consulting with some bemused colleagues, I’ve come to the conclusion that one of my questions was poorly constructed such that the correct answer was only obvious to me; on this question, anyone who answered anything gets half-credit, and anyone who answered correctly gets full credit. On the other question I’m holding the line, though, because nobody has given me a convincing argument that my options were prone to misinterpretation or “correct from a certain perspective” such that I should be lenient; only the correct answer will earn full credit.

Here are the questions:

Extra Credit Questions (Circle your answers below)

  1. Why was Japan an ally of Germany and Italy in World War Two?
    a. natural tactical and strategic advantages
    b. shared anti-communist, nationalist ideals
    c. “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”
    d. all of the above
  2. Why was the Soviet Union (USSR) an ally of the US and UK in World War Two?
    a. personal goodwill between leaders
    b. shared progressive, internationalist ideals
    c. “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”
    d. all of the above

The intended correct answers are (b) for question 1 and (c) for question 2.

On question 1, the defining characteristics of the Anti-comintern/Axis alliance are a shared committment to nationalism, imperialist expansion, totalitarian anti-democracy, and a violent antipathy to communism and socialism. The alliance forms after all three leave the League of Nations over their respective expansions. There’s little tactical advantage to the alliance – with the exception of the Soviet Union, and arguably the US, Japan and Germany had few common enemies, and they never coordinated their military strategies. Nonetheless, I can see where (c) is an easy mistake, and I can also see where people might think that there could be tactical or strategic components to the alliance. The most common answer given on this question – by a huge margin – was (d). I will accept (a), (c) and (d) for half-credit, and (b) will get full credit.

On question 2, the only historically acceptable answer is (c). Nobody liked Joseph Stalin personally; even when FDR and Churchill (and Truman) acknowledged his importance as an ally, they didn’t trust him any farther than they could throw him. Though the USSR might be described as ‘internationalist’, the US and UK had waged an open struggle against the spread of communist ideas and governments in the two decades following the Russian Revolution, and the USSR did not support the League of Nations or the Wilsonian movement it represented. In the absence of goodwill and shared ideals, (a), (b) and (d) are clearly incorrect answers. (C) answers get full credit. There was an almost exactly even distribution of answers: (b), (c) and (d) each got about 1/3rd of the responses; fortunately, only one person answered (a).

Oh, well. Nobody got a full 2 points extra credit, but everyone who attempted the questions got at least a half point. And this is why I don’t like multiple choice questions: it’s hard to design ones that are fair, historically interesting, and test understanding.