by Sandra Clarke, University of Greenwich

With the advent of the SQE, which will have a large component of online assessment, it seems a sensible time to examine the benefits and drawbacks of this method.

I teach a 30 credit level 5 land law course to around 90 students per year. Last year, I changed from a seen written exam in January to a seen online assessment. Both assessments test all the material taught in the first term (introductory material on the nature of land, tenure and estates, the freehold estate, leaseholds, co-ownership, trusts of land). Aspects of co-ownership and TOLATA in particular, along with writing skills, are assessed in more depth by a research problem question in term two.

The assignment consists of 20 questions, a mix of MCQs, extended matching, and ordering. In this post, I will concentrate on MCQs. Questions are created using the Moodle quiz tool. They are based around a register of title, which is available to students before the Christmas break, as are the questions asked (but not the options). Students can ask questions about the assessment on a dedicated Moodle forum.

Students take the assessment unsupervised during an eight hour window. Once they begin they are timed, and cannot restart. Last year I allowed one hour for the students to complete the MCQs, but this was too long. For comparison, the QLTS requires candidates to answer 90 questions in 165 minutes (about 1.6 minutes per question). This year I will allow 40 minutes. The Moodle quiz tool allows extra time to be added for students with reasonable adjustments for specific learning needs.

MCQs consist of three main parts, the stem, the lead in, and the options, which consist of the key (correct answer) and a number of distractors.  For example:

Stem The Boat House has been sold to Lucy and Francine, who hold the property as joint tenants in law and equity. In fact, Lucy contributed 75% of the purchase price. Lucy has served a written notice on Francine stating that she now wishes to sever the joint tenancy.
Lead In What will be the effect of this notice?
Options A.      Lucy and Francine will still be joint tenants at law, holding the land on trust for themselves in equity. Lucy and Francine will now be tenants in common in equity, holding equal shares (50% each).

B.      Lucy and Francine will still be joint tenants at law, holding the land on trust for themselves in equity. Lucy and Francine will now be tenants in common in equity, holding shares in proportion to their contributions to the purchase price (75% to Lucy and 25% to Francine).

C.      Lucy and Francine will be tenants in common in law and in equity, holding the property in the shares in which they contributed to the property (75% to Lucy and 25% to Francine).

D.      The written notice will have no effect, as joint tenancies cannot be severed by written notice.

Critiquing this question (which is one I used in the test last year), the first point is that the stem is unclear, as it is not specified whether the starting presumption is required, or the decision that may be reached if a common intention constructive trust is raised. It would have been better to have stated clearly that it was an express declaration of trust creating a joint tenancy in law and equity, or to have said ‘what is the starting presumption of the court as to the effect of this notice?’  In practice, since this was a seen exam, the students could ask if they were unsure. The stem is meaningful, and does relate to a particular rule of law which the student should know.

The lead–in should ideally be able to be answered by the student before any of the options are seen. This would be the case here if the stem were clear. A student who knows the legal rule should be able to identify that it is relevant here. Lead-ins to avoid include ‘which of the following is correct?’, or, even worse, ‘which of the following is incorrect’?

The options should contain a clear key and a number of distractors which should be plausible and not too different in length from the key. In this respect, distractor D is not ideal. It could perhaps be rephrased as ‘Lucy and Francine will still be joint tenants at law, holding the land on trust for themselves in equity. They will continue to be joint tenants in equity as joint tenancies cannot be severed by written notice.’

It is possible to give partial marks for partially correct answers, but I will not do so this year as I found it inflated the grades achieved, and will not apply in the SQE. Students have to find the best answer, even if other answers contain some correct information.

My initial findings after one year of online testing are that it is possible to test understanding and application in online quizzes in land law, but setting the questions is a difficult and time-consuming task.

Helpful articles include:

Case, S. and Donahue, E. (2008) Developing High-Quality Multiple Choice Questions for Assessment in Legal Education 58 J. Legal Educ. 372 2008

Deane, F. and Bozin, D. (2017) Using Guiding Principles to Construct Effective Multiple Choice Exams to Assess Legal Reasoning Legal Education Review: Vol. 26: Issue 1 , Article 1. Available at: