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Saturday, May 06, 2006

Exams

I gave my Constitutional Law exam yesterday (three hours, in class, open book).  Ann Althouse is asking a question -- and getting lots of responses -- similar to the one that I posed to several students after the exam:  "Do law students know (or believe) that we lawprofs mean for the exam to be a rewarding educational experience?"  Thoughts?

Posted by Rick Garnett on May 6, 2006 at 09:25 AM in Life of Law Schools | Permalink

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» Examining Law School Exams from Concurring Opinions
There are a lot of really good discussions going on in the blogosphere about law school exams recently. Ann Althouse asks whether exams are a rewarding educational experience in and of themselves for students. Jonathan Adler offers his thoughts here.... [Read More]

Tracked on May 8, 2006 7:15:54 PM

» Deconstructing Law School Exams from Preaching to the Perverted
Its finals time in ye olde law school, which always has the law bloggers, students and professors alike, contemplating the nature of Exams. Prof. Volokh has some suggestions about, Why Law Schools Generally Grade Based on a Single End-of-Semeste... [Read More]

Tracked on May 9, 2006 1:19:52 PM

» Deconstructing Law School Exams from Preaching to the Perverted
Its finals time in ye olde law school, which always has the law bloggers, students and professors alike, contemplating the nature of Exams. Prof. Volokh has some suggestions about, Why Law Schools Generally Grade Based on a Single End-of-Semeste... [Read More]

Tracked on Jul 4, 2006 10:49:13 AM

Comments

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One of the comments at AA sums up my feelings: "If law schools were truly interested in using exams as learning tools, they would have several exams throughout the semester, thus giving the students feedback."

The relevant section from the genius essay "How Not To Succeed In Law School," by James D. Gordon, found at 100 Yale L.J. 1679, the maxims of which I have faithfully followed in my own law school career may be instructive as well:

VIII. EXAMS
Studies have shown that the best way to learn is to have frequent exams on small amounts of material and to receive lots of feedback from the teacher. Consequently, law school does none of this. Anyone can learn under ideal conditions; law school is supposed to be an intellectual challenge. Therefore, law professors give only one exam, the FINAL EXAM OF THE LIVING DEAD, and they give absolutely no feedback before then. Actually, they give no feedback after then, either, because they don't return the exams to the students. A few students go and look at their exams after they are graded, but this is a complete waste of time, unless they just want to see again what they wrote and have a combat veteran-type flashback of the whole horrific nightmare. The professors never write any comments on the exams. That might permit you to do better next time, which would upset the class ranking.
Another reason that law professors give only one exam is that, basically, they are lazier than three-toed sloths. They teach half as many hours as other professors, are paid twice as much, and get promoted three times as fast. Then, they whine like three-year-olds because they have to grade one exam per class. I mean, this is every single semester, year in and year out. The constant grind is enough to kill a person, I tell you.

Posted by: Bart Motes | May 6, 2006 9:53:31 AM

Bart makes some stinging but important and often true points. In partial defense, some law profs. now give mid-terms, some give practice tests during the semester in first year classes, some upper level classes have paper assignments, and many profs. I know do write detailed comments on the exam answers (and then bemoan the lack of students reviewing them). And I'm pretty sure profs. don't really care about upsetting the class ranking.

Still, Bart is absolutely right that one of the striking differences between law schools and undergraduate institutions is that much-most of the time, most-all of the student's grade is based on one final exam. And I'm absolutely willing to believe that's not the most pedagogically useful way to test.

Is it just laziness? Grading is tedious, time-consuming, and unpleasant (as law prof. duties go) work. Again, as a partial defense, at least in undergrad courses at universities, most grading is actually done by teaching assistants, not the profs. So don't assume that all undergrad profs. are doing that much more work on this score. And I guess there's the "this is all preparing you for the bar exam" defense, but I think that's pretty weak.

So I can't help but agree that there is a sloth (two or three toed) factor here, and that's something that should be discussed.

Posted by: Joseph Slater | May 6, 2006 11:11:28 AM

Joseph said, "as a partial defense, at least in undergrad courses at universities, most grading is actually done by teaching assistants, not the profs." That's not really true, though, except for a quite small tier of research universities. At the majority of universities and colleges in the country there are no, or very few, graduate students that do grading so all the grading, even in large lecture classes, is done by the professor, one who is often teaching 3 or 4 classes a semester. Grading _is_ tedious, time-consuming, and unpleasant. I know- I'm just finishing my grading, and I had a very small class this semester. But, law professors do have it much better than the majority of professors in colleges and universities in the US.

Posted by: Matt | May 6, 2006 11:21:28 AM

Matt:

Well then, a fortiori to Bart's points, which again, I largely agree with.

Posted by: Joseph Slater | May 6, 2006 12:38:33 PM

Joseph, thanks, but while I agree in large part with the points, I can't claim credit for them--the first belongs to a poster at Althouse and the others are from the law review article I cite.

In fairness, I have found a number of my exams to be thought provoking and to really be educational in terms of proving either what I knew or what I didn't know in a way that few other processes can. It's one thing to think that you understand a concept, another entirely to have to apply it on an exam. That's the thing that law school exams do better than practically any other, in my opinion.

The biggest criticism that I have is the difficulty of knowing what is expected and the lack of feedback afterwards. Some of this is our fault as students--once I started to realize what professors were interested in, my grades improved dramatically--it seemed much easier than before. It's not necessary to give multiple exams a semester either, although I really think that the best thing to do is to give out an exam early on and spend some time going over it. It might serve to give students a better idea of what the professor is interested in generally, which would have a wider pedagogical purpose than simply improving exam performance.

Posted by: Bart Motes | May 6, 2006 1:49:28 PM

As a lowly 1L, I've come to appreciate the educational purpose that exams can serve. The problem is that they often don't, for two main reasons (though there may certainly be others).

1) Disconnect between instructions and expectations. In many cases, vague instructions aren't a problem. For example, one of the questions on my Admin Law final this semester asked us to discuss the constitutionality of letting executive agencies perform legislative functions; because we knew our professor well, we knew that he wanted an evaluation of Justice Scalia's opinion in Mistretta. But there are plenty of cases where it can be. My roommate's Con Law professor gave out old exams to practice with. The issue-spotter in one of them asked students to make the three strongest arguments that the statute in question was unconstitutional. When the professor reviewed the old exams in class, he let slip a secret: students who only made three arguments were heavily penalized because there was no evidence that they had considered and discarded other arguments; in fact, they even suffered when compared to students who made more than three arguments but failed to evaluate their relative strengths. I find it hard to believe that there is anything "educational" about such a question other than "Don't believe a damn thing your professors say on exams, since they don't mean it anyway."

2) The obscene amount of time it takes to get grades back. It's not the grades themselves that are the problem (since there's obviously quite little to take away from logging on to the grades website and seeing a letter), but the feedback problems the long grading period causes. By the time we get our grades back (professors have six weeks after the last exam, but most take two months), we've forgotten what the exams were about, what problems we thought we had (which may be totally different from the problems the professors found), etc. For one of my professors last semester, this wasn't an issue: I scheduled a time to meet with him after grades came back, and he gave me a copy of the exam, my answers (which he had made notes all over), and a set of model answers. We spent a good hour talking about what I did well, what went wrong, what I should have "taken away" from certain questions, that sort of thing. But my other professors didn't really care. The best feedback I got from those other meetings was "Put your conclusions at the beginning of an answer instead of working all the way through and revealing them at the end." And I had nothing to ask, because I didn't remember that I had a problem analyzing assumption of the risk (or what have you).

Exams certainly can be educational experiences, I just think that most professors see them as necessary evils that they'd rather not deal with.

Posted by: CL | May 6, 2006 2:27:24 PM

I feel like the problem with Law Professors and their examinations in general(please note I am a 1L so my experience is limited) is that there is very little information provided going into the exam, as to what will be on the exam, and therefore preparation is difficult. Preparing for an "educational experience" requires an additional level of preparation for which we aren't necessarily prepared. The answer may be, "this is law school, deal with it", but I feel like if you want to take your exam to the next level make sure that you have prepared your students for it.

As for the grading, I understand the need for the time period and appreciate it as I want a fair and equal grading criteria as opposed to a rush job. But after speaking to my profs. after getting my grades back I found there to be very little feedback. One professor had no comments, another actually told me "You didn't actually think I was going to give you the answers did you?"

So if your desire is an educational experience, please take the opportunity beforehand and after to prepare your students and provide them with meaningful feedback.

Posted by: 1L | May 6, 2006 10:34:20 PM

Reflecting on 3 years of law school exams, I can't remember more than 1 or 2 questions that I've been asked on an exam. I think this is a fairly common reaction - it's hard to ask students to have a rewarding educational experience in a three hour period which, by necessity, involves very little reflection.

I appreciate the good intentions of my professors and don't doubt that the put in a lot of effort to crafting exam questions, but the effort has largely been wasted on me.

Posted by: bsa | May 7, 2006 12:10:49 PM

"Do law students know (or believe) that we lawprofs mean for the exam to be a rewarding educational experience?"

If that's the intent, then the comments at Althouse's blog indicate that laws professors deserve a failing grade. ;)

Posted by: Mike | May 11, 2006 9:47:32 PM

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