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Monday, November 12, 2007

Exam Writing

It's that time of year again.  Time to start wracking your brain for ideas about how to probe your students' understanding of easements implied from prior use, or whatever equivalent common law doctrine you happen to teach.  I find the process of exam writing to be one of the most challenging parts of a professor's job.  But it's something that junior faculty members are frequently left to figure out on their own.  So I thought I'd start a thread to give readers an opportunity to share their tips about how to write the perfect exam.  Where do you hunt for ideas?  Do you cull through recent cases?  Do you rely on newspaper articles about arcane property or contract disputes?  How many issues do you bury in a single fact pattern?  Do you use short answer essays or multiple choice?  Is your goal simply to generate a good spread of scores, or do you also want to make (most of) your students feel good about their legal knowledge at the same time?

Posted by Eduardo Penalver on November 12, 2007 at 10:24 AM | Permalink

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I agree, Eduardo, that exam-writing -- while not as tough as exam-grading -- is really tough. Each semester, I resolve to write the exam early. And, each semester, I put it off. A few general thoughts: First, I do want the exam to be challenging, if only to make sure that there's a "spread" in terms of students' scores. Next, I try to make sure that there's "something for everyone." That is, I try to incorporate (to the extent possible) "objective", or "descriptive" questions about what the relevant doctrine *is*; problem-solving questions that give students a chance to show that they are able to deploy the relevant doctrine and to appreciate the ways in which real-world outcomes are often way "underdetermined" by that doctrine (assuming the doctrine itself is reasonably clear!); and "theoretical" questions, about the premises and commitments that underly, and shape, both the doctrine and the methods by which it is deployed. In practice, this often means that I combine short-answer and multiple-choice questions with "issue spotters" and "think questions."

Posted by: Rick Garnett | Nov 12, 2007 10:59:13 AM

As a beginning professor, I almost always used recently decided cases. In the days before easy online case research and frequent make-up exams, I would put the case citation on the exam itself. Advantages to this approach: (1) Students perceived my questions as "real-world" rather than the bizarre musings of an academic. (2) It cut down the number of exam reviews -- students could look up the case immediately after class to get a good idea of what I was looking for in an answer. (3) It cut the instances in which a student insisted that I had gotten the law/analysis wrong (and they had gotten it right) to zero -- it was hard to argue whe

Posted by: Rick Bales | Nov 12, 2007 11:20:01 AM

Last year, I based my property final on Spiderman 3 -- I'd be happy to share it upon request (complete with answer memo!). Writing that exam was THE most satisfying activity of my first year as a prawf. I found the process to be so challenging, but in a really creative, screen-writing (I guess, because I based it on a movie?) kind of way. Since writing that exam, I have based assignments on television shows or movies, almost exclusively.

As for content, I play a game with myself to see how many issues I can fit into as few words. So if, for example, I fit in 10 issues by writing only 5 words, I get more points (redeemable for. . . ?) than I would by fitting in fewer issues by writing more words.

Posted by: Liz Glazer | Nov 12, 2007 2:44:57 PM

Rick Garnett gives excellent substantive advice above. I would only add that while it's good to make exams harder, at the margins (you get a curve and you can always decide that 70% right is an "A"), it's a common first-year teaching mistake to make exams too *long*. In other words, "challenging questions" is a good kind of hard, but "one million issues that no reasonable law student could spot in the alloted amount of time" is not a good kind of hard. When I was a first year prof., I was tempted to try to test everything I taught during the semester; then I realized it would take about 10 hours to answer the exam (which wasn't a take-home).

Beyond that, while I typically don't model my exams on recent news events, the most fun exam (for me, at least) I ever wrote was a long torts essay question based on the "brawl" at the Palace of Auburn Hills involving members of the Detroit Pistons, Indiana Pacers, and fans. But maybe that's because I'm a long-time Pistons fan.

Posted by: Joseph Slater | Nov 13, 2007 9:39:30 AM

Rick Garnett gives excellent substantive advice above. I would only add that while it's good to make exams harder, at the margins (you get a curve and you can always decide that 70% right is an "A"), it's a common first-year teaching mistake to make exams too *long*. In other words, "challenging questions" is a good kind of hard, but "one million issues that no reasonable law student could spot in the alloted amount of time" is not a good kind of hard. When I was a first year prof., I was tempted to try to test everything I taught during the semester; then I realized it would take about 10 hours to answer the exam (which wasn't a take-home).

Beyond that, while I typically don't model my exams on recent news events, the most fun exam (for me, at least) I ever wrote was a long torts essay question based on the "brawl" at the Palace of Auburn Hills involving members of the Detroit Pistons, Indiana Pacers, and fans. But maybe that's because I'm a long-time Pistons fan.

Posted by: Joseph Slater | Nov 13, 2007 9:40:37 AM

I've always been somewhat annoyed when professors use final exams as an outlet for their creative writing talents. I think that the humor of a 'cute' exam can be grating and irritating in a high-pressure exam situation.

In my experience as a test-taker, the most rewarding exams were those that required careful analysis of nuanced questions of law. A simple Easter-egg hunt for issues in a zany hypothetical makes a mockery of the dignity and complexity of the law.

Posted by: J G | Nov 13, 2007 10:02:42 PM

I also hated when professors used cute names/gimmicks.

Posted by: anon | Nov 14, 2007 7:52:10 AM

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