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Wednesday, April 01, 2009

The Ungraded Midterm

I would like to thank Dan Markel for having me as a guest blogger here on one of my favorite blogs, PrawfsBlawg, for the month of April.  I am an Assistant Professor at The John Marshall Law School, where I teach Evidence, Civil Procedure, and Criminal Procedure.  My primary blog is EvidenceProf Blog, where I post on a daily basis, and I also have started posting at Feminist Law Professors on about a bi-monthly basis.  For the most part, my posts on both of those blogs deal with evidentiary issues, and my plan this month at PrawfsBlawg is to expand the scope of my blogging to an area with which all teachers must grapple: the grading and evaluation of students.

While studying as a student and teaching as a professor at law school, the most persistent complaints I have heard regarding classes are that the "one exam to rule them all" format fails to give feedback to students throughout the semester and fails (literally and figuratively) students who had a single bad day.  I wish that I could figure out a way to solve the latter problem.  I know that my colleague, Sam Jones, gives students a few graded multiple choice tests throughout the semester in addition to the final exam and that other professors give students a graded midterm.

Certainly, there is a lot to commend these approaches, but I have two main reservations.  First, I have the feeling that if I gave a graded midterm, students would understandably but detrimentally (for both their other professors and them) shift most of their attention away from other classes in the week(s) before the midterm (giving students multiple points of stress in addition to multiple points of grading). Second, by the time the middle of the semester rolls around, I've set things up in class that won't pay off until later.  I do give an ungraded midterm, and my recent Criminal Procedure midterm contained a knock-and-announce fact pattern after we had discused the knock-and-announce requirement but before we had discussed Hudson v. Michigan, 547 U.S. 586 (2006), and its holding that the exclusionary rule does not apply to evidence seized after officers fail to comply with it.

I do, however, feel that my ungraded midterm at least partially addressed the latter problem (I will explain another way that I try to address this problem in my next post).  Here's what I do.  In a 14 week semester, I hand out an ungraded midterm in week 7 for one class and week 8 for the other.  Students have a week to complete the midterm, and I suggest that they treat it as if it were the final exam and do it under timed conditions.  The class after students turn in their answers, I do a general in-class discussion about the midterm and the answers/analysis I wanted. The following week, I give students answer keys with the points that they got and missed and the grades that they would have received if the midterm were the curved final exam. I then encourage students to meet with me to discuss ways to improve on the final.

It seems that there are pros and cons to my approach:

Pros

(1) It lets students see where they stand near the mid-point of the semester;

(2) It helps students better understand how to tackle the rest of the class and final exam preparation;

(3) It lets me see where I stand and whether I need to go back and further explain some concepts from the first half of class;

(4) (I hope and think) that it improves the overall class performance on the final exam;

(5) (For new(er) professors): It gives you a dry run to see whether your final exam will be too short/long and/or easy/difficult;

(6) (For new(er) professors): It gives students an opportunity to see what they can expect on the final exam;

(7) Compared to the graded midterm, it doesn't take too much time away from other classes;

(8) Compared to the graded midterm, it isn't overly stressful for students; and

(9) (For 1Ls): It provides an introduction to law school test taking.

Cons

(1) It is still somewhat time consuming for students;

(2) It is time consuming for the professor (but this can be reduced by using the same midterm each semester, just doing the general in-class discussion rather than giving individualized feedback, etc.);

(3) Compared to a graded midterm, fewer students will turn in answers (I have gotten about a 75% completion rate; I suppose that I could keep the midterm ungraded but make it mandatory and decrease the grades of students who don't turn in answers);

(4) Midterms in general are difficult to give in some classes, such as Criminal Law, and on certain subjects that are developed over the course of the semester; and

(5) Students who do poorly on the midterm might "check out" during the second half of class (although it might also light a fire under them).

On balance, I think that the pros outweigh the cons, but I'm new to this game and would love to hear what others think.  Do you give a graded or ungraded midterm and why or why not?  Also, is anyone aware of a law school that had mandatory midterms in all classes and blocks off a week for all midterms to be given so as to avoid the "focus shift" problem I raised above? 

Posted by Evidence ProfBlogger on April 1, 2009 at 09:10 AM in Teaching Law | Permalink

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One remedy to some of your concerns is to partner up with your law school's academic support program. Many of these programs have weekly classes for all students, and this class time (entire class sessions or even multiple sessions) can be reserved for students to take the midterm and for doctrinal professors to review the ungraded midterm.

This means: (1) you won't take up your class time with students taking or you reviewing the exam (as all that is done in the ASP class time); (2) students will experience the real exam environment (i.e. 80 students in a room, taking the exam together); (3) it eliminates the problem of students taking the midterm in groups or just merely outlining it, rather than actually writing out their essays; (3) it increases completion rate; (4) it allows you and your ASP faculty to share the workload of problem-creation; and (5) students can get individual feedback from ASP faculty on skills issues (i.e. arguing both sides; organization; solid legal analysis, etc).

There was an excellent presentation on this co-teaching/ co-assessing technique at AALS this year. I believe it was co-sponsored by the Teaching Methods and Balance sections. We implemented this technique at our school this semester, and it has been successful. Students, doctrinal profs, and ASP profs have all found it beneficial.

Posted by: NewLawProf | Apr 1, 2009 10:33:10 AM

One other possibility is to partner up with legal-writing instructors for a mid-weight project in that class, explicitly based on a continuing theme in your class. (This might be more difficult for an evening-division class... and, unfortunately, is limited to first-year classes.) For example, the crim pro problem cited above on Hudson would make a good closed memo (no outside research allowed). That will not only be a better teaching tool, but it will give feedback from multiple perspectives to the students making the "check out" problem less of an issue, and more closely matching reality.

Posted by: C.E. Petit | Apr 1, 2009 11:06:16 AM

Thanks. This sounds like a great approach, and I like the idea of students taking the midterm under final exam conditions. Under your system, is the midterm mandatory, and, if not, what has been the completion rate?

Posted by: Colin Miller | Apr 1, 2009 11:09:27 AM

Thanks, as well, C.E. Petit. I like to structure my classes so that they prepare students for both the bar exam and the practice of law, but I hadn't yet found a way to prepare students for the performance test portion of the bar exam. The approach you suggest would seem to do just that.

Posted by: Colin Miller | Apr 1, 2009 11:14:13 AM

I give an ungraded midterm, but the students get a point (out of 100) for taking it. In other words, performance isn't graded, but there is a small incentive to actually go through the process of taking it.

Posted by: Scott Dodson | Apr 1, 2009 11:58:08 AM

Scott, what percentage of students complete your midterms? And how do you handle students who "complete" the midterm but give really short/bad answers which make it seem like they spent several minutes, rather than several hours, on the exam? Or has that not been a problem? Thanks.

Posted by: Colin Miller | Apr 1, 2009 12:05:49 PM

Colin,

Our most successful project has been our "mock exam" in late November for 1Ls. It's a two hour torts exam (as torts is the one class receiving a final grade after fall semester). Last year, 80% of our first year class attended the mock exam. We review the entire exam in class, giving them a model "good" answer and a model "not so good" model answer to the essays.

We also give practice essays both in the first and second semester, working with doctrinal profs on the problems, the model answers, and the in-class reviews (which is co-taught). The first semester essays are well attended (usually about 80% of each section), while the second semester ones are not quite as well attended (about 60% of each section) because students do get the sense that our second semester offerings, while open to all, are geared toward students who underperformed on mid-year exams. Thus, some avoid the class to avoid being so categorized by their peers.

This 1L Academic Support class, including the mock exam, is not mandatory for any student. Nonetheless, it is well attended (due to the direct use of material from the casebook classes and overt support from doctrinal faculty). We tend to schedule the practice essays late in the semester, allowing the greatest possibility for coverage.

After this year's pilot program, several doctrinal profs are considering making these practice essays/ midterms mandatory for their classes. This integration of academic support with the casebook courses has solved a lot of problems for a lot of people. It allows multiple assessment opportunities and has also increased the efficacy of our academic support program. We've found it to be a successful endeavor so far.

I also agree with CE Petit that integrating Legal Writing with other courses is another way to pool resources and create a palpable synergy that directly benefits students.

Posted by: NewLawProf | Apr 1, 2009 1:58:26 PM

Colin:

I give the exam in class, and I usually get at or about 100% attendance. From my admittedly imperfect observations, they all seem to treat it at least modestly seriously--no one, for example, gets up after five minutes and leaves. I'm not under the delusion that most students study as hard for it as the actual final. But, then again, that's not entirely my purpose. I give it so that students can (a) see what their final exam in my class might look like, (b) have the opportunity to answer the midterm and self-assess how they are doing in the course, and (c) gauge the efficacy of their outlines and other exam prep materials that they are creating. This is some speculation, but I'd say at least 80% of them get something valuable out of it. Those that don't treat it seriously, well, they get the one point, but they lose out on the opportunities it provides.

Posted by: Scott Dodson | Apr 2, 2009 3:23:15 PM

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