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Friday, May 21, 2010

The Very Mixed Blessings of Word-Processed Exams

Having completed another round of exam grading (including, on an Admin Law exam, a delightful misidentification of Vermont Yankee v. NRDC as Yankee Candle), I am recalling a discussion on Prawfs some time ago of spelling and grammar on exams.  I forget the details of that exchange, so maybe it was mentioned back then, but I was struck this exam cycle by the difference in eloquence between word-processed and handwritten exams.  As any prof can attest, word processed exams often suffer from severe cases of misspellings and poor sentence constructions.  I saw far less of this on the (admittedly few) handwritten exams I read this time around. 

It's not that hard to figure out what's going on: students on word processors just power through sentences and paragraphs, since they can always correct the most egregious stylistic problems, even if they leave a lot of them uncorrected.  By contrast, handwriters have to think before each sentence.  It's an odd inversion of a wonderful Russell Baker "On Language" column from the New York Times Magazine back in 1987 or 88, which consisted of a series of sentences, all uncompleted, all of which were supposed to constitute the first sentence of an essay on how much easier writing had become since the word processor.  Of course a writer of Baker's quality (and, of course, with more time than a student on an exam) would constantly rewrite that first sentence.  Our students don't, at least on exams.

I wonder if this phenomenon affects student writing in contexts beyond exams.  Do they get accustomed to writing poorly, because if they write poorly they can write quickly?  Is there some step of mental processing that gets skipped when you don't take a moment to compose your sentence in your head before you commit it to paper or a screen?  If there is a step skipped, does that skipping occur in other contexts?  Does it even seep into their oral communication?

Maybe instant messaging and tweeting have far more impact on this effect, assuming it even exists.  But I have to believe students are more serious about what's on their exam paper than what's in their tweets.  To that extent, their willingness to turn in what I have been seeing more and more over the past few years is cause for concern. Perhaps technology calls for a rethinking of how we test; in particular, maybe we shouldn't be giving racehorse exams any more, or not making them so "racehorsey," if doing so in a laptop-heavy environment leads to the kind of mishmash we've all been seeing.  Or we could just ban laptops on exam.  But who wants to go back to deciphering hundreds of pages of rushed handwriting?

Posted by Bill Araiza on May 21, 2010 at 05:48 PM in Life of Law Schools | Permalink


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I use to impose page or word limits on exams. This worked. I don't know why I stopped. After reading two sets of poorly written, typed exams, I think it's time to reimpose the limits.

Posted by: Jim Fischer | May 21, 2010 7:10:19 PM

if you want there to be an incentive for students to spell and grammar check their exams-take points off for exams with egregious spelling and grammar errors.

otherwise the incentive is to value content over form-and students have a lot vested in their grade. there is even incentives to forgo sentences and use fragments to get the point across faster and get to the next issue spot and analysis.

yet another example of law professors complaining about what they give incentives to do (cf not participating much in class, withdrawing after 1l grades)

Posted by: guy | May 21, 2010 7:28:26 PM

I wonder if there is a difference between truly "tech savvy" students and students who are casual computer users. Maybe it's not a universal thing, but as a product of the "tech" generation, I have noticed a significant improvement in quality when I'm typing versus writing. Before law school, I worked in voting data analysis and have been using a computer to type 3rd grade projects on PrintShop (with my dad's AWESOME dot-matrix printer). As a result, I have god-awful handwriting and I am in a constant state of revision, copying, pasting and reorganizing thoughts in exams in ways that connect the larger points that I'm trying to make. This is especially true with issue spotters, where I want to address several facets of one issue and how it relates to another issue.
This all kicked me in the butt when the school's exam software failed to work on my computer the day of an exam (Intellectual Property, of all classes) and I had to hand-write the exam. It was miserable. I almost wore the page out erasing, drew arrows around the pages, and otherwise lost the confidence I had while taking that exam.
That's from the student perspective, but I was wondering if any professors have had experience with comparing the same student's work typed versus handwritten (maybe a midterm typed and a handwritten final or vice-versa)?

Posted by: Eric | May 22, 2010 4:02:06 PM

I think we ought to restructure the manner in which law school assessments are administered. I say this, not just for the sake of the graders, but for the sake of the future professional writing the exams. Students need further opportunities in their first year to practice and learn how to effectively write. Four "racehorse" exams, and one long, drawn-out, spoon-fed legal writing assignment per semester just doesn't cut it.

Personally speaking, I felt quite unprepared to start my first legal "job" following my 1L year. I really would have appreciated it if my professors had a) required us to write throughout the semester; b) indicated what they thought was good writing; and/or c) gave us practice exams to play with.

I also think that the exam software might be part of the problem too. What's so wrong with a spell-check option?

Posted by: Keller | May 22, 2010 9:36:35 PM

Examsoft has spell check. My handwriting would reduce my grade by a full letter. The length of required responses to exams in law school precludes, in my opinion, handwriting. For an exam that I received an "A" on last semester, I had to write the equivalent of 23 pages. I simply could not achieve that length and depth using a pen and paper. I think Eric has a good point. If I am a student that chooses to handwrite an exam, it is because I feel comfortable doing so. To say that the handwritten exams are categorically better is ridiculous, a good deal of that result is pre-selected for by giving the choice.

Again, this is really a complaint that the professor should not have to deal with. Teach the material, read the exams, deal with the good and the bad. If you aren't teaching legal writing, style or grammar, don't hold students accountable for those elements.

Posted by: Anonymous | May 26, 2010 7:19:05 AM

"If you aren't teaching legal writing, style or grammar, don't hold students accountable for those elements."

I completely disagree with this (as someone four years out of law school). Legal writing, style, and grammar are all incredibly important for practicing attorneys. Unfortunately, none of these three things seem to be strengths of the profession as a whole. I think law schools should seize every opportunity to encourage and enforce good writing. I also think it's completely legitimate for law professors to penalize significant spelling and grammar errors on final exams. Sure, students are writing under stress - but the same will be true in the real world, when they're trying to dash off an emergency TRO or put together a motion in limine in a couple of hours the day before a pretrial conference. Supervising partners, judges, and others will still look extremely unfavorably upon mistakes in written work, as they should.

(Of course, I'm not talking about penalizing a single typo in a 23 page exam -- and I doubt that Professor Araiza was, either).

Posted by: anon | May 27, 2010 3:48:08 PM

I'm a law professor, and I disagree with you strongly, anon. I agree with your assessment of the standards for writing, grammar, spelling, and style in the profession (I'd call the situation abysmal), and I agree that doctrinal professors have a duty to encourage and enforce good writing, and not cede all of this responsibility to Legal Writing instructors/professors and other specialists.

But if a law professor persists in teaching through the traditional socratic method, or any other method that virtually ignores writing, style, spelling, and grammar, then it is wrong to penalize a student for poor writing, style, spelling, and grammar.

The obvious solution is to somehow teach writing (etc) while simultaneously teaching doctrine. I try to do this in all of my classes by introducing students to, and teaching from and critiquing, briefs and other legal documents; but candidly, it is quite difficult to do, and I do not think I do a great job of it, though I continue to try--and I am not alone. These approaches require a big tradeoff of breadth of coverage, and the product is really difficult to test.

But without this kind of teaching commitment, testing students for writing skills would be like testing them for table manners. They probably need both kinds of skills (writing ability and basic table manners) to succeed as lawyers. But they tend not to learn either in crim pro.

Posted by: anon2 | May 27, 2010 4:12:27 PM

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