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Saturday, October 23, 2010

Do 1Ls or Upper-Level Students Need / Benefit From Midterms More?

At various points in the past, different folks have posted on Prawfs about the costs and benefits of giving midterm exams, and the various approaches to doing so (for example, see Colin Miller's posts here and here).  I've always given midterms in my two "big" classes -- Constitutional Law and Federal Courts -- because I think they're pedagogically useful in (1) requiring the students to put things together earlier in the semester; (2) giving the students two different opportunities to show their stuff / have a bad day (my midterm is usually worth half of the grade; the final worth the other half); and (3) reducing the otherwise massive amount of material for which students in both classes would be responsible on the final exam, which, in light of the midterm, is non-cumulative.

Here's my problem: Next spring, I'm slated to teach both classes in the same semester. And I know myself well enough to know that it's going to be extremely difficult to grade 175-200 midterms in anywhere near a reasonable amount of time -- and that it might even be unfair to the students to try. Moreover, the academic calendar is such that it would be difficult to give a midterm in both classes and not have them overlap with each other, such that the slowness of grading issue is difficult to cure (unless I give all-multiple-choice exams, which I won't do). So the question is whether, if I am forced to choose between my two classes, a midterm is "better" for second-semester 1Ls in Constitutional Law, or 2Ls and 3Ls in Federal Courts? Below the fold, I offer my own set of pros and cons, but I'd welcome yours, as well.

Reasons to Offer Midterm in Federal Courts Rather than Constitutional Law:

  1. I cover a lot more material in Federal Courts than I do in Con Law. 
  2. In lots of ways, I think the material in Federal Courts is more dense and more difficult than the material in Con Law, such that the more the students can narrow their focus, the better. 
  3. My Federal Courts syllabus admits to a more obvious "break" between one half of the semester and the other than Con Law does.
  4. Students would choose to take Federal Courts knowing that there is a midterm, whereas Con Law students wouldn't have a choice (even if they have midterms in other classes or other commitments).
  5. In my anecdotal experience, upper-class students are, as a group, less likely to stay on top of the material on a class to class basis than their 1L colleagues, such that a midterm might have a greater effect on their overall handle on things.

Reasons to Offer Midterm in Constitutional Law Rather than Federal Courts:

  1. 1Ls are more likely than 2Ls and 3Ls to benefit both directly and indirectly from additional in-semester evaluation of their work.
  2. Constitutional Law is, in some ways, a sharper break from what 1Ls are used to than Federal Courts is from other upper-level courses.
  3. A midterm in Constitutional Law would allow me to test on deeper issues than I'd be able to if covering the whole course in one four-hour exam.
  4. 1L grades may be more significant than 2L/3L grades, and to the extent they are, it's better (fairer?) for them to be based on more differentiated evaluation than upper-level classes.
  5. Unlike Federal Courts, I do give some multiple-choice questions on my Constitutional Law exams, and so the more of these to which the students are exposed, the better (both for my class and for the MBE--which is why I do it in the first place).

I'm sure there are other reasons, and I'm sure readers will dispute / disagree with some of those I've offered above. So, I open it to you: if you were me, and you could only offer a midterm in one of these two classes (I know--the "right" answer is to offer a midterm in both), which one would you choose and why?

Posted by Steve Vladeck on October 23, 2010 at 02:00 PM in Life of Law Schools, Steve Vladeck, Teaching Law, Things You Oughta Know if You Teach X | Permalink

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I went to Penn where I never had to take a mid-term. I think it would have caused a lot of problems in my other classes because I would have done nothing but study for that test in the weeks leading up to the test, neglecting my work in the other classes. That might be fine, for a class standing position, if all of the students were in the same boat. But if only some students in the other classes have mid-terms, but some did not, those who did not might benefit in the other classes.

Posted by: Matt | Oct 23, 2010 5:41:09 PM

Federal courts. Con law is a hard 1L class, and 1Ls in general need more time for things to make sense and be capable of being put together. Federal courts also sets up better, in terms of the course material, for two non-consecutive exams.

Posted by: joe (accidental blogger) | Oct 23, 2010 10:49:28 PM

I see it this way: Upper level students want to see how you grade exams and where they stand in your class. 1L students want to see how you grade exams, where they stand in your class, how law professors generally give/grade exams, and where they stand in law school generally. Thus, given the choice, I would give the midterm to the 1Ls. If you have the time, I would also give a midterm to the Federal Courts students and not grade their exams individually but instead give them a model answer. I both think that those students would better be able to look at a model answer and gauge how well they performed and that those students need individualized feedback less than the 1Ls.

Posted by: Colin Miller | Oct 24, 2010 9:52:29 AM

I advocate midterms in both classes. Why restrict yourself to the concept of an in-class midterm? It seems to me that by using a combination of "exam devices" and methods, you could simultaneously limit your workload and test the differing natures of the material in pedagogically helpful ways.

Fed Courts is a collection of considerations that impact on the operation of the federal courts; there isn't really any overarching "method of reasoning" at issue, parallel to the first-year torts subtheme of "determine the optimal rubric for finding liability." Further, it is also a highly fact-bound and precedent-specific subject that ends up covering material often glossed over in Con Law and Civ Pro. All of that says to me that a limited-word-count take-home exam with several discrete questions (each of the "20-30 minutes if taken in person" variety) would, perhaps, work best... and have the bonus of reducing the proportion of misspelled words and bad handwriting slowing down your grading. Further, as a bonus, Fed Courts is generally not tested on the MBE anyway, so the kinds of things tested will be the kind of things that get students sent to the law library in practice anyway (if encountered at all).

Con Law, however, is an MBE subject (and, however little the bar exam relates to reality, law school must in some sense relate to the bar exam). The screams for a combination of one (and only one) issue-spotter and a variety of smaller questions (whether multiple-choice, short-answer, or short essay is, I suspect, more a matter of style and preference than anything else there are some proper multiple choice questions, such as "Sweatt v. Painter concerned: (a) elementary schools in Delaware; (b) high schools in Little Rock, Arkansas; (c) undergraduate education at the University of Michigan; (d) the law school at the University of Texas; (e) none of the above").

Thus, one might give the in-class con law exam and hand out the take-home fed courts exam on the same day; get a running start on grading the con law exam that afternoon; and alternate grading between the two once the fed courts exams come back in. If midterms are worth giving, they're worth giving, and then it's just a management exercise.

Posted by: C.E. Petit | Oct 24, 2010 11:08:53 AM

In my classes I do a mandatory, but non-graded, midterm take home exam. I then post them anonymously to my TWEN site and we spend a day in class reviewing the exam. Perhaps this could be a compromise for you. The advantages adhere the most for 1Ls, I think. It forces them to do some studying at the midway point. It allows them to see what their on-the-ball peers are doing. It provides insight into what a law exam (or at least my exams) look like. And it functions as a solid prep for the final. All this and I don't spend a week grading. Plus, I always receive supportive student feedback on the exercise.

Posted by: Lou Mulligan | Oct 24, 2010 11:52:31 PM

Here at Wisconsin each first-semester 1L class has one "small section course" of about 20 students. We require the small section professor to administer a graded midterm exam, though we allow each professor to decide how or if the grade is incorporated into the final grade. The midterm is supposed to be of the "classic" fact-pattern type that is given in most other 1L classes. This is a good compromise system in that it at least gives 1Ls one chance to do a dry run of a realistic, traditional law school exam prior to the final exam period. Because the small sections are so small, the extra grading burden is not so high.

Posted by: Jason | Oct 25, 2010 11:24:46 AM

having taken both of those classes with you-

i would say if given a choice, most students would probably prefer untimely graded midterms to no midterms at all, which may allow both midterms to be given.

that said-if forced to choose id go with fed courts because

a) the 1L's may be stuck in the same position I was when i had you for Con law-with write on, another midterm, legal rhetoric papers, and your midterm all due the same week.

b) true that 1L grades are more important and its better to have more to base it on-but its 1L first semester that really counts more-1L second semester is less important for that all important 1L summer for those able/trying to do the BIGLAW thing

c) a few of your reasons for the benefits of midterms for Con law are suspect. For example, I highly doubt that the few multiple choice questions on your midterm substantially contribute to people's ability to take the bar after substantial bar prep several years after taking your course. Also, no test is really comprehensive in law school, and you would still bee able to ask on your 4 hr final your all important policy/doctrine question that everyone hates but I grew to appreciate. Also, con law is different from other 1L courses, but so are other 1L courses from each other (compare property and Crim Law)

to be fair though i will admit

a) i don't think anyone would take your fed courts course knowing or especially caring about the midterm. they take it because 1) its fed courts and they need it to impress someone or know how important it is 2) they hear good things about you in class/you fit their schedule.

b) having a midterm in fed courts wont make people do the reading on time anymore than anything else..and probably less so.

Posted by: george weiss | Oct 25, 2010 5:45:58 PM

lou that's a really great idea!

Posted by: bob | Oct 25, 2010 5:59:12 PM

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