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Thursday, May 09, 2013

Teaching and Testing Law Students

I'm glad to be back for another rotation here at PrawfsBlawg. Like many of you, I've just finished up spring semester, and I'm grading exams while I think about new projects, line up my research and writing for the summer, and think about what I'd like to do differently the next time I teach.  In this post, and some future posts, I'll share some things I did differently this year, and my thoughts on whether or not they were a success. I hope you'll share your ideas in the comments: I'm always on the lookout for better ways to teach my students.

This spring, in both Contracts and Copyright, I added a graded, mid-semester memo to the course requirements. In case you don't know, the typical law school class bases the entire grade on one exam at the end of the semester, so this is a departure from the norm, although I'm not the first person to try it. In fact, I shamelessly lifted the idea (and my implimentation of it) from Michael Madison at Pittsburgh. In copyright, I put together my own closed universe of materials and wrote a problem for the students to analyze. I asked them to pitch the memo at two different levels: give the client what she needs to understand what you think she should do and why she should do it, and provide the partner with a grounding in the case law and a suggestion for whether and how to litigate the case.

I tried something similar for Contracts, although I gave the students one "shadow" graded memo as a warm-up. I graded it for them, so they could see how I approached the memo, and what I was looking for. We followed it up with a graded memo a few weeks later. For both memos, I took my material from Doug Leslie's CaseFile Method assignments for contract law. I like the CaseFile method problem sets for this purpose because they provide a narrow issue, with a closed universe of reading materials.

In both cases, my hope was that the memo would help me assess how the students comprehend and synthesize the law, without worrying that they failed the assignment because they didn't find something they should have. I'm not downplaying the importance of research skills for the practising attorney, but I feel like that is a skill better handled in a course structured toward developing those skills.

The students in Contracts really rose to the challenge. The graded memo dealt with UCC 2-207 and the "Battle of the Forms." It's tricky stuff, and I feel confident that they mastered the material better than they would have after a day in class, although there were plenty of missteps in the memos themselves.

The memos written for the Copyright class collectively underwhelmed me. It's possible the problem I constructed, which asked roughly the same question that was posed in the recent litigation over custom Batmobiles, was somehow off, but they didn't come at the problem with as much energy and care as the Contracts students. Perhaps it's a difference between 1Ls and more experienced students. It's also possible that they needed the warm-up like the one I provided my Contracts students.

Despite my concerns, I feel like the memo assignment in both classes provided a unique opportunity for students to dig into a substantive area of the law and get feedback from a scholar who has developed some expertise in that area. I'm certainly not the best "legal writing" instructor that these students could have, but my perception is that the end result is nevertheless worth the effort, both for me and for the students.

Posted by Jake Linford on May 9, 2013 at 11:39 AM in Intellectual Property, Teaching Law | Permalink


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I love what you did in these classes. Education research shows that the more formative assessment with feedback the more the learning. Similarly, education research demonstrates that students remember more when they apply the material they have learned.

Posted by: Scott Fruehwald | May 9, 2013 4:53:31 PM

Have you considered constructing a rubric for how you *would* grade the midterms, but not actually grading them? You can share the rubric and allow the students to self-assess. Creating the rubric takes time, but it would save you time on actually reviewing the student work? It also can be used again and again in a way that your specific feedback cannot be.

Posted by: a new teacher | May 9, 2013 8:43:43 PM

I use Doug Leslie's CaseFile Method to teach my first-year Contracts class. I assign three of the case files as writing assignments over the course of the one-semester course, and use 2L student teaching assistants to provide feedback to the students on their memos, with a three-tier grading rubric: Very Good, Good, and Unacceptable. The TAs and I each draft our own memos in response to the assigned case files and discuss them before the assignment is due, so we can achieve consensus on the grading standards. The TAs are told that they must give the students reasons why the student's memo received less than a VG. In addition, all of the drafts by myself and the TAs are distributed to the students as "sample answers." (I also give them an example of a memo written in response to the first case file we study so that they have a model for the format when they do the first assignment.) For the final exam I devise my own case file question, which is worth about half the credit on the exam. (The other part of the exam gives the students three fact patterns culminating with an assertion: they are to tell me whether the assertion is true or false and why.) Thus, my students receive in all three formative assessments over the course of the semester before they have their final exam.

Posted by: Art Leonard | May 10, 2013 10:31:08 AM

Let me first extend a blanket apology for my delay in responding to these thoughts.

New Teacher, I always write a rubric for exams and memos, but I tend to distrust them a bit. There's always a bit of variance once I'm down in the trenches, grading an exam or memo. Sometimes, students see something I didn't see, and I award bonus points for those pleasant surprises. That causes me some concern with regard to turning them loose with a rubric.

I do circulate old exams, along sample answers from successful student efforts, and memos drafted to the students who originally took them. I circulate those materials, with a suggestion that the students try taking an exam under time pressure, so students can evaluate how they understood the exam question. That tool kit works for me because I refined it as I graded student responses and took their perspective into account.

Posted by: Jake Linford | May 20, 2013 11:30:03 AM

Art, I like the idea of leveraging TAs to help with the process, although I have never used a TA for any of my classes in the past. This year, I graded the memos on a 20-point scale. I would be concerned about turning a scale with that much fine tuning over to students, but perhaps the VG, G, U scale would work. How do you go about folding that assessment into the final grade? I had to fit scores on the 20 point scale into our standard curve, and I found it difficult. I would be surprised if it were any easier to do with the three-tier rubric you describe.

Posted by: Jake Linford | May 20, 2013 11:37:47 AM


Thanks for the compliment. I'm hopeful that the memo drafting exercises will pay dividends for the students down the line. The contracts students certainly were required to work harder than classmates in other sections, although they were good sports about it, and many could articulate the value of the exercise, even if they weren't sure about the outcome.

Posted by: Jake Linford | May 20, 2013 11:44:05 AM

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