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Tuesday, December 04, 2007

"It Won't Be Long Before It's Crying Time"

Whew, just finished writing my Crim Pro exam--with my IPod, which somehow always seems to pick the right tune for the moment, playing Ray Charles' great "Crying Time" ("I can tell by the way you hold me, darling, that it won't be long before it's crying time."). I've always found exam-writing to be a tedious chore (hence my resort to the 'pod to help me get through it)--somewhere between grading exams (#1) and sitting through faculty meetings (#3) on the very short list of things that I don't love about my job. Over the years, I have tried a variety of different approaches in an effort to increase fairness to students and/or decrease my own transaction costs, but don't think that I have by any means reached the perfect solution.

When I first started teaching, I used the classic issue-spotter essay exam, but found grading inordinately difficult. Many students seem to forget everything they know about good writing in the pressure of a timed exam, leaving me to sort through an unstructured stream-of-consciousness ramble, constantly flipping back and forth through the bluebook in search of the discussion of particular issues. I also never came up with a satisfactory way of handling the answers that were premised on some fundamental misconceptualization of the problem, but that otherwise were pretty good--the right answer to the wrong question. Should the student who makes one mistake in the crucial first step of the analysis get a better or worse grade than the student who makes many mistakes in later steps of the analysis?

I've also experimented with multiple-choice, but felt that somehow seemed to trivialize the students' efforts and imply a degree of determinacy in the law that I don't think is there. Also, I found it quite difficult to come up with plausible-sounding wrong answers, and, when I did, then felt guilty about trying to trick unsuspecting students.

In recent years, I have used a two-part exam. The first part is a classic issue-spotter, but administered as a take-home exam. The quality of the writing is much better when students are not laboring under a strict time limit, and I find grading to be much easier as a result. The second part is a timed, short-answer exam. The questions are answered with a word, a phrase, or at most a sentence or two. It strikes me as fairer to give students a couple of distinct exercises in which to demonstrate their mastery of the material, rather than making the whole grade hinge on one exercise, especially one that places a premium on speedy, written regurgitation skills that may or may not have much to do with what lawyers really do in practice. But please don't take me as evangelizing for my particular approach--I like it better than other approaches I have used, but am very much still open to other ideas.

Posted by Michael O'Hear on December 4, 2007 at 06:00 PM | Permalink


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Just wanted to say I am glad to see that there are so many Buck Owens fans in the academy. But I must say that Ray Charles does a great cover of Cryin' Time. For fans of Bucks Owens and his covers, I highly recommend Barbara Fairchild's "Under Your Spell Again" -- a GREAT and very different version from Buck's.

Posted by: Wes Oliver | Dec 9, 2007 11:33:27 PM

Buck was a giant. I found Buck through Dwight Yoakum's music. Up to then, I thought Buck was a clownish figure because of the whole HeeHaw thing (forgive me, Buck). "But how many of you that sit and judge me . . . . "

Posted by: buck fan | Dec 6, 2007 8:33:46 PM

I have nothing useful to add to the exam writing conversation, but I do care about Buck Owens. The Nashville Songwriters Foundation (perhaps not as reputable a source as Mark Fenster) credits Crying Time to Buck Owens, too. Here's the link:


Posted by: Alice Ristroph | Dec 5, 2007 8:03:52 PM

As a 2L, I do like the classic issue-spotter for exams in large classes like torts and corporations. An issue spotter with 15 different torts occurring (It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World-style) seems a fair basis for a grade that will then be curved over a 100-person class. The grades seem relatively accurate when they're based on a student's analysis of 15 tortious acts of varying degree of difficulty and 5 red herrings that aren't actually torts.

For classes that don't lend themselves so well to issue-spotters, I like 8hr exams with a strict word limit.

I guess, at the end of the day, I want to know that there's an objective difference between what I wrote and what someone else wrote that accounts for the differences in our scores. I want to be able to look at the model answer, compare it with my exam, and know how I could have done better.

(Other than not by reading blogs the night before an exam).

Posted by: ALB | Dec 5, 2007 6:16:05 PM

I am blessed, or cursed depending upon one's view, with being the leading scholar on Buck Owens in the legal academy, having published one article in a refereed journal on the man (really, it was about genre and music production, but he was the subject of the case study) and another in the leading country music history journal. I say this just to establish my bona fides on this incredibly important topic. Please believe me when I declare that Buck Owens wrote "Cryin' Time" and recorded it first in 1964, at the height of his popularity (this was pre-Hee Haw, btw); it later appeared on his 1965 LP (remember those?) I've Got a Tiger by the Tail. Ray Charles's version came out in 1966, see this. Ray's best country covers appear on his two volumes of "Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music" -- although his version of "Cryin' Time" wasn't on either of those records, which had been released in 1962.

According to this reference, Eddy Arnold recorded the song in 1984.

Posted by: Mark Fenster | Dec 5, 2007 5:40:48 PM

Open book certainly helps (actually, I've never had a non-open book law school exam, although I did had one where we were only allowed to use the casebook and not our outlines), but I still study very differently for the two type of exams - making a general outline that's easy to reference quickly and making sure I know it well enough to access information in a pinch for in-class exams versus looking at the nuances of the specific subjects and cases needed and clarifying and polishing the writing for take-home exams. One of those is going to have to give for the combo (although, I suppose, it gives for everyone equally so it's not an unfairness issue so much as a stress issue).

Posted by: Katie | Dec 5, 2007 12:03:39 PM

It's an Eddie Arnold song. Ray Charles covered Buck Owens covering it. It was one of Charles's best albums, however, "Ray Charles Sings Country and Western," or something like that. It also included "Born to Lose" and "You Are My Sunshine."

Posted by: steve lubet | Dec 5, 2007 10:38:27 AM

Katie -- I'm curious: Is the burden you identify alleviated at all by "open book" exams (even for the in-class part)?

Posted by: Rick Garnett | Dec 5, 2007 10:12:54 AM

I have to admit, as a student, I hate, hate, hate the take home/in-class combo. It's all the disadvantages of both - you have to put the time into doing and polishing a take home, but you also have to study the material in a such a way that you can easily recall it at a moment's notice in the in-class exam. That's a heavy burden when you're balancing it with other finals. That said, it probably does give you a better sense of a student's abilities.

Posted by: Katie | Dec 5, 2007 6:47:41 AM

As another former law student - my absolute favorite ever exam format was similar to what you describe. For Evidence, we had a take-home essay question (which was not an issue spotter, but a policy argument), then we had a short timed exam where we were given an argument transcript with objections marked, and for each objection, we had to state the reason for the objection, the reason the other side would oppose it, and how the judge should rule. I'm not quite sure how the "objection" format would translate to other subjects, but I suspect a good professor could find a way.

Posted by: Elizabeth | Dec 4, 2007 11:25:02 PM

From a student's perspective:

My personal favorite is True/False with a 3 - 4 sentence explanation plus an essay (usually on policy or "big themes"). In fact, I took my second exam of this format this very morning. The T/F questions were weighted with 10% of the credit for the correct T/F answer and 90% of the credit for the explanation. The essay was only 40% of the exam.

I find that the T/F with explanation requires critical and sometimes creative thinking, but isn't the tedious drudgery of a long issue spotter. It also seems like it would be easier to grade, not to mention written in coherent sentences.

Also, it's not the undergrad-ish-ness of multiple choice. Give me a long, tedious issue spotter any day over multiple choice. I always feel cheated taking multiple choice exams as a law student and deprived of any chance to show off that I might actually know something about the material.

Posted by: Alyssa Lathrop | Dec 4, 2007 8:03:48 PM

Just fyi: It's a Buck Owens song. Ray Charles covered it.

Posted by: Mark Fenster | Dec 4, 2007 6:49:33 PM

I hear you, Michael (re: "tedious chore"). For what it's worth, I've also struggled with multiple-choice guilt. But, I have come to think that MC questions can work well as one component -- along with, for me, a "spot the issues, apply relevant doctrine, and identify crucial variables" question and a "show me that you have been engaged with, and reflecting upon, the course's 'big themes'" question -- of a good, fair, grade-able exam.

Posted by: Rick Garnett | Dec 4, 2007 6:23:29 PM

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