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Saturday, February 02, 2008

Exam Essay Length and Grades

Eugene at the VC has a post raising the question whether longer answers yield better grades for law school exam essay questions -- the usual format of most issue-spotters on law school exams.  As he notes, his data set is limited.  What's his conclusion?  In brief: grades improve with length up to roughly the length of  the median student essay; beyond that point students realize no grade gains for longer answers.  I know students are always thinking about exams and searching for the hidden key; this discussion should be of great interest to them. 

The comments to Eugene's post are already quite interesting, with a number of individuals arguing that much depends on the professor in question: does she reward you for checking off a certain number of pre-allocated "points" without penalizing you for wrong answers, will she penalize for wrong answers, or will she reward good coherent argument even if you miss some issues?  Orin Kerr, as usual, puts his views succinctly and well:  "The lesson, I think: you need to write enough to provide a thorough analysis of the basic points. But once you've done that, extra writing can just as easily help as hurt. True, you might come up with a new and helpful point. But you might add something wrong, irrelevant, or repetitive."

Like Orin, my intuitions are not that different from those uncovered by Eugene's analysis.  I think my own findings would be a touch different, though, and I think my view of the situation is a little different from Orin's.  To begin at the other end, I would say that although concise argument is important, so is thoroughness and, especially, offering actual analysis in an exam answer.  Some students are more eager to get the "right" answer than to show how they got to that answer.  This is akin to offering a senior partner a one-page research memo on some difficult issue she has assigned you that just reads, "You asked to me to analyze question X.  My answer is yes."  The partner does not want you to do all her thinking for her.  She cares far less about your conclusion than about reading a thorough analysis of what the law is in that area and how it applies to some particular set of facts.  Given that information, she can then reach her own conclusion.  In short, unduly short exam answers are more often conclusory than simply concise.

As for long answers, I find that the exam answers that get my best grades are more often long than short.  (But not always!  My own students should sift these tea leaves with care and not assume there is some "trick" to answering my own questions.)  Moreover, and here my own data might differ a little from Eugene's, I suspect that my very highest grades often go to some of the exams that do exceed the median length. 

But there are two kinds of long answers.  The first is that of the student who sees all the issues and is able, in a limited amount of time, to set them out and parse them analytically, giving shorter shrift to minor issues and following alternative paths of argument for more important and ambiguous issues.  The other kind is that of the student who is vamping, playing for time, or disorganized; who feels the need to regurgitate everything he learned lest he miss something, and in so doing loses the time to explore the important issues thoroughly; who, despite my annual warning that Marbury v. Madison is important as background to our course but not for the exam, feels the need to discuss judicial review at length on a standard justiciable con-law issue spotter; who gets lost in a sort of free-floating factual analysis and ends up on two-page frolics and detours without more sharply thinking about the interaction of fact and law; or who fails to mechanically post the legal rule for a particular issue, which is not fatal in itself, but is often followed by a free-floating legal smorgasbord that throws in all the concepts and buzzwords without actually stating and applying the particular applicable legal rule.

In short, my own findings, I suspect, would be like Eugene's up to a point but with a significant caveat: you shouldn't write too short, and you usually shouldn't write too long, or at least won't realize any gains by doing so, although some of my very best answers do in fact exceed the median length. 

My real advice when it comes to law school exams is this.  1) If you haven't already realized it, the most important class you have taken or will take in law school is legal research and writing.  A good exam is a good legal research memo, and the more practice you have in writing legal research memos, replete with careful organization, subheadings, and so on, and the more you can follow that format even in the time pressure of an exam, the better you'll do.  2) Up to a certain point, the better and more clearly you can write, the better your exam answer is likely to be.  Not in the sense that I'll be won over by flashy language without substance.  I won't; like I said, you can always spot the ones who are vamping.  But if you can think clearly and express that thought in words, you'll be easier to read, easier to grade, and most likely do a better job.  And I think this is true for most professors, whether or not they purport to grade for "style."  Clear, readable answers almost always get the benefit of the doubt, at the very least.  And, of course, if you use subheadings and clear paragraph statements, even a mechanical grader who's just looking for "points" can at least recognize more easily that you have spotted and are discussing some new issue.  3) IRAC can be mechanical, boring, and condescending.  It also is generally a good idea.  4) There is no reason to give a damn whether or not your pen has touched paper (or, these days, finger has struck keyboard) for the first five minutes of the exam, at least.  Someone who does a good outline up front is far better off than someone who just starts writing about the first issue she sees, even if she "loses" five or ten minutes of writing time doing the outline.  Someone who knows she only has five minutes to write about, say, commandeering is going to do a much more concise but useful job than someone who either writes about it for endless but useless pages and thus skips some other more important issue, or someone who spends all her time on that other issue and neglects the commandeering issue altogether.

I'm sure Eugene will get useful comments over at VC; be sure to check them out.  Comments here are welcome, of course, either from students or professors.  Although I don't think students should be thinking too actively about exams at this point in the semester, I know many of them are.

Posted by Paul Horwitz on February 2, 2008 at 02:54 PM in Life of Law Schools | Permalink


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If the question is: "Is longer better?" your post is itself evidence of the answer. "Of course." The reason seems somewhat obvious. Longer answers, not made longer by the use of irrelevancies, repetition, or padding, are better than shorter answers because they have more ideas in them. And even short answers are better without irrelevancy, repetition, and padding.

Posted by: Bob Condlin | Feb 3, 2008 9:26:19 PM

I thoroughly agree with 1-4. On 4, I'd go even further; on a one-hour essay, *at least* 10 minutes should be spent outlining. It lessens the risk of spending half your time on a tangential point. And nothing hurts like the major issue not covered at all.

Posted by: Bruce Boyden | Feb 2, 2008 11:16:43 PM

Such a great post! I am totally going to post a link to this post on my TWEN discussion boards, and want to add a link to Orin Kerr's post from the VC last year about how to write a bad/good/great exam answer: http://volokh.com/posts/1168382003.shtml. Just an effort to put all the exam posts in one place.

Posted by: Liz Glazer | Feb 2, 2008 7:50:40 PM

This is a great post! I'm considering whether to post this message on my course website, so that my own students can get a better sense of what I expect from them in their exam answers.

Posted by: C.Hessick | Feb 2, 2008 4:24:35 PM

Law student's perspective: Prof. Horwitz's point on how important Legal Research and Writing is deserves emphasis, and I hope that other law students pay attention to it. At first, I didn't take the class very seriously. After a low score on an assignment, I was more motivated and really started paying attention to the basic building blocks we were learning. I internalized some of the lessons I learned from memo writing in LW&R, and actively applied them to my exams the second semester. Result: I did much better than on my first semester exams.

As for the relation between memoranda and exams, I wholeheartedly agree. During the summer, I interned for an appellate judge and spent three months writing memoranda. That style of writing became fairly ingrained for me, and I started to adhere more closely to that kind of analysis on my exams last semester. Again, I did better. I remember thinking during LW&R that I would never be writing memoranda after that semester, and so I minimized their overall importance to developing the ability to write thoughtful legal analysis. Boy, was I wrong.

All of this is to say that students should take LW&R more seriously (specifically the memorandum assignments), as that experience does yield certain benefits for exam writing. It really hones a student's ability to think through a fact pattern in a logical fashion: Memos taught me that legal analysis is about moving from point A to point B to point C and explaining the connections between those points. When I think about it that way, there's less of a chance of my getting lost during an exam, and I make sure to hit every issue I see and provide a sufficient analysis of each.

Lastly, having taken three semesters' worth of exams, I've found that clear writing is extremely important. From talking with fellow students, I get the idea that a lot of them think sounding smart is an important component of exam performance. I know one professor who has said that the longer exam answers generally get lower grades because they lose track of the issues and engage in superfluous discussions, and this is probably a manifestation of that desire to sound intelligent. I wouldn't be surprised if being wordy accompanies what the professor said, too. I think professors see through that. In my experience, the best way to show that you know the material (and hence sound intelligent) is to write clearly, because writing clearly makes it easier for the professor to see that you know what you're talking about.

Posted by: Adam Richardson | Feb 2, 2008 4:11:27 PM

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