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Monday, April 13, 2009

"Hard" Word Limit, "Soft" Word Limit, or No Word Limit: What Type of Tester Are You?

Back in 2006, Steve Vladeck did a post about what type of "punishment" there should be for a student exceeding the word limit on an exam. He noted that his "[t]enative course of action [w]as to grade the answer it its entirety, and then reduce it in proportion to the percentage of excess words." The post prompted vigorous commenting, with different commenters suggesting proposed punishments ranging from not reading a single word beyond the word limit to giving the student no credit. Other commenters speculated that professors rarely, if ever, enforce word limits, leading to students who played by the rules being treated unfairly.

The discussion made me gun-shy about imposing word limits when I became a professor, and the decision I made was to test the waters by giving exams without word limits my first few years to see how often a word limit would even apply. So far, the answer for me has been "not very often." For instance, last semester, I had 182 students, and of those, 164 wrote exams that contained fewer words than the hypothetical word limit I had in my head (4,000 words for a 4 hour exam, 3,000 words for a 3 hour exam), i.e., slightly less than 10%. 

Of the remaining 18, 5 students wrote A exams that went into more depth on the main issues than most exams and/or identified legitimate issues that most exams did not address. 7 students simply used a very deliberate IRAC method on each issue and sub-issue. And 6 students threw in everything but the kitchen sink, bringing up issues that really weren't raised under any reasonable reading of the exam(s). My conclusions: (1) a word limit would have no (direct) effect on the vast majority of my students, be "unfair" to some of my best and brightest students, and have the consequence I intended for, at most, slightly more than a handful of students; and (2) if I were to impose a word limit, it would be a "soft" word limit, not a "hard" word limit.

Of course, there are several purposes served by word limits. When students become lawyers, they will be subject to official word limits while writing for the courts. They will also be subject to unofficial word limits while writing for their superiors, who often want them to get to the heart of the issue and not its extremities. Word limited exams lead to more concise exams for professors to grade and probably incentivize careful discussion of the main issues on the exam instead of the classic brain dump. All of these pros might have led me to consider word limits if I had many students exceeding my hypothetical word limit(s), but, as I noted above, that has not been the case. This has led me to decide not to impose "hard" word limits on future exams without even taking account the cons. And there are a few cons:

-What do you do with students who handwrite their exams? In law school, I remember that "word limit" professors imposed a limit on the number of bluebooks that these students (including myself) could use, but this neither correlated perfectly with the word limit nor took into account the differences in handwriting size among students;

-While students will have to learn to write efficiently when they become lawyers, the product that they turn over to their superiors or the court is (usually) not their first draft, but something that they have edited over at least a couple of drafts. When someone goes over the word limit in a time constrained exam, they (often) won't have the time to be able to edit out the surplusage before the clock strikes 0 (The problem is heightened for students handwriting their exams but ameliorated when professors give 8 or 24 hour take home exams with word limits);

-Word limits seem to me to constitute unfair Tiger-proofing (or, I guess it would be the opposite of Tiger-proofing) for the best and brightest students I identified above; and
-While, according to my calculations, imposing a word limit would have a direct effect on only a few students, my law school experience was that word limits cause unnecessaryfagita for many more. I knew many law students (including myself) who never came close to the word limit on any exam but still stressed about the limit before and during each such exam.

While I have thus abandoned the idea of using a "hard" word limit, I have considered adopting a "soft" word limit. Under a "soft" word limit, I would simply tell students throughout the semester that while there is no specific word limit on the final exam, efficiency is a virtue. In other words, students who give me a tangential history of rules/exceptions, address rules/exceptions not raised by the fact pattern, etc. can expect to not do as well as students who give me just the facts (and the law) ma'am.

It seems to me that a "soft" word limit would serve each of the pros I mentioned above while avoiding the cons. Students would still learn the value of efficient writing, and their exams would be more concise and in depth and less of a brain dump. There would be no need to worry about the differences between typed and written exams, the best and brightest wouldn't suffer, students wouldn't need to hastily edit to get under a "hard" word limit, and, well, students would still stress, but it would seem to me to be a more constructive stress.

Of course, this is all conjecture on my part because I have yet to use either a "hard" or a "soft" word limit. So, do you impose a word limit, and if so, what type? Why did you choose the method you use, and how has it turned out?

Posted by Evidence ProfBlogger on April 13, 2009 at 09:16 AM in Teaching Law | Permalink


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"It sounds from what you wrote that you mix in some short answer questions with some longer questions, with your word limits only applying to the short answer questions."

No, sorry if I was unclear. I have a hard limit for the whole exam, but then for short answers I ALSO limit them to 3-7 sentences so they don't waste a bunch of words on a relatively short question.

Posted by: Michael Risch | Apr 13, 2009 3:21:20 PM

Thanks, David. With an 8 or 24 hour take home, students have the time and ability to edit and revise their answers several times, so I have no problem with word limits being used on take home exams. Indeed, I couldn't imagine a take home exam without some kind of word limit.

Also, you are absolutely right that I have no idea how my 5 "word happy" A students would respond to a "hard" word limit and that other A students who wrote shorter exams could be considered my "best" students (I might not have been clear in my post, but I merely meant to say that my verbose A students were *some* of my best and brightest). I wish that there were an easy way that I could figure out the effect that "hard" word limits would have on these students, but there are so few of these students that I'm not sure it's worth doing something like imposing a "hard" word limit on my ungraded midterms next semester.

Posted by: Colin Miller | Apr 13, 2009 2:17:39 PM

Thanks, Michael. It sounds from what you wrote that you mix in some short answer questions with some longer questions, with your word limits only applying to the short answer questions. This seems to avoid the problem of stifling originality/creativity that I mentioned above.

Posted by: Colin Miller | Apr 13, 2009 2:06:34 PM

I'm with Michael R. on this - I give an 8 hour takehome with a hard limit. I ask my secretary to check all exams before giving them to me and black out anything over the limit so I can't even look at it. I think that's only fair to the students who follow directions (most of them).

I contest your notion in the original post that a word limit will harm the "best" students. First, your results don't show that the best students wouldn't be able to do just as well with a word limit. For all you know, those students would be just as able to write a top exam with a limit as without. Second, I'm not sure that there's a definition of "best" that is absolute. Maybe the "best" students are those who can take complicated material and write a thorough analysis of it in limited space. And maybe those who write too much, albeit on point, who might be harmed by a word limit, just aren't as good and shouldn't be rewarded as much.

Regardless, I feel I give a ton of space with my word limit on my exams, so I'm just not worried about someone who feels they need to write more. If they do feel that way, they're better off taking a step back, thinking about what they want to write, and editing because they're probably off track.

Posted by: David S. Cohen | Apr 13, 2009 1:24:50 PM

Colin -

Given that this is my second year of teaching, take all this with a grain of salt (though I had some pre-faculty experience in this area). In response to above comments:

1. I have a hard sentence limit on some of my short answers. I do this for my benefit and for the students...I want to make clear that there are some questions for which there are not shades of gray. Last year I got a bunch of short answer responses that were longer than the essay responses! I hate to see students waste time like that - either they know the answer or they don't.

2. I also use "soft" word limits by making clear that an A answer is possible with far less than the word limit. I give examples of word counts for top scores from prior classes, and I also tell them that once they hit about 3000 words or so, there is no correlation between grade and word count (this has been true of every exam I have given). I have no idea if such soft limits are "helpful" in the way you are seeking, but I suspect it takes some pressure off the students to fill space with irrelevant outline dumping.

Posted by: Michael Risch | Apr 13, 2009 12:33:00 PM

Thanks, C.E. Petit. The problem that I see with a "hard" word limit short answer exam is that you would need to be very careful to ensure that every question is closed ended and not susceptible to answers that could raise some additional issues/arguments. And it seems to me that if you can indeed make each question absolutely closed ended, it might stifle the originality/creativity of students, which is something that I definitely want to avoid.

Posted by: Colin Miller | Apr 13, 2009 11:18:22 AM

Thanks, Michael. So far, I have followed the "punishment for meandering and tangential discussion is the loss of time to spend on important topics" approach. The question for me is whether this is sufficient or whether a "soft" word limit would add something new and improved to the table.

Posted by: Colin Miller | Apr 13, 2009 11:12:15 AM

Perhaps the number of questions at issue also makes a difference. If the particular question is a "short answer in two paragraphs or the student won't reach a tenable answer anyway" type of question, a hard limit makes sense. If, however, that particular question is the entire exam, it doesn't.

Posted by: C.E. Petit | Apr 13, 2009 11:01:25 AM

If you have a take-home the word limit becomes much more important, in part because students will fill all available time (a killer for a 24 hour exam). Thus, I use a strict word limit on my 8 hour take-homes. I stop reading at the limit, and make that very clear in the instructions.

My view is that on short exams the punishment for meandering and tangential discussion is the loss of time to spend on important topics. This may be why you don't see a great need for limits - only the best students use the available wordspace efficiently enough to add value. Even then a word limit is probably OK - I recall spending at least an hour on every word limit exam cutting words. For the most part, I did so without losing content.

Posted by: Michael Risch | Apr 13, 2009 10:26:28 AM

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