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Thursday, December 31, 2009

Couple of teaching thoughts

A couple random teaching-related thoughts.

First, take a look at two posts from Jacqueline Lipton (and the Comments) at Faculty Lounge on evaluating faculty on both teaching and scholarship.

Second, in my upper-level electives (Fed Courts and Civil Rights), I use a paper/essay exam hybrid the primary evaluation--students choose one topic from a list ("What's the worst doctrine?" or explain the significance of a quotation or comment n the constitutionality of some proposed legislation) and write an essay tied to the doctrine, theory, and ideas covered in the course. For no particular reason, I started thinking today about doing a question in which students would get a one-frame cartoon (The New Yorker would be the obvious source, but we could find them from other sources) and have the student relate that cartoon to the material in the course. My wife had an exam that did this in a sociology course and it sounds like a fun idea (although she said it was the hardest exam she had in college).

Could this work? And does anyone have ideas on cartoon(s) to use?

Posted by Howard Wasserman on December 31, 2009 at 08:04 AM in Howard Wasserman, Teaching Law | Permalink


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Done properly, as commenter Alexis touched upon, unusual exam questions can be great, especially when it comes to non-traditional learners. However, in general, I have little faith in the ability of law professors to successfully compose even a traditional exam. As result, it has been my experience that gimmicky attempts to put students at ease often freak them out instead.

I attend a top law school (I'm a 2L). My professors all have prestigious pedigrees, yet most have proved incapable of composing coherent, relevant exams. In my opinion, a well composed law school exam will elicit complex analytical responses, rooted in and shaped by a strong grasp of the course work. So far, I think I have taken one such exam. Instead, I seem to continually encounter sloppy, poorly constructed tests. Typos. Questions that are literally nonsensical. Fact patterns inadvertently missing key information. Multiple choice questions better suited for pub quiz trivia than a high stakes academic test.

My point here is: students take exams very seriously, but there are apparently a lot of professors who do not respect us enough to craft serious exams (or to even run spell check). Complex questions (even issue spotting fact patterns) can be stated briefly and in plain, professional language. Nothing drives me up the wall more than having to waste time deciphering convoluted questions when I could be, you know, working on my answer.

For example, I recently took an exam where the professor accidentally used a particular term of art when she seemed to actually be asking about a distinct but related concept. In other words, if the professor meant what she said, the question did not provide an opportunity for meaningful analysis, whereas the question I suspect she was trying to ask did provide that opportunity. Yet the wording was unambiguous, and instead of efficiently and productively using my time, I had to sit there and decide whether to answer the bizarre question before me, or the logical question that seemed to lurk within. You could be the most prepared person in the world, but if you literally cannot understand the exam, you'll be lower in the heap than a poorly prepared student who at least "got" the test enough to bs well.

Posted by: Ember | Jan 5, 2010 3:29:19 PM

All I could think was: I hope this isn't a course about copyright...

Posted by: Tracey | Jan 4, 2010 1:47:40 PM

I'm not sure that a cartoon per se is necessarily the best example of your line of reasoning, assuming you mean a play on words or something else that involves humor or "getting it." However, I think you raise important questions about teaching and testing methods. Of course law students read a lot, and yes, as lawyers they will read even more. But they are already bombarded with information conveyed in manners other than the written word -- a trend that will likely only increase in the future.

I agree with other commenters that cartoons could be a great teaching tool to introduce during a class or seminar. I would take your line of reasoning one step further: other visuals (e.g., clips) could be integrated into classes and then exams. While I understand that law students may not want to contend with new formats or a professor trying to be cute, they will be better prepared for their future careers if they also learn to analyze information presented in alternative formats.

(Additionally, not everyone learns the same way. We all knew what we were getting into when we took the LSAT and enrolled in law school, but you may be pleasantly surprised by the diversity of comments prompted by teaching and testing tools that appeal to different ways of learning.)

If you choose to introduce visuals, I hope you will report back and let us know how it goes!

Posted by: Alexis | Jan 3, 2010 7:53:04 PM

I know W. Barton Leach, my 1-L property law prof at Harvard Law during 1964-1965, did it earlier in his career. He used, I seem to recall, a New Yorker cartoon. I think a torts teacher did it, too. Someday when I'm digging through my HLS archives I'll find them & send them to you. Burt Hanson, MPLS

Posted by: Burt Hanson | Jan 3, 2010 3:07:15 PM

I have to agree with the commenters that this sounds like fun for the professor, but is too open ended to test the students on their comprehension of the law and ability to apply it to new situations. And, frankly, I think it lends itself very well to BS'ing the exam. So it will benefit those students who "get" the cartoon thing as well as those who didn't really study or learn the material. It just sounds to me like it's a great thing for professors who live in the theoretical. I'm not at all convinced that's appropriate for law students learning a subject for the first time, and certainly not as something to make up a substantial portion of their grade.

I could, however, see it as an add-on question to the in class exam, if you really want to use it.

Posted by: Attorney | Jan 2, 2010 6:50:07 PM


I understand what you are trying to do, but I think you'll end up rewarding students who "get" the whole cartoon thing--and I don't think that's what you are going for.

At least a quotation is a text that law school students should be able to contend with. But a cartoon is a new beast. Unless you are explicitly doing this in class (which you could certainly try!), and thus giving them a window into what you are trying to get from them, I would stay away from this.

Maybe in a seminar though.

Posted by: Hillel Y. Levin | Jan 1, 2010 9:33:44 AM

In law school, I always thought that a clip from the Simpsons or Family Guy would make for an interesting torts or criminal law exam. The only exam that actually bothered me was when my criminal law professor used a crime that had been in the local news just 2 weeks before the exam. It just felt inconsiderate to use a scenario that was so real.

Posted by: Andrew | Jan 1, 2010 3:18:13 AM

I realize I am a stick in the mud, but as a 3L, I would ask you not to attempt to be fun or cute with your exams. No one likes taking or grading exams, but they are usually worse when a professor attempts to break out of the mold with something playful. Such exams often suggest that the professor does not take the process seriously, and that the grades themselves are arbitrary.

To be crass, think of an exam like a colonoscopy: it's not a fun procedure whatever you do, and the doc's only going to make it worse by performing it in a clown suit. Exams and grades have a major impact on your students' futures, and they will appreciate you more if you treat the process with the seriousness it deserves.

Posted by: Frozt | Dec 31, 2009 3:22:10 PM

All fair questions, although I don't think they affect what I am ultimately getting at in this post. The purpose of the assignment is to get students to write a paper explaining, analyzing, critiquing, and applying some doctrinal and theoretical areas from the course. The questions/problems to be answered all are broad and open-ended and leave the students a great deal of freedom as to what to write within those parameters.

My question is whether I could get students into their papers by using a cartoon rather than, say, a quotation. But the cartoon would not make the "learning objective" different from the other questions.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Dec 31, 2009 10:12:21 AM

With all due respect, I am not sure how this best tests learning in law school. What are the learning objectives for this course? How does your final exam test whether the students mastered this objective? Is this a purely theoretical course, or are you preparing the students to practice civil rights in federal courts? I think we should be trying to evaluate our students based on the goals of a course. If it is practical skills, test practical skills. If it is critical thinking, test their ability to solve problems. If it is to restate what they learned in their course, then broad open-ended questions could be asked. Sure, giving them a cartoon may be a fun exam question, but does it really evaluate what we want our students to master in our courses? Or am I missing something by your question?

Posted by: Anthony | Dec 31, 2009 9:50:14 AM

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