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Friday, April 30, 2010

Funny You Should Ask

Before grading comes (come?) office hours.  It's generally a low key time; you set aside time for the generally appropriate, sometimes excellent and, sadly, sometimes depressing questions from your students (including those of the "can you please summarize civil procedure to me" variety.)  One particularly interesting type of question is what I call the "jackpot" question.  Often in my exams I try (like I'm sure a lot of profs) to insert some tweak or twist to an issue that distinguishes the very best students from the merely very good.  It's not a trick; it's just a complexity that, if a student really understands the material, she will pick up on even though it's not obvious from the face of the question.

Once in a great while a student will ask a question in office hours that basically gets to the heart of that hidden issue.  Not in the factual sense; rather, the student will ask about the relationship of two doctrines in a way that mirrors what the twist is going to be.  I used to agonize about my answers to that kind of question, in particular, on the issue of how deep my explanation should be.  Explaining it as deeply as I usually try when I answer questions gives the twist away to the student (if she's paying close enough attention to take it in and remember it on the exam).  But holding back seemed unfair; she asked the question and deserves as deep an answer as I would normally give rather than a deposition-style minimalist answer.

I'm comfortable with it now.  If someone stumbles onto the jackpot I'll give them the golden key.  Of course I don't tell them that's what it is.  And as they close up their laptop and walk out I look at them and smile and wonder if they just realized what I told them.

Posted by Bill Araiza on April 30, 2010 at 06:50 PM | Permalink


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expect many more students in your office hours...

Posted by: Miriam A. Cherry | May 6, 2010 9:15:24 PM

I deal with this problem in several parts. I have an exam (Evidence) on May 6. I gave the students the following deadlines (well in advance):
(1) the last in person appointment is Friday, April 30 at 1 p.m.
(2) the last time for an email question(s) is Sunday, May 2 at 5 p.m. I stop answering questions of any type after this date, until the exam review session. This helps clear a bit of space for me to finalize the exam. It also forces the students to identify, refine and think about their questions (rather than just emailing me every time they get to a part of their outline that does not make sense!).
(3) Monday, May 3, I finalize and turn in my exam. I email the cover page to the students (the exam instructions indicating the number of multiple choice and the number and point value of the essay questions so they know how to allocate their time before the test starts).
(4) Tuesday, May 4, I hold an exam review session beginning at 6 p.m. I do not prepare anything, I simply sit in front of the class and answer questions as long as they have them. (Usually lasts about 2 hours). Students are not required to attend, but about 80-90% attend and most stay the entire time. When the exam review session is over, I will not answer questions of any type or in any form.

I am very available to the students during the semester and up until April 30 (for this class). After that point, I am deep into drafting the exam. If a student asks the "perfect question" (and sometimes it has happened that a students asks a question that gets to the heart of a major issue and even gets close to the fact pattern) I am thrilled. I feel obligated to answer fully. And I am happy to do so. By setting a cut off date and forcing the students to bring their questions to an exam review session, all of the students get the benefit of that question and answer. I think the students learn a lot just from hearing the questions that their peers ask (and some from the answers that I give).
Even when "the perfect question" is asked in the exam review session and I give a complete answer, I do not have a difficult time distinguishing between the best and worst exam answers.
Once I have finished and turned in the exam, I would be less comfortable answering "the perfect question" from an individual student. (I would do it, but feel uncomfortable.) This system avoids that and (at least the students tell me) actually adds to their learning exerience.
It may not be the best for everyone, but it works for me.

Posted by: Henry Noyes | May 1, 2010 1:10:05 PM

Paul, that is a curious attitude. Why is it better to give one student the golden key than a good chunk of the class? It seems to me that there is a greater concern with favoritism if you give the answer to one single student than if you give the answer to many.

Posted by: TJ | May 1, 2010 1:18:25 AM

I've never had a problem giving a student the golden key one-on-one, during office hours. But I always struggle more when a jackpot question is asked during an optional review session, when a good chunk of the class isn't present.

Posted by: Paul Ohm | May 1, 2010 12:37:23 AM

I do the exact same thing -- in fact, it just happened yesterday.

Posted by: Mark Edwards | Apr 30, 2010 10:46:53 PM

This possibility is my favorite excuse for procrastinating about writing my exam--once I've written it, answering questions always becomes trickier.

Posted by: Jennifer Hendricks | Apr 30, 2010 8:30:35 PM

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