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Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Degree of difficulty for seminar papers?

OK, so, call me behind the times, but even with a new semester of classes upon us, I am still reflecting on my recent bout of grading. Last semester, I taught a seminar in which students were expected to write substantial papers, which formed most of the basis for their final grades. As I graded, I found myself struggling with a problem I often think about - how to grade a student who takes a simple, straightforward, doctrinal topic (such a question over which there is a clear circuit split) and executes the paper very well, as compared to the student who takes on a difficult, multifaceted, unwieldy but much more interesting and creative topic, and stumbles (without actually falling).

It is not so hard to work a "degree of difficulty" into exam grading - we can weight certain complex issues more heavily than those that require relatively straightforward answers. We can give points based on the depth of analysis when deeper analysis is called for. But do you, or should you, figure in the complexity of the paper topic when grading a seminar?

The student who takes on the straightforward topic should not necessarily be penalized as a result. In many ways, this is the smart thing to do - it allows the student to show her strengths but stay in her comfort zone. She practices the sort of skills that she might use in practice. She can still write something useful, novel, and nonobvious, to crib from Eugene Volokh's advice to law students. But as an academic, I admire the student who is willing to take the chance on something a little bit "out there," and to reach beyond her bailiwick. Should she get points for doing so, even if she ends up with an ultimately less successful result?

Posted by Jessie Hill on January 11, 2011 at 07:15 PM | Permalink


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Thanks for both comments. It's interesting to see that there are different approaches to this problem - I thought perhaps I was just failing to do something that others were already doing.

Posted by: Jessie Hill | Jan 13, 2011 10:32:06 PM

Interesting. I don't do this at all. But I do spend quite a bit of time working with my seminar students to select their paper topics. Good paper topics, I tell them, are questions that do not have an obvious answer, but are discrete enough that they can be thoroughly addressed in 25 pages (I set a page maximum for my papers). Any paper that comes in that winds up offering platitudes or skimming over multiple complex issues has made either the former or latter mistake.

Posted by: Bruce Boyden | Jan 12, 2011 11:53:38 AM

I take degree of difficulty into account in my international criminal law seminars -- and I tell my students that I do. Basically, I tell them that if they choose a well-worn doctrinal topic, their analysis needs to be essentially perfect to earn an H1 (our A), but that I will be more forgiving of errors if they choose a topic that is more innovative and more difficult. (Which almost has to be the case, because such topics are less likely to have clear answers!) I also remind them that, if they choose a standard topic, they will inevitably be competing with every other student of mine who has written on the same one -- having taught the class for years, I know the difference between a good and great essay on something like the different approaches to the defense of superior orders.

Is this a fair approach? I think so, because my students are forewarned. And, of course, it means that more students write on lesser-known topics, which makes my marking far more interesting.

Posted by: Kevin Jon Heller | Jan 11, 2011 7:42:35 PM

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