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Monday, February 24, 2014

Brevity is . . . wit

In trying to make sure my students are practicing writing as a skill (along with the thinking and analysis that is a precursor to writing), while also trying to ensure an appropriate workload, I have settled on using short writing assignments. I assign quick, discrete questions inviting short, quick-hitting analysis of those questions (e.g., "Identify the problems with this pleading"). The benefit is that it forces them to perform  legal analysis--identify and explain a rule and apply it--without room to ramble or BS or throw everything at the wall to see what sticks, which also makes them easier to evaluate and grade. I have a better sense of who gets it and who doesn't. I also think I am able to provide better feedback (written and oral), since the analysis necessarily is compact and concise. It also offers coverage--I can test on a lot of different areas, while avoiding the discomfort I always felt in relying exclusively (or even heavily) on multiple-choice (despite the obvious bar-exam benefits).

And, of course, it famously can be harder to write less than more, so there is a writing challenge to it. (As I think back to my days as a journalism undergraduate, the longest thing I wrote in my first two writing courses was at most 1000 words). Meanwhile, student are writing "full" papers (briefs, memos, etc.) in legal writing, so I know they are meeting a different type of writing requirement elsewhere.

There are a number of ways to do this. One colleague shared that in courses in which students write judicial opinions, the word limit is 2,358--the number of words in Justice Holmes' dissent in Abrams v. United States. As my colleague explains, if Justice Holmes only needed that many words to create what would become free speech doctrine, law students do not need more. I am going to adopt this for the opinions in my upper-level classes. As for other assignments, my in-semester essays run anywhere from 500-1000 words (depending on the class and the assignment). And I have moved to primarily short-answer in-class exams, consisting of 30-or-so questions, with a maximum of 110 words for each answer.

The goal in all of this is that students are writing, even if only a small amount at a time, and even if it does not precisely reflect the briefs they will write in practice. There still is educational benefit in this sort of writing.


Posted by Howard Wasserman on February 24, 2014 at 09:31 AM in Howard Wasserman, Teaching Law | Permalink


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I've been getting at the sort of short writing assignments you mention by using asynchronous online discussions (currently on TWEN, but I'm moving to Canvas soon). I generally pose a question/hypo, name a few discussion leaders, and require them to respond with a brief analysis (200-500 words) within a day. Then, I require every other student to respond either to my initial question, to another student's response, or to any follow-up questions I might ask within a week or so. I probe, prompt, and ask follow-up questions as needed. I find that it gets them writing substantively without a lot of grading headaches, but it also fosters accountability for their ideas and their expression because their names are on their postings. In my view, any time you can get them writing it's a good thing, regardless of whether it's the precise kind of writing they will be doing in practice.

Posted by: Scott Bauries | Feb 24, 2014 4:12:22 PM

If the exam is a traditional 3 hour, in class exam then I'm with Prof. Singer. Students already have an incentive to write as concisely as they can because there are too many issues to work through if they spend time throwing the kitchen sink at issue #1. By contrast, if the exam were intended to take 3 hours, but I gave the students 24 or 48 hours, I might be inclined to include word limits.

My in-class writing exercises are always short (and I hope valuable). I commonly give students only 3-5 minutes to write. Because the students' work is short, I can turn comments around very quickly and they can get some quick feedback on whether or not they are "getting it."

Posted by: Matthew Bruckner | Feb 24, 2014 12:35:23 PM

I don't impose word counts on my exams (whether first year Civ Pro or upper level courses), primarily because I try to pack them with enough issues that students readily understand that they must work quickly. (Students receive that bit of advice well in advance, of course.) But during the semester I do limit exercise responses to 1-2 pages, depending on the exercise. It makes for easier grading for me and a manageable workload for the students. And those brief formative assessment tools seem to help everyone at exam time.

Posted by: Jordy Singer | Feb 24, 2014 10:58:45 AM

On my exams, I impose strict word limits. For property, I have two 500-word essays. For ConLaw, I have two 1000-word essays. The students always grumble about the word limits, but invariably, every student complies (every year 1 or 2 runs over the limit). I find forcing students to be concise trims away a lot of extraneous fluff that students throw into an answer hoping for something, anything, to accumulate points. No more kitchen sink answers. In terms of IRAC, I tell them to focus on the A (Analysis). Also, this removes an incentive to students (like myself) who can pour out 3,000 words in a 3 hour exam. When grading the short answers, it becomes obvious very quickly if the student knows what he or she is talking about.

Posted by: Josh Blackman | Feb 24, 2014 10:06:37 AM

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