Wednesday, August 3, 2005

Reviewing Exam Answers

Recently, after reading advice about reviewing exams with professors, a student complained:

Having reviewed my exam answers each semester, I must tell you that I learned absolutely nothing from the tests themselves or from inquiries to professors (to be fair I have only visited about 4 professors regarding my exam grades).  The exams that I have reviewed (all of them) had no or few comments. When I visited professors to ask what my strengths and weaknesses were (and that is exactly how I have presented my inquiry), the response from each went something like this... "Well, it isn't that you did anything wrong.  In law school, grading is subjective and you are competing against other smart students ... it's just that some of your classmates did a little bit better" ... leaving me with a greater sense of ambiguity about my strengths and weaknesses than when I went in.  In one instance where the professor gave me that response, my grade was a D+! ... and she provided no indication what efforts can be made that might lead to better results.

I'm sure you have heard similar stories ... or you will.

Let me share (an edited version of) my response.

I think your professors could have been more helpful, had you approached your conferences differently. When you put a stack of pages in front of a professor and ask what your weaknesses are, you are asking too vague a question to get an answer ... particularly if you wrote a pretty poor answer.  Also, "your weaknesses" probably don't appear in your answer.  The answer you wrote is a result of a misunderstanding of [or incapability to produce] what is required of you on an exam, rather than a display of your weaknesses. One of the services the Academic Support Program performs for students is this: helping them discover the "weaknesses" in their approach to preparing for exams (which begins the first day of the semester, of course).

Professors can best help when students walk in with very specific questions about particular parts of the examination answer.  Examples: 

"Professor, you wrote in the margin here, 'conclusory.' What does that mean with respect to the sentence, 'Jake was a minor therefore he was immune from liability'?" 

"When I wrote, 'The benefit of the bargain goes for plaintiff rather than for the offeree, therefore there is no consideration,' you wrote 'Huh?' in the margin. Why?"

"I mentioned lots of cases in the answer.  Professor Smithers taught me we ought to do that.  You drew little lines through all my case references.  What's up with that?  Shouldn't I have mentioned cases?"

"You wrote at the end, 'Answer the Question!'  These six pages ARE the answer to the question!  What do you mean by 'answer the question'?" 

Blue_book You shouldn't expect the professor to either (a) remember your entire exam answer, or (b) sit there in front of you and read the entire answer slowly, critiquing each phrase as she reads. So asking an open ended (vague) question like, "What are my weaknesses?" is asking for the (nearly) impossible.  Also, keep in mind, if you received a "D" on an answer, the entire answer represents a weakness. Here's what I mean:

Think of the fellow who is trying out for the basketball team, who double-dribbles to the wrong basket, walks a few paces, then awkwardly throws the ball way over the backboard.  After he is told he didn't make the cut, he runs the video for the coach and asks, "what are my strengths? What are my weaknesses?"  I think the coach might simply say, "You ought to go back to basketball camp and re-learn the fundamentals.  It's not like there are a couple of flaws we can address and turn you into an NBA player." 

On the other hand, if you received a B+ ... the appropriate response from the professor may well be just what you have heard ... "That's a pretty darn good answer; unfortunately for your grade, we have some incredibly bright people in that class who were able to delve deeper into the economic principles underlying the theory, and thus produce incredibly persuasive arguments in support of their positions.  Yours was merely 'very good.'  I suppose if they weren't in the class, you might well have earned at least an 'A-' ..."

I hope this helps.  If you want to discuss this a bit, make an appointment and we'll kick it around.

How would you respond?  Send me your responses via e-mail.  (djt)

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