Monday, January 23, 2006

It's Like Practicing Medicine in 1850

Back in old days of medicine, doctors had to have some ingenious ways of diagnosing problems inside the body without the help of the technology we now have.  I am sure there were a lot of unavoidable errors and unnecessary treatments, but they did the best they could and enough people lived on to invent the technology that makes it easier today.  Sometimes, I feel like an old time doctor, trying to figure out what has gone wrong without a clear view inside a student's head or life.

Last week, our first year students received their grades.   I have seen a number of them in my office and the hallway, and they all tend to say the same thing, "I didn't do as well as I thought I would."  Then they ask me why.  In truth, I can't know why any particular student would do worse than he or she had anticipated, but since my tap dancing is sub-par, I do make an effort to try and diagnose the problem.

What are the possible issues?  Not enough studying, non-efficient or non-effective studying, multiple choice questions, a lack of depth in answering the questions or even just running out of time because they had no idea what to expect.  The real problem is that I have to rely on hearsay to get enough information to make a diagnosis.  I have to ask students to honestly tell me about their study habits and their exam strategies.

I ask students when, where and how they studied.  I ask about how they approached their exams in the exam room, mainly to find out if they took the (well worth it) time to outline before attempting to answer the questions.  I ask how they are doing in their legal writing class, because sometimes students are trying to recreate their legal writing assignments during exams which is just not feasible given the time constraints.  I ask about any ADA accommodations in the past (see my blog entry from a week ago).

I also advise students to go speak to their professors.  They sometimes balk at this idea because they are embarrassed or intimidated.  I assure then that no professor would ever (1) Lower their grade based on such a meeting or (2) Say anything like, "well, aren't you the dumbest law student I have ever seen?"   

So what should students ask their professors about their exams?  First, ask them, "what were you looking for that you did not see in my exam?"  Find out the score on multiple choice questions vs. essays.  If the scores are markedly inconsistent then perhaps one of these is the problem.

Sometimes students use what I call, "symbolic language," which is using legal terminology in place of explaining the rule as if it were a hyperlink to a definition of the law.  This is often a short cut taken by students who are running out of time.  Sometimes students haven't used the facts they are given, or they have missed the major issues and have spent their precious time writing on the minutiae instead. 

Then I meet with the students again to process all the information I have and try to find the problem and suggest a plan of treatment. Sometimes, I am absolutely stumped, but I make an educated guess and make up a plan accordingly (sometimes I wish I could call the students in a year or so and find out if I was right like the guys on Cartalk).  Sometimes, just like any good placebo, having the plan is sufficient whether it addresses a problem or not.

But more often I feel like a doctor who practiced before CAT scans or MRI's trying to figure out what was going on inside of someone without being able to see it.  I guess the best part is that any treatment I prescribe is not really going to cause anyone any harm.  I mean, really, how can studying more effectively hurt? (ezs)

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