Monday, January 16, 2006

Learning from Exams

Because both legal reasoning in general and law school examinations in particular are new to first-year students, you might want to include in your second-semester academic support program some instruction in using exams as a method of improving learning.  As I have been preparing for such a lecture, I have asked my colleagues at UMKC what advice they have for students who wish to go over their exams with their professors.  Below are some of the key suggestions for students.

1) Do the hard work of evaluating your exam yourself before you ask the professor to go over it with you.  Passively asking a professor how you could have done better not only wastes your professor's time and energy, it is not as effective as actively teaching yourself by analyzing your own performance as completely as you can before asking for your professor's help.

2) Where a professor provides a model answer, spend time on your own comparing your answer to the model.  In doing so, you are likely to discover where you could have improved your responses to the test questions.  Perhaps you have left key information out of the answer, have failed to argue both sides of issues, have misstated rules, or have missed key issues, for example.

3) Ask for a grading rubric to guide your self-analysis.  The rubric will itself answer many of your questions.

4) Ask to see one or two of the best exam answers and compare yours to those.  That approach may be especially helpful because those answers provide a concrete illustration of successful answers.  One professor suggested that looking at the best answers may produce much more meaningful help than would even lengthy one-on-one discussions with a professor.

5) Force yourself to identify specific, concrete questions for the professor and list them on a piece of paper.  Try first to answer them yourself and narrow the list to those you truly cannot answer.  Doing so ensures that you have taken responsibility for your own learning and makes the resulting learning deeper and more lasting.

6) If you still have questions that would support a meaningful one-on-one discussion with your professor, keep the focus on those questions and not on attempting to elicit sympathy or a grade change.  Professors are not likely to second-guess their grading unless there is a glaring error.  They are never in the mood for complaining students who simply did not answer the questions as well as some of their peers.

7)  Whatever you do, keep your eye on the ball:  teaching yourself to prepare for exams more effectively by understanding the law more completely and accurately and by developing your analytical and communication skills more deeply and thoroughly.  (dbw)

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