Saturday, May 22, 2010

Take home exams, open book exams, and other variations

Most of us remember the days when law school exams came in one shape and size: 100% of the grade; closed book, one day/time in one classroom, handwritten in blue books, and all essay. 

Today, however, the shapes and sizes vary greatly. 

  • More exams are variations on open book: code/rule book only; own outline only; one sheet of paper; everything but a live human being. 
  • More exams are take home or variably scheduled: take home with several days to complete; take home with a set number of hours to complete; option to take the exam for a set number of hours on one of several days; self-scheduled exams; time and location accommodations for disabled students.  
  • Formats run the gamut: multiple choice; essay; short answer; true-false; court or practice documents; some mixture of these.  
  • More professors now have a percentage of the grade for participation, presentations, papers, exercises, or other assignments. 
  • And the blue book has been supplanted in part or entirely by the use of computers.

Are the changes in the law school exam positive or negative?  It depends.

Open book:  Proponents comment that open book exams are more realistic to what practice will be like.  Attorneys will have their sources or notes in front of them as they write legal memoranda, consider strategies for client cases, and address juries or judges.  Many argue that it is sensible for there to be code or rule books available rather than students having to memorize lengthy sections.  Some also point to the fact that a lawyer being able to find the law is far more important than a spouting rule robot. 

On the negative side, however, some express concern that open book exams encourage students to gloss the law and not really know it at any depth.  If only working memory is used instead of long-term memory, they will have no recollection of the basic law later when they get to bar review and practice.  Others are concerned that open book exams do not really assess learning unless the professor has carefully designed application questions rather than pure information questions. 

Open book exams cause some traps for students, especially unsuspecting 1L's.  Students recount stories of not studying as thoroughly because they could "look it up during the exam" and then finding there was not enough time to do so.  They also talk about time management problems because they felt compelled to look up everything to be certain even though they knew the answers.  Other students remark on their wasting inordinate amounts of time before the exam tabbing books for what turned out to be non-essentials.  

Variable schedules:  Proponents argue that more flexible scheduling can allow the professor to test students in differing formats than the one place/time exam with a strict time limit.  For example, the professor might ask for a memo, brief, court document, or client letter as the answer format.  In addition, proponents argue that answers are better analyzed, more organized, and better written when multiple-day take-home scheduling is used.  

Certainly allowing disabled students to take exams with extra time as an accommodation is an important improvement in exam procedures - as is letting them have quiet rooms, readers, or scribes.  Logistics need to be carefully worked out, of course. 

Letting students choose which of several designated days to take an exam at the law school with a set time limit on the day also seems sensible.  By picking up the exam and returning it to a proctor under time-stamped or clocked conditions allows for fairness with flexibility.  This improvement takes some of the difficulty out of exam schedules for the upper-division student who would have more exams in a series of days than a classmate.  It lets a student decide when she feels ready to take the exam. 

The time-limited take-home exam (for example, complete within 4 hours after the exam is opened) is manageable.  The greatest risk here is that the student will be tempted to break the honor code and actually spend longer than allowed. 

Personally, I worry about take-home exams that run over multiple days.  First, they often do not consider the accommodations for disabled students; a take home exam that is given for 4 days means that the student with double time has to plan 8 days to work on it.  Second, professors often give take-home exams that stretch far beyond the designated exam day for the course, thus encroaching on the intended study days in the schedule for the next exam (especially where 1L students are concerned).  Third, students are faced with the reality that many other students will use the maximum possible hours to take the exam and they fear they must do the same to compete.  Fourth, professors who tell students that they only need 4 hours to take the exam over the 4 days are usually woefully incorrect about how long the exam will take the average student.  If the professor truly thinks it is a 4-hour exam then she should limit the time for taking it or give it at the regularly scheduled time.

Self-scheduled exams have an appeal for students so that they be autonomous in deciding what day and time to take each exam for each course.  I have experience with this system at a small liberal arts college.  However, it can be a logistical nightmare as the student body and course enrollments increase.  And it depends on a strong honor code system to work.

Format changes:  No doubt some flexibility away from all fact-pattern essay exams is a plus because different course material may lend itself to different question formats.  When I give exams, I mix formats for different kinds of assessment. 

In jurisdictions where the MPRE will be required, professional responsibility multiple-choice questions may make perfect sense.  Some faculty will argue that multiple-choice should be used for MBE subjects as well.  But what about the state bar essay questions?  What about the performance exams given in various states?  Do they require us to rethink our testing formats as well?  Where is the balance between "testing to the bar exam" and assessment for law students?

I think we need to be careful to make the decisions on sound assessment reasons rather than devotion to the bar, hunches, or our convenience for grading.  Here are some thoughts:

  • Writing good multiple-choice questions is not easy.  Training may be necessary for us to avoid poorly crafted questions.  After all, most faculty do not begin their careers with test construction expertise. 
  • The styles of multiple-choice questions used by faculty are all over the map.  They often look nothing like MBE or MPRE questions.  If the justification is to prepare students for these bar exams, then the questions need to mirror the bar formats.  Otherwise, the questions should be tailored to the course material and assessment issues.   
  • Professors who have honed their multiple-choice questions over several years tend to guard their question pools (once found to be valid and reliable) so they do not need to write new questions.  However, because each professor tends to write her own style of questions, students are blindsided if the professor does not release at least some practice questions for students beforehand.
  • Without someone in academic affairs monitoring the formats used by faculty, it is all too possible that a section of the 1L class may end up with no essay exams at all.  And, I have talked to 2L and 3L students who have found the same because of the mix of courses in a semester.  That unforeseen result suggests that we believe that there was no merit in the fact-pattern essay.  Do we really want our students to have limited essay experience?
  • Word limits and page limits can arguably assist students in more concise exam answers.  However, we need to be careful that these limits represent what a student can write concisely as opposed to what a professor who has expertise can write concisely.  And we want to make sure that these limits are appropriate to the assessment goals for our questions and not just convenient for grading.

I am lucky because my elective courses have relatively low enrollment caps.  I still give comprehensive essay and short-answer exams that require my students to write a great deal.  Because I do two reads of each exam (one for initial scoring and one for consistency with scoring on all papers), I create some burdens for myself.  I understand the temptation that would exist to change the format if I had large classes of students.  However, I hope if that day comes that I will weigh new assessment formats carefully and not lean toward my own needs for simplicity or convenience. 

Multiple grades for a course:  Many students tell me that they appreciate classes that do not have 100% of their grade dependent on the final exam.  However, they often tell me that it frustrates them when professors give them details for those extra projects or presentations near the end of the semester (usually referring to the last 2-3 weeks).  In some cases, professors cannot give out information earlier because the project cannot be completed before certain material is covered in class or themes emerge.  In other cases, however, it would certainly help well-organized students to be able to plan their work over multiple weeks when they have several courses with projects.

Participation grades trouble some students because they are not "talkers."  In my seminars, I designate part of the grade for participation (usually no more than 20%) because I want a seminar to have discussion and not turn into a lecture course.  In addition to the usual class discussion, I provide students with opportunities to discuss websites for current items in the news so they can plan their comments ahead of time.  Another option could be electronic discussion boards.  Throughout the semester, I caution students to remember their participation points and not to "forfeit" them.

Computers and blue books:  A few years ago, students would sometimes express concerns to me that their typing skills were not fast and accurate enough to use the computer for an exam.  I do not hear that concern very often any more.  Now I find that students admit that they do not have the cursive penmanship background to handwrite an exam.  As professors, we tend to take that skill for granted.  There have always been law students with legibility problems, but today it is far more a problem of actually not having used the longhand method since they were children.  Some tell me they were never taught cursive in their entire lives and can only print!  (There has been an interesting discussion on the legal writing listserv recently about this very issue.)

Typed exams certainly are faster to read.  Having had several bosses with terrible handwriting over the years, I am never phased by student blue books because I can decipher almost anything.  As a result, I do not think that my own students missed getting points because of handwriting.  However, I can see that it could be an issue.  And, if they are printing rather than using longhand on an exam, it is likely to be slower than typing.

There seem to always be a few students whose computers crash and who end up having to complete the exam by hand.  The stress and anxiety are usually huge.  And for most of them, they have no idea what they were typing before the mishap!  Those who use scrap paper to organize answers before typing are less fazed by these problems because they can quickly get re-oriented.        

The variations used today really do result in the "it depends" response.  Assessment comes with a myriad of decisions to make.  The quest for balance needs to be carefully thought through by each professor for each course.  (Amy Jarmon)     

   

May 22, 2010 in Exams - Theory | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Friday, May 21, 2010

Institute for Law Teaching and Learning Conference - Register by 6/4/10

The following is an announcement posted on several listservs by Michael Hunter Schwartz at Washburn:

 

The deadline for registering for the 2010 Institute for Law Teaching and Learning Conference, “Teaching Law Practice Across the Curriculum,” is June 4.  The conference is June 17 and 18 with an optional teaching lab on the 16.  Here’s a link to information about the conference-- http://lawteaching.org/conferences/2010/, and here’s a link to the registration form-- http://lawteaching.org/conferences/2010/registration/

May 21, 2010 in Meetings | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Director of ASP: Pace Law School

Academic Support Director

For more than 100 years Pace University has been preparing students to become leaders in their fields by providing an education that combines exceptional academics with professional experience and the New York

advantage. Pace has campuses in New York Cityand WestchesterCounty. A private metropolitan university, Pace enrolls nearly 13,000 students in bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral programs in the Dyson College of Arts and Sciences, Lienhard School of Nursing, Lubin School of Business, School Education, Scho of Law, and Seidenberg School of Computer Science and Information Systems. 

Pace University School of Law, located in White Plains, NY,

seeks applicants for the position of Director of Academic Support Program to begin July 1, 2010. This position presents a wonderful opportunity become a member of a vibrant and supportive law school community that embraces innovation and advancement. Compensation is commensurate with experience.

The successful candidate will report to the Vice Dean for Academic Affairs and will be responsible for the design, implementation and management of all aspects of Pace's well established Academic Support Program including: teaching second and third year Advanced Analytical Skills courses and first year skills workshops; participating in first and second year orientation programs; providing individual writing assistance and counseling; developing and implementing improved Bar Exam passage efforts; performing academic support and related data collection and analysis; writing reports to faculty and administration; and developing new services to enhance our students' academic performance.

Minimum requirements are a J.D from an ABA accredited law school; 10 years relevant experience preferred; law firm or similar legal practice experience; excellent writing and speaking skills; membership in at least one state bar and a genuine desire to work closely with students and faculty. Prior academic support experience, teaching experience (e.g., legal writing, Dean's Scholars or equivalent), membership on law review or moot court and counseling skills are preferred.  

We offer the resources of a private, nationally-ranked university, tuition waivers for family members and an attractive benefits and compensation package. Please visit careers.pace.edu and select Staff Positions to view this opportunity by its job title or Posting Number 0600746.

Pace University is an Equal Employment and Affirmative Action Employer, M/F/H/V, committed to ensuring a diverse learning and working environment.  Women and minorities are encouraged to apply.

May 19, 2010 in Jobs - Descriptions & Announcements | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

It was all worth it

Each year around April 1st, I seem to hit a wall.  My energy starts to run out.  I inevitably succumb to a spring cold.  My appointment calendar goes from packed to overflow with early evening appointments to fit everyone in who needs a session.  On top comes a round of deadlines.  My students start to talk about survival, and I begin to feel that I know what they mean.

Just in time the two weeks of exams arrive.  My calendar becomes mostly quiet except for appointments for students requiring pep talks and reassurance following panic attacks.  I work on projects, interview students for various student positions, monitor the hiring of Tutors, and try to sort out the piles that have built for 12 months on my credenza.  I also begin to process the year and list the accomplishments.

However, what really makes me take notice that all the hard work was worthwhile is the stream of students stopping by to chat.  They want to share how their exams went.  We reflect together on their academic and personal growth during the year.  They come to say thank you for the hours we spent working on study skills.  They bring me cards and notes.  Some come to share good news - a clerkship, an engagement, a journal position for fall.  Others come to say goodbye before graduation.  

It may sound corny, but at this time of year more than any other I realize that many of my students are like family.  I know their hopes and dreams.  I know their struggles and obstacles.  They have voiced their fears and worries.  We have celebrated their triumphs.  I have spoken hard truths to them.  I have voiced encouragement.  I have offered a quiet place to cry.

The value of ASP work goes beyond a salary or office budget or other monetary price tag.  It goes beyond low probation rates or high bar passage rates.  Those things are important, but do not measure alone the value of ASP.  Our jobs are value-added because much of what we do each day is not measured by dollars and cents.  The support we offer our students is beyond measure.

I am privileged to have the opportunity to be a blessing to others.  And those others are a blessing to me.  (Amy Jarmon)     

     

May 19, 2010 in Encouragement & Inspiration | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Academic Support Director Position at Pace University

Academic Support Director

For more than 100 years Pace University has been preparing students to become leaders in their fields by providing an education that combines exceptional academics with professional experience and the New York advantage. Pace has campuses in New York City and Westchester County. A private metropolitan university, Pace enrolls nearly 13,000 students in bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral programs in the Dyson College of Arts and Sciences, Lienhard School of Nursing, Lubin School of Business, School of Education, School of Law, and Seidenberg School of Computer Science and Information Systems.

Pace University School of Law, located in White Plains, NY, seeks applicants for the position of Director of Academic Support Program to begin July 1, 2010. This position presents a wonderful opportunity become a member of a vibrant and supportive law school community that embraces innovation and advancement. Compensation is commensurate with experience.

The successful candidate will report to the Vice Dean for Academic Affairs and will be responsible for the design, implementation and management of all aspects of Pace's well established Academic Support Program including: teaching second and third year Advanced Analytical Skills courses and first year skills workshops; participating in first and second year orientation programs; providing individual writing assistance and counseling; developing and implementing improved Bar Exam passage efforts; performing academic support and related data collection and analysis; writing reports to faculty and administration; and developing new services to enhance our students' academic performance.

Minimum requirements are a J.D from an ABA accredited law school; 10 years relevant experience preferred; law firm or similar legal practice experience; excellent writing and speaking skills; membership in at least one state bar and a genuine desire to work closely with students and faculty. Prior academic support experience, teaching experience (e.g., legal writing, Dean's Scholars or equivalent), membership on law review or moot court and counseling skills are preferred.  

We offer the resources of a private, nationally-ranked university, tuition waivers for family members and an attractive benefits and compensation package. Please visit careers.pace.edu and select Staff Positions to view this opportunity by its job title or Posting Number 0600746.

Pace University is an Equal Employment and Affirmative Action Employer, M/F/H/V, committed to ensuring a diverse learning and working environment. Women and minorities are encouraged to apply.

May 19, 2010 in Jobs - Descriptions & Announcements | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Director of ASP: Pepperdine Law School

Director of Academic Success Program

Pepperdine University School of Law

Pepperdine University School of Law seeks applicants for the position of Director of the law school’s Academic Success Program, to begin August 1, 2010.  The School of Law is committed to student achievement, and the Director will be primarily responsible for developing, leading, coordinating, and implementing programs that support the School of Law’s goals of improving students’ law school academic success and success on the bar exam.  

Minimum requirements include a J.D. degree and admission to the practice of law.  Ideal candidates will have experience working in a higher education setting in the areas of teaching, academic assistance, academic counseling, or similar administrative, teaching, or practice experience.  The successful candidate also must have excellent written and verbal communication skills, and the ability to work effectively with a wide range of constituents within the diverse law school community, including students served by the Academic Success Program (“ASP”), student teaching fellows who work within ASP, faculty members, and the law school administration.

The successful candidate will report to the Associate Deans for Academics and Student Life and will closely supervise the ASP student teaching fellows. 

The Director’s specific duties will include, among others:

·         Working with faculty and administrative staff to support the academic support efforts at the law school

·         Hiring individual student teaching fellows to serve in each of the first-year courses

·         Conducting orientation and training programs for the student teaching fellows at the beginning of the fall and spring semesters

·         Conducting an orientation to ASP for, and introducing the case briefing method to, first-year students during first-year orientation

·         Coordinating and conducting fall and spring semester ASP workshops for first-year students on topics such as effective note-taking, outlining, multiple choice, and essay exam preparation, etc.

·         Coordinating and supervising the fall and spring semester student teaching fellow-led review sessions and office hours

·         Teaching the spring semester Supplemental Torts course for academically at-risk first-year students

·         Teaching (or co-teaching) the spring semester Bar Exam Workshop course for third-year students

·         Coordinating, teaching, or co-teaching winter and summer bar preparation workshops

·         Holding regular office hours and individual counseling sessions, and developing individualized remediation and referral programs, for law students in need of academic support services and alumni in need of bar preparation services

·         Gathering student and professor feedback regarding ASP offerings, including feedback on student teaching fellows

·         Gathering, compiling, and reporting statistical data regarding student participation in, and impact on student performance of, the various ASP offerings

·         Assisting the law school’s diversity recruiting and retention efforts

·         Maintaining a library of academic support and bar preparation books and materials for use by students and alumni

·         Managing the ASP web pages on the law school’s website

·         Participating in the greater academic support and bar preparation professional community in order to stay apprised of best practices through regular attendance at conferences, participation in relevant listservs and blogs, and study of relevant books and other resources

Compensation is commensurate with experience.  This position is a 12 month contract position, with the possibility of renewal.

Applicants should email a statement of interest, in the form of a cover letter, and resume to Jim Gash, Associate Dean for Student Life, at jim.gash@pepperdine.edu.  Any questions also should be directed to Dean Gash.

May 18, 2010 in Jobs - Descriptions & Announcements | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)