Law School Academic Support Blog

Editor: Amy Jarmon
Texas Tech Univ. School of Law

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Time Management on Multiple-Choice Exams

As mentioned in an earlier post, many law students struggle with time management in exams. Time charting for multiple-choice exams is different than for fact-pattern essay exams. However, time charting is just as important to make sure that a student completes the full exam without rushing at the end or leaving questions blank.

Students often tell me that they have a minute, a minute and a half, or two minutes per question depending on how many questions the professor has announced will be on the exam and the time period allowed. Let's face it, trying to keep those small portions of time in mind over several hours is difficult. You would get whiplash from looking at your watch as you went through 100 questions if you tried to track the time used for most questions.

A time chart with checkpoints is a useful method to make sure you finish the entire exam but do not become hyper about your time per question. The checkpoints provide times when you will evaluate your progress through the exam to see if you are going too quickly or too slowly through the exam.

Most students find that 1/2-hour checkpoints work well if the multiple-choice exam is over two hours long. For shorter multiple-choice exams, 1/4-hour checkpoints may be desirable. The checkpoint alerts you to how many questions you should have been completed by that point in the exam.

Let's say that you have 100 questions to complete in a 4-hour exam. The exam starts at 1:00 p.m. and ends at 5:00 p.m. If you have 1/2-hour checkpoints, the questions will be divided into eight segments. 100 divided by 8 = 12.5 questions. If you round up to 13 questions per checkpoint, you will have 9 questions left to complete in your last half hour of the exam. If you round down to 12 questions per checkpoint, you will have 16 questions left to complete in your last half hour of the exam.

Most students would prefer to complete the 13 questions at each checkpoint and have less pressure at the end of the exam. If they complete the 9 questions in the last segment earlier than 5:00 p.m., they will have time to go back and selectively review some questions. Strategically, most students would choose to have the time chart below using 13 questions per segment:

TIME

NUMBER OF QUESTIONS COMPLETED

1:30 p.m.

13

2:00 p.m.

26

2:30 p.m.

39

3:00 p.m.

52

3:30 p.m.

65

4:00 p.m.

78

4:30 p.m.

91

5:00 p.m.

100

 You can modify the number of checkpoints that you choose to reflect exam issues that you might have with multiple-choice. If you know that you tend to rush through and misread or not spend sufficient time analyzing answer options, you may want additional checkpoints to slow you down. If you know that you tend to overthink and get behind in an exam, you may want additional checkpoints to prevent your bogging down. In either of these cases, you might decide you want 20-minute checkpoints instead of 1/2-hour checkpoints.

Should your reserve time in your chart for review of the test? In the time chart above where you only have to complete 9 questions in the last segment, you will garner a few review minutes automatically if your pace stays the same in that segment. However, if you want specific review time, you will need to subtract your reserved review time from the total exam time and then distribute the remaining time appropriately over the questions to determine your checkpoints. For example, if you reserved 20 minutes out of your four hours, you would have 220 minutes to distribute for 100 questions. You would still need to complete 12.5 questions per segment (rounding up to 13 or down to 12).

If you reserve review time, just make sure that you do not review every question because you are more likely to second-guess yourself and change right answers. Instead go back to select questions where you were unsure about the answer. When you initially complete a question, put a check mark in the margin to indicate when you want to review that question later; always bubble in an answer on the Scantron (if using one) and circle on the test paper the choice you have bubbled. If you do not have time to go back to the question, you at least had an answer indicated rather than a blank.

With the check mark noting later review, also indicate how sure you are about that answer choice - 80%, 70%, 60%, 50%, less than 50%. (Some students do not review questions they are at least 80% sure of initially and only indicate lower percentages.) The estimate tells you when you return to the question that you should not second-guess yourself and should only change the answer if you are now more than that percentage sure that the new answer is correct. Practice estimating your degree of certainty when you complete questions during your exam study; you do not want to waste time in the exam trying to determine what 70% certainty is compared to 60%.

If you practice time charting and completing questions at the appropriate pace during your exam study, the methods will be natural when you get into the actual exam. You can also determine ahead whether you are someone who needs additional checkpoints because you are too slow or fast and whether you want to reserve review time or complete the exam using the full time for answering questions once. As soon as the proctor indicates you may begin, you will quickly build your time chart to follow.

If an exam has both a fact-pattern essay portion and a multiple-choice portion, then you will complete two time charts - one for each portion of the exam. For information on time management for fact-pattern essay exams, please see the post on Saturday, April 30th. Good luck on completing your exams! (Amy Jarmon)

May 4, 2016 in Exams - Studying, Exams - Theory | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Time Management on Fact-Pattern Essay Exams

The professor's goals for fact-pattern essay exams are multiple. Within the larger goal of seeing whether students can apply law to new fact scenarios they have never seen, the professor is looking for several aspects:

  • Can students spot issues - both the big issues and the sub-issues?
  • Can students accurately state the law - and variations of the law such as common law, restatement, or specific codes?
  • Can students analyze the arguments for the parties - "showing their work" rather than being conclusory?
  • Where appropriate, can students use cases and policy to support the arguments?
  • Can students do all of this in an organized manner with concise writing?
  • Can students state a conclusion - even if it does not garner points or matter for the "it depends" nature of the question?
  • Can students do all of this within the time given for the exam?

For many students, one of the biggest challenges of exam-taking is the time management throughout the exam. Some students finish exams early because they do not methodically work through the questions and miss points that could have been garnered. These students are often the ones that professors lament are conclusory. Other students have problems with completing the entire exam or with being rushed in completing the last few questions. These students are often the ones that professors lament went down rabbit trails.

There are few law school exams where students do not have to complete all of the questions on the exam to get maximum points. The occasional "complete three of the four questions" instruction would be the exception. We know that most law school exams, unlike the undergraduate versions that students have experienced, are written for the full time allotted for the exam. In fact, some professors on purpose write exams that cannot be completed within the time allotted "because I get such an easy grading curve that way."

So how can students get through an entire exam with the best chance of picking up maximum points across the exam? The strategy is to make a time chart for completing the entire exam. When does one make the time chart? As soon as the proctor says, "You may begin." Take a piece of scrap paper (provided in nearly every exam). Read the instructions and look at the point count or time allotment for each exam question. Then do some math for your time chart.

Let's assume that you have five fact-pattern essay questions to complete for the exam in four hours. The exam begins at 1 p.m. and ends at 5:00 p.m. Let's also assume that your professor indicates time to be used for each question. Two are indicated as 1-hour questions; two are 45-minute questions; one is a 30-minute question.

The rule of thumb for each of the questions is that you want to spend 1/3 of your time reading, analyzing, and organizing (RAO) your answer and spend 2/3 of your time writing (W) the answer. For the 1-hour questions, that means 20 minutes RAO and 40 minutes W. For the 45-minute questions, that means 15 minutes RAO and 30 minutes W. For the 30-minute question, that means 10 minutes RAO and 20 minutes W. Translating this information into a time chart would look as follows:

QUESTION NUMBER

RAO

W

1 (1 HOUR)

1:00 – 1:20 p.m.

1:20 – 2:00 p.m.

2 (1 HOUR)

2:00 – 2:20 p.m.

2:20 – 3:00 p.m.

3 (45 MINUTES)

3:00 – 3:15 p.m.

3:15 – 3:45 p.m.

4 (45 MINUTES)

3:45 – 4:00 p.m.

4:00 – 4:30 p.m.

5 (30 MINUTES)

4:30 – 4:40 p.m.

4:40 – 5:00 p.m.

By using the time chart, you can keep track of how you should move through the exam for each question. You are prompted to read more carefully, think through your analysis, and organize your answer to maximize points before writing your answer. You are less likely to forget a fact, miss a case to reference, or skip an element to analyze when you have structure before you write. Professors can find points more easily in an organized and thorough answer. Also, you know exactly when to move on to writing rather than rushing through or stalling on the RAO step.

Using a chart prompts you to write in a more lawyerly manner. You know the points you want to make because of your organization time, and you can more quickly turn those points into concise sentences and paragraphs. You know when to conclude and move on to the next question at the end of the W time so you will consistently work through the entire exam. You do not want to rush at the end or miss completing one or more questions because you did not watch your time.

If you realize a couple of minutes before your W time ends on a question that you will not have time to write everything you wanted in complete sentences or paragraphs, quickly outline the points you would include if you had more time. Some professors will give a few points to that outline; others will not. However, if you have extra time at the end of the exam, you can return to that question and flesh out the outline into sentences and paragraphs. You will not waste time trying to remember what you were thinking.

What if your professor assigns points rather than times to questions?  In some cases the points will translate easily into time because points equal obvious time blocks within the overall exam. For example, the same four-hour exam with 8 questions broken down into two 90-point questions and six 10-point questions would equal time (90 + 90 + 60 = 240 points = 240 minutes = 4 hours). Using the 1/3 to 2/3 rule of thumb, you would split time 30 minutes RAO - 60 minutes W for the first two questions and 3-4 minutes RAO and 6-7 minutes W for each of the remaining 6 questions depending on your preference for slightly more RAO time or slightly more W time.

Even when your professor does not make points or minutes obvious, you can still tell proportionately how to use the time given the points. Assume you have two 100 point questions, two 75 point questions, and one 40 point question to complete in the 4 hours. You have 240 minutes; you have 390 points. You can eyeball it, or use a formula: divide the points for the question by the total points for the exam and multiple that number times the total minutes for the exam. If you ball-parked the minutes for ease of math, you would spend 1 hour on each of 100-point questions for 2 hours of the exam time, 45 minutes on each 75-point question for 1 hour and a half  of the exam time, leaving 30 minutes on the 40-point question.

What if your professor gives no clue as to points or time? Do not leave your common sense at home. If the difficulty and length of the fact patterns/call of the questions are very similar, divide the time equally among the questions. If some fact patterns are long, some medium, and some short, then divide time proportionately among them.

Finally, what if you are the type of person who must leave time to go back over the exam "just in case you missed something" the first time through the exam. Okay, if you really, really feel compelled to do so . . . . Subtract the amount of review time you want to reserve from the total minutes for the exam. Then reduce the time per question proportionately. Then do a time chart for 1/3-2/3 based on that number of minutes left per question.

Do not let your math phobia paralyze you. If you practice time charting when you are doing longer practice questions before the exam, the method becomes second-nature. Some professors will announce during the week preceding exams how many questions there will be and the points/times allotted for those questions. If you know that information ahead, you can sort out the math before exam day. Then when the proctor says you may begin, you can replicate your time chart on scrap paper. (Amy Jarmon) 

 

 

April 30, 2016 in Exams - Studying, Exams - Theory | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Some Tips for Reviewing Exams from the Fall Semester

Now is a good time to contact your professors to review any fall semester exams about which you had concerns. If you received a C+ grade or below in a course, you should definitely consider reviewing the exam.

  • Many of the exam-taking skills for law school translate from one course to later courses even though the course material is very different.
  • An exam review can highlight study strategies that were successful prior to the exam as well as indicate study strategies that need modification or abandonment.
  • An exam review will allow you to track what you did well during the actual exam and want to continue doing on future exams.
  • An exam review will allow you to track what you had problems with during the actual exam and want to improve on for future exams.
  • Exam reviews for several courses may indicate patterns of success or error that you have repeated across exams.
  • Here are two handouts that can assist you in what to look for when you do your exam reviews.The first handout is for fact-pattern essay (also relevant for the most part to short-answer): Download Patterns to Look for and Questions to Ask When Evaluating Fact The second handout is for multiple-choice questions (also relevant for the most part to true-false): Download Patterns to Look for and Questions to Ask When Evaluating Multiple These handouts suggest questions that can help you analyze your exam performance more thoroughly.
  • Professors vary in how they complete exam reviews. Here are some variations that you may encounter: a) The professor may conduct exam reviews for students who email with a request, may have a sign-up sheet on the professor’s office door, or may announce some other mechanism. b)The professor may first schedule appointments with students with the lowest grades, then move to the next level of grades for appointments, and so forth. c)The professor may have the student review the exam individually (and possibly the grading rubric or sample exam answers) before meeting with the professor. d)The professor may instead have the student come for the meeting and review the exam together.
  • Make sure that you take careful notes during your exam review so that you will know what areas you want to continue doing well and what areas you want to improve on for future exams.
  • After your exam reviews, evaluate what you have found out. Look for any patterns across exams and courses. Make a plan for your future exam study and exam-taking.
  • If you are unsure what strategies may help you for your specific problem areas, make an appointment to talk with the academic support professional at your law school.

All students can improve their grades by implementing new study strategies and new test-taking strategies. Take advantage of professor feedback to make informed decisions instead of just randomly trying new strategies. (Amy Jarmon)

 

January 26, 2016 in Exams - Studying, Exams - Theory, Miscellany | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Guest Blogger: Multiple-Choice Question Guidelines

  Small Professor Stockmeyer

Our Guest Blogger this week is Distinguished Professor Emeritus, Norman Otto Stockmeyer, who retired last year after teaching at Western Michigan University Cooley Law School since 1977. He also taught as a visiting professor at Mercer University Law School and California Western School of Law. Otto taught principally first-year courses (Contracts, Criminal Law, and Research & Writing) as well as Remedies. He received the top teaching award at Cooley Law three times and was voted National Outstanding Professor by Delta Theta Law Fraternity International.

 Multiple-Choice Question Guidelines

Law school professors and academic support professionals should use multiple-choice questions for assessment and testing purposes.  After all, our students will have to take and pass a bar exam with a full day of multiple-choice questions.  It stands to reason that their chances of passing will be enhanced if they have successfully taken myriad multiple-choice tests in law school.

Going one step further, I submit that our multiple-choice questions should reflect the style and format used on the Multistate Bar Exam.  The MBE professionals know more about multiple-choice methodology than we do.  And if we want our tests to mirror the MBE, we should adopt the MBE’s question-drafting practices.

The following guidelines are derived from a 2008 article in The Bar Examiner, published by the National Conference of Bar Examiners, and an examination of MBE questions released since the examination was redesigned in 2005.

       -     Use one question per fact pattern.  Do not piggyback multiple questions on         a single fact pattern.

-          Make fact patterns as concise as possible.  Do not include extraneous facts unless fact discrimination is the skill being tested by that particular question.

-          Make fact patterns realistic and free of bias.  Use genderless characters to the extent possible; otherwise equalize the number of men and women in your questions.

-          Identify characters generically, rather than by names or letters. (“A buyer agreed with a seller…” rather than “Able agreed with Baker….”).

-          Include all facts in the fact pattern.  Answers should not introduce additional facts.

-          Provide four answers for every question.  More choices add complexity with little appreciable improvement in reliability.

-           Avoid compound answers (“A and B, but not C”).  (Besides, students hate these.)

-          Do not use “all of the above” or “none of the above” answers. (Ditto)  Every question should have one, and only one, indisputably correct answer.

-          Distribute correct answers randomly.  Amateur testers tend too often to place the correct answer in the C or D position.  Savvy students pick up on this.

The overall goal of these guidelines is clarity, making sure that we are assessing substantive knowledge and legal reasoning, rather than reading comprehension.  Making questions easier to read does not make them any easier to answer.  It just makes them better questions.

In conclusion, multiple-choice tests can be a reliable way to evaluate knowledge and analytical skill.  And researchers have found that test familiarity improves student performance on standardized tests.  So using MBE-style questions can heighten the effectiveness of our tests, as well as enhance the performance of our students.

(Readers interested in Professor Stockmeyer's use of multiple-choice quizzes in a first-year course are invited to read his article on “Using Multiple Choice Quizzes” in the January 2011 issue of The Learning Curve.  It is available through SSRN at http://ssrn.com/abstract=1736670.)   

November 8, 2015 in Bar Exam Preparation, Exams - Theory, Guest Column | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Multiple-Choice Exam Strategies

The old adage from college about multiple-choice was that you just had to study enough to recognize the right answer among the wrong answers. That bit of advice does not work for law school multiple-choice questions.

In law school, professors have a variety of styles when they write multiple-choice questions. The "best answer" format is popular. Some professors use a "circle all right answers" format. Other professors have answers that designate combinations of answers (a, b and d; b, c, e and f). Then there are professors who end their answer lists with "all of the above" and "none of the above."

Fact patterns may vary in length from one sentence to more than a page. There may be one question per fact pattern or multiple questions per fact pattern. The multiple questions for a fact pattern may be completely separate from one another or "waterfall" so that the answer to the second question depends on the correct analysis on the first question and the answer to the third question depends on the correct analysis on the second question.

With so many variations, law students often feel at a loss how to proceed. Some strategies tend to work for all of the variations:

  • First read the question that you are asked to answer at the end of the fact pattern (or before the answer choices). You want to make sure that you answer this precise question.
  • Realize that the question asked may have some interesting characteristics that you need to note:
  1. It may give you the issue (examples: "which motion will be filed" or "what crime will be charged").
  2. It may assign you a role (examples: judge or prosecutor or defense attorney).
  3. It may indicate a jurisdiction (examples: "under common law" or "in Texas).
  4. It may specify facts (examples: "if Phil were 14 years old" or "if the statute of limitations were 3 years").
  • After reading the question, you should then read the fact pattern with that specific question in mind. At the end of the fact pattern you should have the answer to the question in mind to help you analyze each answer choice.
  • Read each of the individual answer choices carefully and decide for each whether it is a good or bad answer. Use a coding system that makes sense to you: yes/no; true/false; plus/minus.
  • Do not skip any of the individual answer choices when you do your analysis. The best answer may be "the defendant is not liable unless..." even though when you finished reading the fact pattern you were sure that the best answer choice would begin with "the defendant is liable."
  • If the answer format indicates that you need to consider combinations, then your coding of individual answer choices should indicate the correct combination answer. For example, if your coding indicated that a, b, and d were good answer choices:
  1. you would pick the answer choice "a, b, and d" and ignore any other combinations
  2. "all of the above" could not be correct since you thought c was a bad answer choice
  3. "none of the above" could not be correct since you thought a, b, and d were good answer choices
  • To avoid holding the facts and rules that apply in your head while you consider answer choices, consider writing the rule and relevant facts in the margins of the exam paper or on provided scrap paper to allow you to easily evaluate each answer choice against that information.
  • Even if you are not 100% sure of an answer choice when you consider a question, circle your best answer choice on the exam paper and bubble in the answer choice on the Scantron sheet before you move to the next question. This method prevents you from misaligning your bubbled answer choices because you forgot you skipped a question. It also prevents you from leaving the question bubble blank if you run out of time to return to the question.
  • For any question that you want to return to for a second look, indicate that status in the exam paper margin with the percentage of certainty for the answer choice you bubbled in (examples: 80% or 70% or 60%; use a ? for 50% or less). Do not change the answer choice when you return to the question unless you are more than that percentage sure that the new answer choice would be correct.
  • Rather than trying to keep track of the time available for each question (example: 2 minutes), designate time checkpoints and the number of questions you should have completed by that time checkpoint.
  1. Example for 60 questions in 2-hour exam starting at 1:00 p.m.: 15 questions completed by 1:30 p.m.; 30 questions completed by 2:00 p.m.; 45 questions completed by 2:30 p.m.; 60 questions completed by 3:00 p.m.).
  2. You can reserve time for review out of the overall time and distribute the remaining time over the questions (for the example in 1: reserve 30 minutes for review; then you would have to complete 20 questions for each of three 30-minute checkpoints at 1:30, 2:00, and 2:30).
  3. You can use more checkpoints if you tend to go too fast or too slowly through multiple-choice questions. The additional checkpoints will monitor your time more often to indicate if you need to slow down or speed up.

Multiple-choice exams require in-depth understanding of the material so that you can determine why one answer is better than another. Completing as many practice questions as possible will assist you in learning the nuances in applying the law to each question. (Amy Jarmon)

 

October 21, 2015 in Exams - Studying, Exams - Theory | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Some Thoughts for Students Who Are Conclusory on Exams

Students who are conclusory and do not give the complete analysis for their answers (do not "show their work") may do so for several reasons:

1)      They tend to write to the professor and tell themselves that they do not have to mention something “because the professor knows that.”  Changing their audience to a non-law person (grandmother, little sister, uncle) may help them give the analysis step by step because the new audience would not understand the conclusion without extra connecting of the dots.

2)      They tend to have the entire explanation in their heads but never get it onto paper.  They can ask themselves “why?” after every sentence.  If the sentence does not already state the “because” explanation, they need to continue writing to explain fully what they are thinking.

3)      They tend to dismiss arguments in their heads rather than discussing the arguments on paper.  For example: The plaintiff may be able to argue that the defendant should have posted a warning or put up a fence to keep children out of the railroad yard and prevent injuries.  The student rebuts the arguments in her head by saying “the children are too young to pay attention to warnings or will climb the fence” and leaves the arguments out.  The student instead needs to put that analysis on paper even if it then gets rebutted by the other party. 

4)      Conclusory writers are often global-intuitive processers.  They focus on the big picture and inter-relationships of concepts rather than organized analysis and detail. 

a.       They need to study for depth of understanding and not just breadth or general understanding.  (They sometimes think they know a subject until they get into the exam.)

b.      They need to learn rules precisely so they do not miss the full analysis needed for each element/factor.  (Paraphrasing the rules can lead them to inadequate analysis.)

c.       They need to spend 1/3 of their time on an exam question in reading, analyzing, and organizing an answer and 2/3 of the time writing the answer.  (They tend to write almost immediately and have less organized answers.)

d.      They need to chart or outline an answer with facts, cases, and policies to discuss rather than hold everything in their heads.  (They often find in exam review that they mixed up facts or forgot to mention an element or case.)

e.      They need to use all of the time allowed for the exam.  (They often rush through or leave early.)

f.    They need to write out answers to practice questions to make sure that they are including full analysis.  (They tend to answer practice questions in their heads but never perfect the writing process.)

Students who are conclusory in their writing of exam answers will often show the same tendencies in their legal writing classes.  The techniques mentioned can be modified for those assignments.  (Amy Jarmon) 

April 1, 2014 in Exams - Theory | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Dewey's Concept of Suspended Conclusion and Law School Exams

Professor Donald J. Kochan published an article in Nevada Law Journal that might be of interest to you in this exam season.  The article uses the Deweyan concept of suspended conclusion (approaching a problem with an open mind and without a predetermined conclusion) as a way for students to improve their thinking about exam questions.  He explains the concept and then uses it to formulate 12 points for students to consider as they work through exam questions.

The suspended conclusion concept is specifically applied to the exam scenario in the article, but has wide application to exam school studying and lawyering in general.  (Amy Jarmon) 

The article can be downloaded from SSRN at  http://ssrn.com/abstract=2034154.  An abstract is included below:  

Abstract:

As creatures of thought, we are thinking all the time, but that does not necessarily mean that we are thinking well.  Answering the law school exam, like solving any problem, requires that the student exercise thinking in an effective and productive manner.  This Article provides some guidance in that pursuit.  Using John Dewey’s suspended conclusion concept for effective thinking as an organizing theme, this Article presents one basic set of lessons for thinking through issues that arise regarding the approach to a law school exam. This means that the lessons contained here help exercise thought while taking the exam—to think through the exam approach. The second, more subtle, purpose is to demonstrate that the law school exam can serve as a case study in the effectiveness of certain thinking tools that have much broader application. For that reason, this Article is not your typical “how-to” guide, but instead provides guidance critically and generally applicable to the thinking enterprise itself.

 

December 9, 2012 in Exams - Theory | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Law is not creative writing

When reviewing 1L's first drafts of practice exams, there is one problem that always comes up: writing in law is not creative writing. 1L's get confused by this statement, especially when their professors tell them that creativity is an important part of lawyering. However, the creativity that law professors are referring to, and the creativity that law students try to demonstrate on exams, are two different things. This is a particular challenge for students who majored in English in undergrad, and for law students who previously worked in creative fields, such as PR or marketing. Students need to understand that the purpose of writing for a legal audience is different from the purpose of writing in those fields. Lawyers need to be understood. A creatively written contract, that uses terms of art in new or novel ways, is likely to be misunderstood by the parties, and wind up in court. This is NOT what a lawyer wants when they write a contract. Therefore, lawyers use terms of art carefully; in fact, lawyers use words carefully. The goal of writing for a legal audience is not to show them how many 25 cent SAT words you know; the goal is to be understood.

Here are some other basic rules of writing for a legal audience that 1L's frequently misunderstand:

1) Using the same words throughout an exam is smart. Don't try to change your vocabulary so you don't overuse a word. That rule is true for creative writing, but it undermines the coherence of your essay when writing in law.

2) Keep your sentences short. Long sentences frequently contain too many ideas that need to be discussed separately.

3) Use linking words, like because. Although your sentences should be short, you need to be sure that you make explicit connections between law and fact. You are not a fiction writer; you do not want to make the reader make inferences. Spell it out for them.

4) A paragraph should focus on one idea. If you have a new idea, start a new paragraph. If you reread your work, and find that you have multiple ideas in one paragraph, chances are you are not discussing any one idea completely.

(RCF)

November 15, 2012 in Exams - Theory, Study Tips - General, Teaching Tips, Writing | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Essay Exam Answering Tip #103011 - Focus on Key Facts

“Legal problem solving — identifying and diagnosing problems and generating strategies and tactics to achieve client objectives — is a legally trained person’s most basic function. Most legal problem solving activity involves some legal analysis — combining law and facts to generate, justify, and assess a legal problem’s merits.” (Legal Services Practice Manual: Skills (2010) Link)

All lawsuits arise as a result of disputes involving facts. Our legal system revolves around resolving disputes through the application of rules of law to the facts of a case. Yes, trials and appeals are about “law,” but remember that the trial court judge, or the jury, is referred to as the “trier-of-fact.”  Determinations of facts are so important that the Bill of Rights guarantees that facts once decided by a jury are pretty much the last word.  The seventh amendment provides that, “...no fact tried by a jury, shall be otherwise re-examined in any Court of the United States, than according to the rules of the common law."  This clause forbids any court from reexamining or overturning any factual determinations made by a jury, unless the factual determinations are clearly erroneous.

The two major components of the dispute resolution process are the applicable law and the facts of the dispute.  In the professional practice of law, you will be sifting through the case file to identify which of the hundreds or thousands of facts produced by discovery (for example, witness statements, deposition transcripts, answers to interrogatories, photographs, and correspondence) are “key” facts.  Key facts are those facts  that are critical to the outcome of the case. A key fact is so essential that if it were changed, the outcome of the case might well be different.

In law school, you are practicing this skill of focusing on facts – in order for you to learn to assess legal problems, you must be able to find the important facts ... the key facts, the facts upon which the outcome of the issue in question depends. When writing an answer to a law school essay exam question, you must ferret out these salient facts from all the facts presented in the narrative. Think of them as keys that unlock point-scoring issue discussions.

But how?  Here are the basic steps to determining which facts are key facts.

  • Identify each claim possibly raised by the exam question.
  • State the rules that will be used to resolve each issue of each claim. These rules include the elements which need to be addressed in the discussion of each issue.
  • Pinpoint which facts in the question possibly relate to the elements of those issues.

This last step involves determining which facts may be legally significant. Legally significant facts might be, for example, that a tenant with an eviction notice has never been supplied with hot water; or that the shooter was an off-duty policeman; or that a party to a contract may have been a minor; or that the geographical distance between the provoking incident and the killing may have been long enough to provide adequate time for a reasonable person to “cool off” the heat of his passion.

After outlining your answer, read through the exam question one more time carefully and quickly (you should be quite familiar with the question by this time, so the reading can go much faster than it did the first time through). Make sure you have assigned all the facts presented in the hypothetical question (the exam) to some issue. If not, ask yourself if these facts suggest another issue, can be used to further explain an issue you already noted, or are merely "red herrings" (facts in the question which might lead you to an errant discussion). Then use this fact-rich outline as a roadmap for answering the question. Note that your outline need not include explanations of why facts are important – the detailed analysis comes in your answer. The outline is only your writing guide.

As for the outline, you may want to follow a traditional outline pattern (bullet points, hierarchies, mind-mapping, etc.) … or, to accent the fact-finding, you may want to think about a two-column approach. You can outline your answer using two separate columns. Specifically, you can list the issues in one column, and then note the facts that need to be discussed in relation to those rules in the column next to it. This method will allow you to match the issues or sub-issues of law with the facts of the question. Skimming through the question quickly (again) before actually writing the essay, you can quickly note if you have skipped over a fact.

Long before encountering exams, work on recognizing key facts.  Focus on key facts when you brief cases for class. Some students find that including basic fact patterns in their self-made course outlines – as illustrations of the rules that appear in the outlines – helps them think of the rules in situational terms.

Many years ago, when I was a little boy, fictional Los Angeles police Sergeant Joe Friday, hero of the “Dragnet” television series, used to say to witnesses he interviewed, "All we want are the facts." Well, there’s more to it than that when you’re trying to score high on a law school essay exam … but Sgt. Friday was zeroing in on one of the two essential components – you should too!

{This “tip” is one of a continuing series.  Law school academic professionals are authorized to use this material in their work however they choose – and law students who read these tips are encouraged to integrate them into their practice sessions. To see where this tip fits in the grand schema: Click here.} (djt)

October 30, 2011 in Advice, Exams - Theory, Writing | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Saturday, October 8, 2011

New Exam Skills Book

I just received a review copy of Barry Friedman and John CP Goldberg's Open Book, Succeeding on Exams from the First Day of Law School. While I have not had the chance to read the book closely, my first impression is that this is a book we will be seeing a lot in ASP. It is relatively short (180 pages) and uses cartoons and humor throughout. The structure of the book is clear; I can flip to the table of contents to find chapters on specific topics (IRACing, outlining, etc) without having to search. It starts with an introduction on how to use the book, which is especially useful, since most students do not know how to use exam skills books.

There are many good ASP books out there, but I think this one will get added to the pile I use and recommend to students. (RCF)

October 8, 2011 in Exams - Studying, Exams - Theory, Publishing, Reading, Study Tips - General | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

"Retrieval Practice"-Creating Tests that Reaffirm Knowledge

What do you want your tests to accomplish? Are they meant to measure learning that has already occured? Are your tests meant to provide an end of term grade? Are your tests meant to assess how much material students covered in the semester? If you use tests in any of these ways, I challenge you to see tests in a new light: as a teaching tool. Before I begin, I want to hat tip several people who already use this technique in their teaching: Ingrid Michelson Hillinger of BC, Rory Baduhur, Jeremiah Ho, and Michael Hunter Schwartz of Washburn, and Paula Manning of Western State. I am certain there are more people who use this technique; these are the people I know off the top of my head on a Monday morning.

"Retrieval practice" uses tests as a method of assessment and reinforcement, seeing the test itself as a learning experience that helps consolidate knowledge. For students, retrieval practice means something they need more of but dread: tests. But testing should be frequent and involve self-quizzing, as well as tests that build upon previous skills so students are reviewing as well as consolidating new information. Each of the law professors above have presented at conferences on different methods of frequently assessing student learning in ways that build skills; there is no one correct way to use retrieval practice. Prof. Hillinger uses group work that challenges students and builds skills throughout the semester. Prof. Badahur and Ho use frequent mini-tests, which students can peer-correct or self-correct, to test skills as they are being learned. Prof.'s Manning and Schwartz use so many different testing methods throughout the semester to keep students active and engaged.

Based on what I have learned over the past year, I have dramatically changed the structure of the Remedies course I teach each fall. Instead of giving fours tests throughout the semester, I give four exams (each with increasing value towards their final grade) and a mini-assessment at the end of every class. I start each class with a lesson on a skill, such as outlining for learning. This is the most typical "ASP" part of the course. I move into a doctrinal lesson in Remedies. Unlike traditional doctrinal teaching, I use visuals, give note-taking guides, and explain my pedagogy as I am teaching. Students know why I am using any particular teaching method, how it is used in their other courses, and how this teaching method relates to a practice skill. I make my thinking explicit. In other words, I don't hide the ball. I give them the ball, and then explain why I use the ball, the other ways of using the ball, explain it's character and design, and how the ball can be used outside the classroom. The last part of my class is a mini-assessment that tests their understanding of the lesson and asks them to apply the skills they have been learning in class. This past week, when we reviewed the science and skills of reading and briefing cases, I asked them to brief next week's case in class, with me, trying the techniques they just learned. I gave them a 1/2 hour; far more time than they would take if they were rushing through the brief at home. I assured them their was no "wrong" answer, that this was a chance to experiment with technique and format and get feedback on their efforts. The benefit to me from this lesson is that I get to see if they understand before I move on to a new skill. Because skills build on each other, I can assess early in the semester if we need to spend more time on a skill, before we all become frustrated with a lack of understanding later in the semester.

While it is at best a brief introduction to retrieval practice, there is an article in the NYT's on it in practice. The article mentions Mind, Brain, and Education. There is a Mind, Brian, and Education journal from Harvard's Graduate School of Education; it is excellent and well worth the very modest subscription pric (I have been subscribing since 2007). I have also been to a Harvard conference on mind-brain connections in students with learning differences, and I regularly use what I learned at the conference. (RCF)

September 13, 2011 in Advice, Exams - Theory, News, Teaching Tips | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Monday, September 12, 2011

Essay Exam Answering Tip #91311 – Spot the Issues

To score high on law school essay exams, you need to spot as many issues as possible.  They lurk in the narrative.  If you can't spot the issues on an exam you won't score the points.

Issue-spotting is the most fundamental activity in the process of writing an answer to a law school essay exam question. Those students who spend their exam time spotting issues then follow up by organizing their answers, formulating their legal analysis of the issue they have discovered, and then writing the answer in a way that demonstrates their lawyer-like thinking will get the best grades.

Consider making a mental checklist of the issues that continually arise in (for example) Contracts essay exams, then scrutinizing each question/answer by running through your checklist. Some students actually memorize a checklist of possible issues and scribble that down (quite abbreviated) after the test period begins … others use a “mental” checklist. This works for many students … think about it!

If you use the “checklist” approach, remember that it’s just for comparison against your answer outline. Don’t expect to write about everything on the checklist! Selecting and divining the right issues, and only the right issues, for discussion on an exam has its analog in narrowing and selecting the right issues to research and prepare for when you will be advising clients, or when you prepare for oral arguments in court.  Clients have neither the time nor the money to pay for unnecessary research.  Judges are even more demanding than clients! (In other words … try to find all the issues, but only the issues!)

To improve in the area of spotting issues, search through the question for facts that either side might use to fashion an argument that might help that side – then, if the argument is untenable, explain why. Here's a hint: as a general rule-of-thumb, most facts you find in the narrative can be used to support or attack a position.

On the other hand, if the argument would be merely specious (superficially attractive but actually of no real interest or value) it ought not to be raised. This is a decision a lawyer has to make in real life, asking herself, “Do I raise this as an issue, or is it too far-fetched?”  Likewise, it is a decision a law student needs to make in composing an answer to an essay question. But the law student has an advantage: most professors adhere to the policy that no points are taken off for including as an issue something that is not an issue. (Keep in mind, however, that you need to be prudent in this regard, because spending time writing about “non-issues” uses up time which would be better spent earning points by discussing actual issues.  Also, be sure to find out from your professor if this is the grading policy.)

Separating the actual issues from non-issues is a skill that you will pick up as you proceed through law school. If it seems difficult, don’t worry – you are on the road to learning this skill now, and as you answer more essays you will become better and better at it!

{This “tip” is one of a continuing series.  Law school academic professionals are authorized to use this material in their work however they choose – and law students who read these tips are encouraged to integrate them into their practice sessions. To see where this tip fits in the grand schema: Click here.} (djt)

September 12, 2011 in Advice, Exams - Theory, Writing | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Friday, September 9, 2011

Essay Exam Answering Tip #9911 – Write with Concision

Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subject only in outline, but that every word tell.  William Strunk and E. B. White

Mr. Strunk and Mr. White got it!  Often, less is more, and simple is best.  I like the phrase, "...every word tell."  When you write your exam answer, every word ought to be a point-scoring word.

Example: When you're answering a Contracts essay exam question, there's no need to define Contract. That's right.  Just as there is no need to define “Tort” or “Crime” in Tort or Criminal Law essay answers, there is no need to define “Contract.” Simply begin with the first issue.  That's because your "audience" as you write an exam is not a "know-nothing," but rather, a (fictional) peer who is familiar with the facts of your case (the question you're answering) and the basics of the law ... but she needs a refresher on the particulars.

So writing that "...a contract is an agreement between parties that ..." (etc.) scores no points; whereas, it is important to state the applicable portions of the statute of frauds before using that as a defense.

Likewise, there's no reason to discuss matters that are not germane to the call of the question.  One mistake is to write about what the defendant should have done instead of what he did do, then explain how things would have turned out differently for the parties if that were to have occurred.  In other words, changing the facts of the hypothetical and writing about the issues that arise under the altered facts.  That's a no-no.  As in "no points."  It wastes your time.

Concision reigns.

{This “tip” is one of a continuing series.  Law school academic professionals are authorized to use this material in their work however they choose – and law students who read these tips are encouraged to integrate them into their practice sessions. To see where this tip fits in the grand schema: Click here.} (djt)

September 9, 2011 in Advice, Exams - Theory, Writing | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Essay Exam Answering Tip #82511 – Writing for your audience.

If you were to write a book for youngsters about how to play baseball, or an adult-oriented romance novel, your “audience” would be easy to identify.  In the first example, you’d be writing for an age group between 7 and 11; the readers would all be interested in baseball; and they’d be, let’s say, beginner-to-intermediate level of capability and sophistication in the sport.  In the second example, you could Google the demographics for who buys romance novels, and get a pretty good idea of who might purchase your book.  Audience identification is critical whenever you write—and that’s the case when you write answers to law school essay exam questions as well.

When you write the answer to a law school essay exam question, your audience is fictional.  Think of your audience (reader) as an informed attorney or a colleague (law student) who is quite familiar with the nature and purpose of law in general; who has read the fact pattern; and who has a passing familiarity with the law of the subject (torts or contracts, for example), but needs to be reminded of the precise rules of law. Then proceed as if you are explaining the situation to that person.

For example, that person would not need to read that often hunting knives have sharp edges, that if a person is the manager of a grocery store, one can assume that she is the person who ought to be in charge of the store, or that there is a difference between tortious battery and criminal battery in that the latter is punishable by imprisonment. 

Also, because the fictional reader has read the fact pattern, there’s no need to repeat sections or sentences of the question.  In other words, if the question includes, “When Mr. Slocum walked into the airport he noticed the aroma of something burning—and this immediately caused him concern” … then there is no need to include in your essay, “When Mr. Slocum walked into the airport he noticed the aroma of something burning—and this immediately caused him concern.”  (Rather, you could refer to Slocum’s location, refer to the aroma, or refer to Slocum’s concern, if they are key facts in your argument—no need to repeat what the reader has just read in the question.)

Although each step of your legal analysis ought to be in the essay, it is important not to waste your limited time by explaining what your audience can be expected to know.

Now let’s look at the “real” audience: your professor. Always write with your professor in mind. In general, hallmarks of an “A” grade answer include: identification of all issues, significant attention to “grey areas,” incorporation of higher-level argument techniques (example: using the “slippery slope” argument), integration of the legal principles and facts of the hypothetical with common sense notions, and policy support for a position taken.

However, professors differ in what they consider “A” grade material. Therefore, it is very important to obtain not only the old exam questions your professor has filed, but also—if available—her examples of quality answers. You should study these answers carefully, for there you will find which qualities your professor rewards with high grades.

You ought to also discuss with your professors what they look for in exam answers during office visits.  You will also get quite a bit of this information during class—be sure to put that in your notes! Do this with each of your professors to learn what he or she expects on a real exam. Whatever you discover, that’s what to practice!  Then incorporate your professors’ suggestions into your practice exam answers. 

Audience matters in everything you write … and the audience you write for when you compose answers to law school essay exam questions is likely to be a determinative factor in the grade you receive!

{This “tip” is one of a continuing series.  Law school academic professionals are authorized to use this material in their work however they choose – and law students who read these tips are encouraged to integrate them into their practice sessions. To see where this tip fits in the grand schema: Click here.} (djt)

August 25, 2011 in Advice, Exams - Theory, Writing | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Monday, August 22, 2011

Essay Exam Answering Tip #82211 – What “conclusory” means.

Professors and academic support professionals warn against writing answers – or addressing issues – in a way that is “conclusory.” Let’s take a look at what “conclusory” means.

Law examination answers that do not supply the explanatory information detailing how each step of the argument is arrived at are “conclusory.” That is, they recite conclusions without stating supportive analysis. A display of the thought process leading to every conclusion is essential in a law examination answer.

When you enter the professional practice, judges, lawyers, and clients will be asking, “How did you reach that conclusion?” Throughout law school, your professors will expect you to respond to that latent question in every class session and on every examination. The ability to conclude is not what “thinking like a lawyer” is about—rather, you are developing the ability to persuade another that the conclusion you have reached is supportable by application of rules of law to a set of facts.

To score the most points on each issue, the essay ought to specify the issue, indicate which rule (or set of rules) a lawyer would employ to resolve the issue, articulate an analysis of how the facts of this hypothetical case are affected by application of the rule, and reason to a solid conclusion.

Lawyerly analysis, in its most fundamental sense, boils down to an interweaving of the facts presented in the hypothetical, with the law you have identified. So to score more exam points, avoid conclusory statements—instead work on your analytical skills. {Where this tip fits in the grand schema: Click here.} (djt)

August 22, 2011 in Advice, Exams - Theory, Writing | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Essay Exam Answering Tip #82011 – What an “issue” is.

Let’s take a look at what an “issue” is, within the context of answering law school essay exams. An issue is usually a question the court will be called upon to answer. Sometimes “major” issues, like whether a defendant is liable for negligence, are referred to as “ultimate questions” in the case – whereas the elemental questions are the determinative issues … the questions which, when answered, will determine the answer to the ultimate question.

For example, a major issue, or ultimate question in a Torts exam may be whether the defendant’s actions or omissions constitute the tort of negligence. The elemental issues which the trier of fact will be called upon to determine include whether the plaintiff can prove each of the elements of negligence: duty owed to the plaintiff, breach of that duty, causation, and damage. 

Many issues include sub-issues.  For example, when one finds a negligence issue, often it will require a thorough analysis of breach of duty, including a discussion based on the balancing of the gravity of harm against the burden on the defendant to have acted differently, and also including attention to the utility of the defendant’s allegedly negligent conduct.

To help identify issues and sub-issues, carefully read the facts to determine which elements of each rule ought to be discussed. As to issues, remember that it’s important to not only name them, but to explain how they arise in the circumstances set forth in the essay question.

After each issue is named, state the applicable rule that will be used to resolve the issue; then engage in discussion and analysis to reach a conclusion before moving to the next issue or sub-issue.

{Where this tip fits in the grand schema: Click here.} (djt)

August 20, 2011 in Advice, Exams - Theory, Writing | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Essay Exam Answering Tip #81411 - What professors look for when they grade essay exam answers.

In order to hit the target, you must have a clear view of the bulls-eye.  When you’re writing a law school essay-exam answer, you need to know exactly what your professor is hoping to find when he or she reads that answer.  It's true that some professors are looking for items, information, or methods of analysis that other professors don’t give a hoot about – there are differences in grading.  You ought to be able to pick up on these differences during class, during conferences with your professors, and by reviewing prior exam questions and (perhaps) prior graded answers.

Writing law school exam answers is different than almost any other writing you’ve done.  One of the most important differences is that – due in part to time constraints – you ought to focus on limiting each essay to point-scoring text. While wit, historical perspective, moral theorizing, and other aspects of what we consider to be “good writing” are definitely important to include in many genres – often even in legal writing – these generally lie somewhere between unimportant and deleterious when considering how to score the most points in essay exam answers.

Even though professors have their own preferences, when grading exams nearly all law professors award points for these characteristics:

  • Lawyerly skill in extricating the salient facts from inert, non-determinative facts presented in the narrative.
  • Capability to identify and specify the legal issues these key facts raise.
  • Ability to recall and accurately set out the applicable law or principle which leads to the resolution of the conflict.
  • Logical, organized interweaving of the facts with the elements of the law in a compelling analytical presentation.
  • Recognition of the driving policies and purposes of the law in question, and the ability to express how these policies and purposes support the resolution proposed by the answer. (Often you will find that there’s not much need for policy discussion.)
  • Proficiency in clear, concise, organized legal writing.

These criteria coincide with the several points stressed by Professor John Delaney, in his classic How to do Your Best on Law School Exams, and they continue to be the most important targets for high-scoring exam answers. 

{Where this tip fits in the grand schema: Click here.} (djt)

August 14, 2011 in Advice, Exams - Theory | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Recap of the NECASP Conference at UNH

Congratulations to Sunny Mulligan and Alice Briggs for hosting the Second Annual New England Consortium of Academic Support Professionals (NECASP) at University of New Hampshire! 

The December 6th conference drew participants from 12 states and the District of Columbia.  You know just from that widespread geography that the day provided much needed information on multiple-choice and essay test construction and exam-taking techniques.

After opening remarks by Dean John Hutson welcoming us, the focus turned in the morning to multiple-choice questions.  The morning panel included Susan Case (National Conference of Bar Examiners), Janet Fisher (Suffolk Law School), and Richard Litvin (formerly Quinnipiac and now working privately with bar takers).

Susan Case provided very useful information on methods for assessment (types, skills assessed, and limitations of each format), construction of multiple-choice questions (components, issues of content, editing the scenario, lead-in, and options), and general guidelines for writing questions.   

Janet Fisher provided some interesting insights on how undergraduate assumptions about multiple-choice translate poorly to law school: familiarity with the material is enough and figuring it out during the exam will work.  Both assumptions miss the need to master the rules of law.  Janet suggested that an "item writing" party might encourage professors to garner feedback from colleagues and develop a pool of questions for professors in a subject area to use.

Richard Litvin focused on the bar exam multiple-choice questions, using questions from earlier exams that now vary from the current MBE format.  Although the older questions are not well-written in comparison to the newer MBE format, Richard finds them to be good tools to teach the law to bar takers. 

After lunch, the panel members turned to essay question writing and teaching students to answer them.  The afternoon panel again included Susan Case and Richard Litvin.  They were joined by Alfred Zappala (teaching bar preparation for Northeastern and Suffolk).

Alfred Zappala focused on the method he teaches to Massachusetts bar takers (Read 4 minutes, Organize 8 minutes, Write 24 minutes; four-page essay answers) which he suggested could be modified for other states' essay exam time limits.  He stressed the need for students to write out a large number of essays to learn the techniques that are necessary for success.  He commented that students should think of it like baking a cake: the bar course can give them the recipe, but they have to bake the cake. 

Susan Case then talked about the skills tested by essay questions, drafting and editing of content, and grading issues.  Again her material was very instructive for professors who wish to improve their test construction. 

Richard Litvin focused on bar exam essay questions with an emphasis that students have to achieve mastery of at least 75% of the material and familiarity with another 20% to succeed.  He stressed that attention has to be given by faculty to what the breakdown of questions and topics is on the bar so that they know what areas are currently being tested.  He recommended that students strive for long-term memory and use a Topic-Rule-Application-Conclusion format (rather than some other formats that are out there).

In the end, one mantra was repeated both by panelists and participants when it comes to the bar exam essays: Know Your Own State's Bar/Bar Examiners.  The differences from just the variety of states represented at the conference clearly showed that one state's exam might vary substantially from another state's exam.

Another mantra was repeated as to faculty test construction: Know Your Own Faculty.  Each law school faculty will vary in its willingness to seek and take advice on test construction, grading, and other issues. 

The day was worthwhile whether participants specifically wanted to know about law school testing or bar exam testing.  (Amy Jarmon)

   

December 21, 2010 in Exams - Theory, Meetings | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

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, April 30, 2010

Plug for faculty to use ASP for support during exam drafting

I would like to thank Ruthann Robson, Co-Editor of the Constitutional Law Prof Blog, for alerting us to her April 22, 2010 post on that blog.  Ruthann is Professor of Law and University Distinguished Professor at CUNY: Ruthann Robson Profile.   

Her post lists numerous hints for professors as they draft their exams.  Number 12 in the list mentions that faculty may wish to ask ASP staff for support when working on end-of-the-semester exams.  The post also gives a nice compliment to David Nadvorney and his ASP colleagues at CUNY.  The full post can be read here: Constitutional Law Exam Drafting.  (Amy Jarmon)    

April 30, 2010 in Exams - Theory, Miscellany, Teaching Tips | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)