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Wednesday, December 6, 2006

Exam Writing 101

Thanks, Ben Barros, for inviting me to appear as a guest on Property Prof. I'm really looking forward to this, and this time of year an added benefit is the opportunity to go to a place where I can find respite from the chores of exam writing and grading. Moments ago I finished preparing my property exam, which I give tomorrow.

As profs we grade student exam answers until we're blue in the face. But what if students graded our exam questions; or we graded each other's exam questions. What makes a major essay question merit an "A" grade? Which ones deserve a lower grades? I expect we may have markedly different perspectives on questions of testing theory and strategy.

I'll start off with three points. (1) With a typical fact pattern, it's easier to grade answers if the question ends by asking the student to discuss a series of discrete issues. (For example, (a) What interests are created by the Deed from A to B? (b) Does X have any claim to the rents generated by the Property?). This is an efficient approach, however, there is a tradeoff. Such a "structured question" has two weaknesses, and will not get an "A" exam drafting grade from me. First, that type of question reduces the need for students to do their own issue spotting. Second, it eliminates the need for the student to decide how best to organize an answer that includes multiple interrelated parts. Thus, it's generally better to end an essay question with a general call for analysis. Depending on the question, this could be as broad as "Discuss all the property claims [all of the persons named in the question] may raise, together with any defenses"? Or the question may indicate litigation has started, with some focusing by simply naming the plaintiffs and defendants. Then the student has to figure out what property claims and defenses are likely.

(2) Usually the essay question should synthesize elements from at least two subject matters. For example, a deed or a devise can contain language that arguably creates a defeasible fee simple, and the present possessor may have a claim to quiet title against the holder of the future interest. Often I find that the average students will spot and discuss all major issues, but they will not competently articulate how resolution of one issue affects resolution of the other. I award substantial credit to answers that contain a good discussion of the relationships among various issues.

(3) "Kitchen sink" questions, as an extension of the synthesis idea of (2) above, are bad. Many of us (me included) have congratulated ourselves for writing the "Perfect Question" that has everything in it. I strive not to do this again. Even with what appears to be a generous time allotment, such questions reward students who type or write fast, spotting issues up and down, right and left, with even the brightest students having no time to go beyond superficial analysis of any particular issue. The "brilliant" question that "has everything" deserves an F grade.

Jim Smith

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I agree, especially with your first point. I often end my question with a simple request to discuss the matters raised by the fact pattern. I think, though, that if you take this approach, the fact pattern itself should have enough mini calls (e.g., mentioning that two parties are now in a dispute about who owns Blackacre) to help the students structure their answer. It also helps to be able to go over a sample with the students first, so they don't panic when the question ends with "discuss."

Posted by: Ben Barros | Dec 6, 2006 11:47:36 AM

Welcome, Jim. I love posts about teaching, exams, etc.

I teach Con Law I & II, and Property. Property is the hardest of my courses to write good essays for. Property is like 5 or 6 mini-courses, and I find it difficult to come up with good questions raising multiple issues across boundaries.

I also like more focused exams, exams in which you spotlight a couple of issues and expect the students to engage in relatively sophisticated analysis of doctine and policy.

Posted by: Rick Duncan | Dec 6, 2006 12:13:16 PM

In my first-semester property class (property at Colorado is two semesters - 3 and 2 credits), I have been experimenting with a "document review" question. It varies from the typical exam question in that after a some background facts, I give the students a short document (in three years, I've done a model lease, an excerpt from some CC&Rs, and this year I did a variation on an SNDA). I then ask the students to "mark up" the document - this requires them to issue spot based on what the document says, although I emphasize to them that they should bring to bear the same basic set of skills. (We do two document review exercises in the course of the semester, so the format is generally familiar, and I try to be clear about what I'm looking for.)

I have found some interest patterns in terms of students who have a relatively harder time following through on standard issue spotter questions finding it easier to discuss legal concepts as they appear in documents. In general, though, it has been a good way to get students to think about property in a transactional context and they seem to respond (once they get over their anxiety) pretty well.

Posted by: Nestor Davidson | Dec 19, 2006 12:03:06 PM

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