Wednesday, December 6, 2006
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.