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)



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