Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Let Me Use Words You Can Understand

Last year, one of my international students brought to me a response she had written to a mid-tern exam question.  She was wholly perplexed, because the professor had given her a low score on this particular response, and yet, even in looking at the notes the professor had written on her paper, she could not fathom where she had gone wrong.  Bizarrely, the more the two of us discussed her essay, the more confused I became about why she had written what she had written.  Finally, and wholly by accident, I stumbled across the source of the trouble.  At one point the exam question referred to someone being "served", and my student had not recognized this usage as being connected with "service of process".  The latter term she understood, but she read the off-hand and abbreviated statement that "X was served" as some form of hospitality, not legal action. ("Have some tea!") This was partly because English was her second language, and undoubtedly also partly because she did not grow up watching movie and TV shows in which frumpy anonymous operatives walk up to the protagonists, slap envelopes against their chests, and say, "You've been served!"  For much of our discussion, it had not even occurred to me that this could be a source of confusion, and of course there was no way the student could have known it herself.  

I thought about this episode last week, when I was attending a conference hosted by the NCBE, in which some of the presenters were discussing the ongoing evolution of the development of MBE and MEE questions.  Part of that evolution includes the elimination, or at least minimization, of the use of terms whose meaning was not tied to the practice of law and might not be recognized by all of the examinees.  An example given involved a torts question involving a car that had been damaged in a collision.  In the original question, the defendant was identified as "Union Pacific", and it was apparent that the rest of the question was written with the assumption that examinees would recognize Union Pacific as a company that operated railroads, and that therefore the collision under consideration was between a car and a locomotive.  The newer, improved version of the question simply referred to the defendant as "a railroad company", thus providing the information needed for proper analysis to all examinees.

Discussion at that point livened up a bit, as presenters and participants brainstormed about other terminology that question writers should considered changing in order to make their questions more accessible.  These tended to fall into a few categories:

  • References to people, businesses, locations -- generally, things that could be identified with proper nouns -- that might be recognized by some people (but not all people) as possessing some characteristic relevant to the legal analysis.  For example, a question that named Gregory Hines as a plaintiff in a case in which his feet were injured might reflect the expectation that examinees would recognize Hines was famously a dancer, and that therefore a foot injury might generate greater damages to him than to an average person.  A question that mentions "Reno" might rest on the assumption that everyone knows Reno is in Nevada and gambling is legal there.  
  • References to technology, fads, or news items from two or more decades ago that most of us who were alive and adult at that time would instantly recognize, but the significance of which might be totally lost on people currently in their 20s.  A question that depends on the operation of an answering machine or the effect of a slap bracelet may only be accessible to a portion of the testing population.
  • Specialized terms for everyday objects that nevertheless are not commonly used in conversation.  A question that depends on knowing the difference between a banister and a balustrade, or between a lintel and a gable, is probably going to lose a portion of the examinees.  

It can be hard, when writing exam questions or practice questions, to resist the temptation to make a clever reference or to give examinees the chance for a moment of recognition.  But our tests are not supposed to be tests of any vocabulary but legal vocabulary.  If an examinee misses the opportunity to demonstrate that he knows the appropriate rule, and can apply it skillful to relevant facts, because he did not have access to the full meaning of the fact pattern so that he could recognize the issue that leads to that rule, then the examinee has been unfairly denied a chance to shine.

[Bill MacDonald]


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