Monday, January 25, 2016

Good Exams and Excellent Exams: Conveying Uncertainty

I was going to blog today about Usha Rodrigues’s article on section 12(g) of the Exchange Act, but my co-blogger Ann Lipton stole my thunder over the weekend. If you’re interested in securities law and you haven’t read Ann’s excellent post on section 12(g), you should. Ann discusses Usha Rodrigues’s article on the history and policy of section 12(g); if you haven’t read it, I strongly recommend it. It’s available here. (Even if you’re not interested in reading about section 12(g), I highly recommend Usha’s scholarship in general. I’ve read several of her articles and blog posts over the last few years; she has become one of the leading commentators on securities and corporate law. She blogs at The Conglomerate.)

Instead of discussing section 12(g), I’m going to talk about exams. I finished grading my fall exams about a month ago and I’ve had time to reflect on them. The main reason students don’t do well on exams is that they don’t know or understand the material. But I’ve been reflecting on the difference between exams that are pretty good and exams that are excellent. Those students all know the material, so that’s not the difference.

One of the major differences between a good exam and an excellent exam is in how well students indicate the level of uncertainty in the law.
Sometimes, the law is clear and the answers to issues are certain. Sometimes, the answer is a little fuzzy, but the available authorities point strongly in a particular direction. Sometimes, the answer is completely unclear.

The best exam answers differentiate among those different possibilities and indicate the certainty of the author’s conclusion as to each issue. Bad answers don’t do that. They provide a definite “yes” or “no” to an issue when an unqualified answer is unwarranted. Or they go through a long list of arguments (“on the one hand, . . . ; on the other hand, . . . ) without reaching a conclusion or even indicating which side has the better argument and why.

I can always tell from reading exams which students I would want to consult as attorneys, and this is one of the clues.

Ann Lipton, C. Steven Bradford, Law School, Securities Regulation | Permalink


Thanks for these observations, Steve. I think you have it precisely right for exams that embed uncertainty in the optimal response to the prompt or question. I find that, most often, what separates a good exam answer from an excellent exam answer (and overall a good exam from an excellent exam) as among my students is the ability to engage consistently in comprehensive legal reasoning (an extrapolation of your observations, I think, to a more general context).

For example, a student will forget to articulate or cite to the applicable legal rule (maybe hinting at the missing information) yet give me a conclusion for one exam answer. Then, on the next question on the same exam, the same student will answer by identifying and citing to the proper rule and applying it to the facts before stating the resulting conclusion. I can tell in most cases from each expression of an answer that the student knows the applicable law and can apply it. But in the latter instance, the student has demonstrated the full spectrum of legal reasoning while also reaching the right conclusion. Students who perform that task consistently are the excellent students. They are the folks who, when a fact or circumstance changes, are most likely to be able to again reach and justify the proper conclusion.

Posted by: joanheminway | Jan 26, 2016 5:30:52 PM

I'm going to forward this to my students. Well said, and thanks!

Posted by: Matthew Bruckner | Jan 27, 2016 7:42:00 AM

Thanks so much for these kind words, Steve--all the more valued because of the excellent scholar from whom they come!

Posted by: Usha Rodrigues | Jan 31, 2016 11:35:34 AM


With comments like that, I'm beginning to question your judgment. Seriously, thank you.

Posted by: Steve Bradford | Jan 31, 2016 1:37:22 PM

Post a comment