Thursday, April 22, 2010
Constitutional Law Exam Drafting: The End of Semester Challenge
For professors, ConLaw and otherwise, 'tis the season to draft the final exam.
Here are some principles, hints, reminders, observations, and opinions:
1/ Using another professor's exam is pedagogically unsound, unless, of course, your students attended another professor's class all semester. This is true even if the other professor is now President of the United States.
2/ Recycling one of your own exams is pedagogically suspect. Even if you attempted to keep your previous exam questions secret and for some reason eschewed the better practice of distributing previous exam questions to students for their studying purposes), if they can find Professor Obama's exam from 1996, they can find your previous exams. And do.
3/ Selecting the format of the exam is most likely no longer an option, because your syllabus stated (didn't it?) whether the exam would be essay, open-book, short essays, or multiple choice. (True/False, let's face it, is not a viable option past the third grade.) Because you have integrity, your syllabus reflects your choice of the exam style which you believe is most pedagogically sound. Therefore, this is not the time to regret your choice because "grading" multiple choice exams is infinitely easier than grading essays. You enjoy grading, don't you?
3/ Looking at your own after-class notes (which, let's assume, you diligently kept), will refresh your memory of the issues that this year's students found particularly interesting, troubling, or worthwhile. These experiences can help you tailor the exam to this year's students and make their experience unique. It can also improve attendance in future semesters.
4/ Reviewing the in-class problems or exercises you did with your students during the semester is a great source of exam material. Again, let's assume you assigned several problems. One or two?
5/ Reflecting current controversies, especially those that have been newsworthy, can be a great strategy in drafting an exam. It can provide details, but it can also frame the narrative of your exam. And you do want your exam to be interesting, don't you? This semester, as we noted earlier this month, health care reform is an obvious choice, and not only because a 900 page statute provides lots of possibilities.
6/ Remembering to provide ALL the specific material and explanations students would need to answer the exam question(s) is vital. This is especially important if you are using a current controversy, but applies whenever you draft a question. For example, if you've decided on health care as the underlying topic, you don't want students to be pondering the definition of "CHIP" or rewarding students who know the meaning of "CHIP" when what you mean to be testing is federalism or commerce clause issues.
7/ Testing what you've taught seems an obvious, if not universally-shared goal. Can you key every issue, analysis, and answer to your syllabus? You should do this with colored highlighters.
8/ Rereading your exam from the perspective of a student is a great exercise. Try to channel the students with whom you least identify as you read. Would he be offended by your attempt to be witty? Would she not understand your cultural allusion?
9/ Writing out your rubric (or feedback sheet) for essay exams is essential. But also write out an answer to the exam question(s). Do it in the time allotted. And if you are giving a closed book exam, then no peeking.
10/ Grading your own answer with your feedback sheet and then keying it to your syllabus and the pages of the Casebook and other assigned materials should keep you honest. You'll probably give yourself an "A," but did you do as well as you thought you would?
11/ Collaborating with another professor after you have a written your almost-final draft is an amazing experience. You must know colleagues who teach in the same area? Trading exams can produce a great discussion, especially if you disagree with each other. As for taking each other's exams, well, that can also produce a discussion.
12/ Consulting with Academic Support can provide support for you as well as for your students. If you are lucky enough to have involved Academic Support Professors, as I am, their expertise is a gift you shouldn't refuse. If you haven't had the opportunity to have lunch with someone from Academic Support this semester, now would be a good time.
13/ Proofing and reproofing cannot be neglected, especially given all the revisions you've been doing. "Fresh eyes," as they say, are a real asset. Now is the time to enlist any friends you have who are not involved in the law. You do have some friends outside the law, don't you?
As a student who spent two years at community college, two years at university, and (almost) a year at grad school, let me tell you that I HATE exams. Why do I hate exams? Let me count the ways.
First, and this is goes especially for grad school, I have read several books, dozens of journal articles, and written thousands upon thousands of words. Expecting me to regurgitate study upon study again on a vague question gives me a headache. Throw in citations and I am exhausted by the first question.
Second, I think I have something to offer. Instead of asking "what did such and such say about so and so" is just a memory test. Why not ask "what did you think about such and such and why do you think that?"
Third, scenarios are great but be specific. Don't just ask me my take on judicial oversight. Ask me to detail Marbury. Ask me to argue against it.
Finally, you mentioned current events. This is key. I know students who never watch the news or read a newspaper or a blog. They can quote all kinds of precedents but cannot tell you what happened in Congress or the SCOTUS in the past year.
Hopefully this can be helpful to some of the profs reading this blog, which would also be helpful to the students. My problem with syllabi can wait for another day.
Posted by: Darren | Apr 25, 2010 9:10:48 PM