ContractsProf Blog

Editor: Jeremy Telman
Oklahoma City University
School of Law

Monday, August 30, 2021

Commenting on Student Homework: The Sandwich

I hesitate to mention sandwiches on this blog, because contracts profs will initiate a debate on whether or not a burrito, or a wrap, or a calzone, etc. is a sandwich at the slightest provocation.  This post is not about that!

Ceci n'est pas un sandwich
Image by Elliot Volkman
CC BY-SA 2.0

I give homework in law school.  Less in upper-level courses, but quite a lot really in Contracts.  This year, I have 80 students in my section, which is more than I'm used to but pretty normal I think for first-year law sections generally.  Most weeks, there is homework, but I only grade some of the students each week.  If a student fails to turn homework in on time, that student is automatically graded.  The point it to get them to work on the material each week.  I do this because bar prep experts tell me that studies show that students who do the work learn the material.  Passing the bar is primarily about putting in the time.  The vast majority of students who have made it to law school can pass the bar if they do the work.

Students are graded on effort, not on whether they get the right answers (if the homework has right answers).  In Contracts, there are three categories of homework.  Some weeks, I give the students two multiple choice questions, and they have to explain why the right answer is right and why the wrong answers are wrong.  I try to model the questions on bar questions, and the answers that are wrong should be wrong for reasons that options on the multiple-choice bar exam would be wrong: they misstate the rule; they state the wrong rule; they state an old common-law rule that has been superseded; they state the UCC rule, but this case is governed by the common law or vice versa; they state the rule but the question tests knowledge of the exception or vice versa, etc.  

Some weeks, I give issue-spotting exercises, with one-paragraph fact patterns.  Student have to identify the issue, identify the rule, and predict how a court would resolve the issue.  These fact-patterns should have clear issues, rules, and outcomes.  This exercise is a building block for the third type of homework, which is a bar-style fact pattern designed to be answerable in one hour.  

Grading all of this homework takes time, but that's why the gods created weekends.  Grading that many papers quickly means that I cannot spend very much time on comments.  I don't spend as much time as perhaps I should praising students for good work.  My comments focus on correcting things that are wrong.  This is not ideal.  Negative comments are a bummer.  They are discouraging, and they need to be balanced with words of encouragement.

A common solution is the sh*t sandwich.  My first full-time teaching job was teaching freshman composition when I had finished my dissertation but was still at my degree-granting university waiting to defend.    It was a good freshman-writing program, with a lot of guidance about working with students who are still trying to find their voice as writers.  The people who ran the program never would have put it this way, but we graduate students came to refer to the advice as recommending a sh*t sandwich.  That is, sandwich your substantive criticisms of the student's writing between opening and concluding words of praise. 

You try to make it too obvious, or pile on generous helpings of poo between crepe-thin layers of breading.  E.g., you won't fool anybody with: "Congratulations on turning in your assignment on time.  Unfortunately, it is so riddled with misspellings, grammatical errors, and erroneous reasoning, I can hardly made sense of your arguments and wonder how you were admitted to this program.  Still, you have made great strides since the last assignment, which you never turned in."  

The truth is, it is usually pretty easy to find things to praise in student work.  Especially when you are testing multiple skills -- issue spotting, legal analysis, knowledge of legal rules, clear writing style and organization, etc.  So one can indeed sandwich the bad news between layers of praise.  This is important not only because it prevents students from thinking that they are somehow unsuited to legal work,  but if you mix encouragement with suggestions for improvement, students are more likely to find you approachable and seek advice when they need it. I say all this not so much to provide advice to others but to remind myself that I don't want my comments to be so off-putting that students find me unapproachable.

There are arguments against the sh*t sandwich (in the managerial context, but still some of what hits the fan sticks).  You can read them here.  Basically, the problem is that it feels disingenuous, students are likely to recognize the pattern, and even if they don't, they will focus on the negative.  I hope that is not the case, but even if it is, the sh*t sandwich forces me to think about positive and encouraging things to say to students when I am rushing to get their work back to them, and but for that, I might only bother to write corrections.

Commentary, Teaching | Permalink


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