Author Archive | John Goldberg, guest-blogging

More on Law School Practice Exams

Guest Blog by Barry Friedman and John Goldberg

Tuesday’s post on practice exams generated some questions to which we think we can usefully respond.

First, we should have made clear that no student’s exam answer will be posted on the Open Book website without the informed and express consent of the student. Interestingly, when we approached our own (former) students for permission and explained what we are doing, they were quite positive. Their uniform response — which might help counter the image of law students as cutthroat or jaded — was enthusiasm at the chance to help other students learn from their experiences.

Second, as we mentioned in the initial post, we agree entirely that getting individualized feedback from one’s own professors is the first-best option. Indeed, borrowing from Star Trek, we state early in the book a law school version of “The Prime Directive” — for his or her class, what the prof says goes. We don’t mean this cynically. We mean merely to emphasize that different profs teaching the same class legitimately emphasize different aspects of the subject and reward somewhat different things in exam answers. The issue we have tried to tackle is what to do in the absence of the first-best.

We continue to believe that studying should be all about practice, practice, practice — especially practice with feedback. There are different ways to do this; we flag them in the book. If your Torts prof doesn’t have practice exams, see if you can find past exams from another Torts professor at your school. If your Contracts prof posts old exams but no model answers, go over your answer with colleagues who have taken the same practice exam.

No appellate litigator worth her salt goes into an argument without having been ‘mooted.’ That’s because [...]

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Do Profs Teach What Law School Exams Test?

Guest Blog by Barry Friedman and John Goldberg

We’ve been blogging here at the Volokh Conspiracy about law school exams and our new book Open Book: Succeeding on Exams from the First Day of Law School.

In response to a post about how exams mirror law practice, several commentators raised a fair question: do law professors teach what gets tested for on exams?

Our answer is: sometimes yes, sometimes no, and maybe.

Perhaps the most poignant of concerns was that of Mario O who said law professors should teach issue-spotting more deliberately, writing: “It’s like showing people pictures of violins and reading books about violins — but never touching one — and then for the final the student has to perform a solo with an orchestra.”

For what it is worth, we agree — we devote several chapters of our book to meticulously taking apart the issue-spotting process, showing how to spot issues, apply rules, argue both sides, all the skills that go into writing a good exam.

But we think there are reasons professors don’t do more. Here, we speculate, welcoming your reactions.

Our suspicion is that the folks who are now law professors tended to be students to whom the particular skill of exam-taking came naturally. If so, it would not be a huge surprise to learn that they often underestimate the challenge that exams pose for many students. This is not an excuse, just an explanation: if you find something intuitive, you may have trouble appreciating that others find it counter-intuitive.

There’s another, more substantive problem at work here. It is not at all easy to teach what makes a good or bad legal argument. Several commenters pointed out that this best is learned in practice. We think this is true, albeit overstated. In the classroom [...]

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Law School Practice Exams

John Goldberg & Barry Friedman, guest-blogging

Everyone knows the old joke. A guy walking in New York City asks a woman: “How do I get to Carnegie Hall?” She responds, “Practice, Practice, Practice.” Practice make perfect. But how are law students supposed to practice for exams?

Law students frequently, and often with justification, complain about lack of pre-exam feedback. In pre-publication reviews of Open Book, students stressed to us how much they wanted more examples, and . . . more feedback!

It is easy to see why students feel this way. They come to class day after day, mostly listening while someone else speaks. Then, suddenly, they are expected to take the exams that pretty much determine their course grades. Even after exams, they are often left wondering what happened.

Most profs try to provide some feedback. For example, it’s common these days to post practice exams and model answers. We’ve done the same thing in our book by providing hypotheticals that readers can try their hand at, along with sample answers available on the website that accompanies the book.

But can we do better? Here’s what we came up with. Coming soon to our website is a suite of practice exams that provide faculty feedback beyond model answers. Students who buy them get an actual exam and a model answer, but also a copy of the exam with annotations from the professor identifying where issues were hidden or key facts provided. They also get actual student answers (anonymous, of course), and these too are marked up by the professor to show strengths and weaknesses.

In a perfect world, law professors would provide extensive individualized feedback to each student before exams. And we know some heroic profs who do this. But many of us don’t and can’t. So we [...]

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Why Do Law School Exams Look the Way They Do?

John Goldberg & Barry Friedman, guest-blogging

With Halloween comes a scary prospect for law students and law professors alike. Exams! So it seems like a good time to ask: why do law school exams still center around issue-spotting questions?

It certainly isn’t for the good of professors. As the saying goes: “They don’t pay me to teach, they pay me to grade.” We’re curious for your thoughts. Why do exams look the way they do? Where’s the value? Should we be testing differently?

We offer an explanation for issue-spotters in our new book — Open Book: Succeeding on Exams from the First Day of Law School. As the title suggests, our aim is to demystify exam-taking, in part by helping students understand why exams are as they are. It’s early, but initial positive reviews suggest we’re on to something.

Our account of issue-spotters is straightforward, almost embarrassingly so. The traditional issue-spotter exam connects legal education to law practice. This may seem a strange claim, given the fondness professors often show for exam questions featuring bizarre narratives. The point, however, is that they are narratives. And narratives are what lawyers deal with every day.

Somebody –- a client, another attorney –- comes to a lawyer and tells a story. The lawyer then has to translate it into the language of the law, giving advice and predicting possible outcomes. That’s what issue-spotters ask students to do.

We certainly don’t mean to suggest that other evaluation methods lack merit. Well-crafted multiple choice and short answer questions reward careful thinking and writing. But the classic issue-spotter has the special virtue of tracking legal practice.

Taking law school exams is never going to be fun. Nor will grading them. But we think that professors can take some comfort in recognizing that, on the whole, [...]

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