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Exams as a "Rewarding Experience":

Ann Althouse wonders whether "law students know (or believe) that we lawprofs mean for the exam to be a rewarding educational experience?" and provokes some interesting comments.

UPDATE: Rick Garnett has prompted more discussion on this topic at Prawfsblawg.

Cornellian (mail):
The reward is the grade, or am I missing something?
5.6.2006 2:59pm
Freder Frederson (mail):
Why on earth do law schools base their grades on a single exam at the end of the semester? That is the most asinine way to evaluate students I have ever seen. There should be several exams spread out throughout the semester like in every other normal discipline.
5.6.2006 3:04pm
John (mail):
How about some comments by lawprofs on whether they agree.

It's all for the good of the students! Who knew?
5.6.2006 3:39pm
lucia (mail) (www):
Law school only have one exame a semester?

I should think if exams are intended to be rewarding educational experiences, they certainly give more than one a semester: More exams; more reward.
5.6.2006 3:40pm
stealthlawprof (mail) (www):
The exam should be a rewarding experience. This is when all of the effort of studying comes together in one exam that draws carefully from all the areas of the course and weaves them together. You cannot duplicate that multiple times in the semester, and if it is done correctly -- by the professor and the students -- it can be very rewarding.
5.6.2006 3:58pm
Lawgirl (mail):
Actually, yes you can. Medical schools find it quite possible to test their students several times during a semester with a final at the end: would you say that this is duplicative? It is a fallacy to say that just because you test students throughout the semester, that they will not draw their knowledge from all areas of the course to "weave it together" at the end. This is not an "either or" proposition that law schools seem to think it is.
5.6.2006 4:37pm
Jake (Guest):
I disagree with the idea that an exam experience creates a sort of unique gestalt that provides illumination to a student in a way that is not otherwise replicable. You (should) learn new things in every class, and it is quite possible to integrate knowledge in sub-semester-sized chunks.

I personally saw a marked improvement in exam performance when I stopped trying to write creative, thoughtful, and interesting answers. It is possible that this simply reflects poorly on my ability to be creative, thoughtful, and interesting.

However, I feel pretty confident in stating that:
- When an exam question obviously presents you with point of contention C
- C obviously comes out for one side under argument A1 and the other under argument A2
- A1 is obviously supported by policy considerations P1, while A2 is supported by policy considerations P2

The most successful answering strategy is to simply flesh out the outline above, and maybe include a sentence or two about why P1 or P2 is better. A perhaps more thoughtful and interesting answer might focus more on why we might prefer P1 and P2, or try to tie in consideration P3, or discuss how P1 and P2 bear on another argument. However, most professors won't credit you with linking up the policy argument to the outcome of the case unless you make it explicitly clear, which generally sucks up your word count. I assume that they do this because it makes things easier to grade.

This isn't just for "issue spotter questions", either, whatever Professor Althouse might suggest. Even on policy questions professors are generally looking for a warmed-over rehash of the arguments discussed in class, rather than any kind of original analysis.

I also suspect that one's perception of the exam experience changes with time and with perspective. I would be curious to see Professor Althouse's thoughts if she were to sit in on a colleague's course and take their exam, and have it blind graded along with the students' tests.
5.6.2006 4:44pm
Bearcat (mail):
Exams are tedious, rote, and seldom a real reflection of your intelligence: about what the average law practice is like!
5.6.2006 4:58pm
WAL:
Having to grade one exam at the end of a semester provides a prof with the least amount of work.

Is there really a reason for it besides this?
5.6.2006 5:31pm
Mike BUSL07 (mail) (www):
I have to admit - and this exposes me as a complete nerd - that I enjoy the bulk of law school exams. As long as the hypos are well-written, not too easy, and test me on what I was actually learned - those things are a lot of fun. I also find that I'm too much *in the zone* to be stressed *during* the exam. The part I don't like is the 3 weeks before, when I abandon shaving, doing laundry and cleaning my apartment.

Also, Bearcat, what *is* a real reflection of your intelligence?
5.6.2006 5:33pm
Mike BUSL07 (mail) (www):
WAL:

"Having to grade one exam at the end of a semester provides a prof with the least amount of work.Is there really a reason for it besides this?"

I would guess that there isn't. But there are people, myself included, who love that kind of pressure.
5.6.2006 5:35pm
WAL:
Mike,

No problem, I'd actually like them more often.

Given a choice between a class with 3 exams during the year vs. a 3 hour test at the end of it that determines my grade - I'd take the 3 exam course. (It's basic statistics-I'd count on a lot of tests during a year to better reflect what I know than 6-8. I was the same way in undergrad.)

My feeling here is though, outside of some sado-masochistic purpose I don't understand, that the tests and the courses are structured to provide a professor with the least amount of work-nothing more.
5.6.2006 5:49pm
jmwfan (mail):
As a graduating 3L, I can say that my last law school exam was pretty anticlimactic, though it's nice to have the study-guilt off of my shoulders. The rewarding part will come when I can be sure I didn't fail anything.

Some other exams have been pretty cathartic for me too, particularly closed book exams because the student must know all of the material by heart, which results in greater comfidence, calm and, usually for me, better writing. I don't have to look at any notes--the answers are all upstairs and can be instantly incorporate with sentence drafting.

Most of all, taking exams feels like spring cleaning of my cerebral attic. It is satisfying and extremely emotional--like letting out a breath you've been holding for 16 weeks. Looking at the exam process as a positive (get to show off what you know and see what you've learned, finish the class, sell books, etc.) as opposed to a negative can greatly change my attitude about an exam.

One thing is sure, though: I will never consider classes, in which I did poorly, to be among my favorites. Something about the bad grade washes away any redeeming experience one may have had. And the exam will never seem rewarding either--it will haunt you forever....
5.6.2006 6:08pm
NYCLawStudent (mail):
Another 3L here. Still in the middle of exams, I'm inclined to pour vitriol on them, but instead let me make a technical point: law school exams might be useful learning experiences, but they are terrible ability measures. Eugene Gallanter, one of my undergrad profs, is a clinical psychologist and test design expert. In his Intro to Psych class, he spent a lot of time railing against the poor test design of most university professors. Contrary to popular belief, a good test (good at accurately ranking a class of students by ability and knowledge) is objectively graded (i.e. multiple choice or other limited-set answer), heavily timed (like the LSAT--not like 24-hour take-homes), and produces results that can be graphed in a normal curve for a sufficiently large number of students.

The typical law school exam, i.e. essay test issue spotter graded by several TAs and/or a professor, includes a certain inherent subjective bias. I'm not talking politics here, although that is also a common complaint of students--what I mean is, the psychology of grading a large number of exams will likely produce irregularities. Fatigue, evolving or different criteria over time, grading affected by other answers (e.g. "wow, I thought that test was great until I read the answer from student 6139N!"), etc., are reasons why the law school exam is prone to inaccuracy. Now, I am sure most profs can tell the difference between a student who has done the work and someone who never showed up to class, but I don't know how good a job they do ranking the top 50% against each other.

In terms of the experience taking these things, I have found that the most enjoyable classes are those that spread the stress out and involve a high degree of participation. I took a seminar this semester where the grading was based on four 5-pagers and one 45-min. in-class presentation. On the last day of class, I was done with the work, had learned the material much better than I would've if the only significant prep involved had been one week cramming, and I loved the prof for making my 3L life that much less stressful!
5.6.2006 6:37pm
MDJD2B (mail):
Actually, yes you can. Medical schools find it quite possible to test their students several times during a semester with a final at the end: would you say that this is duplicative? It is a fallacy to say that just because you test students throughout the semester, that they will not draw their knowledge from all areas of the course to "weave it together" at the end. This is not an "either or" proposition that law schools seem to think it is.

I've been through both (still in law school). there is a difference. Medical school coursework is much more fact intensive, and there is much less interrelationship among the facts. If med schools did nt test several times,students who postponed studying would be left in the dust.

I find the law school finals a great way to integrate my knowledge.
5.6.2006 7:12pm
Wizened:
Law school is a racket; people should be able to sit for the bar exam without wasting three years and gobs of money.
5.6.2006 7:20pm
Mike BUSL07 (mail) (www):
WAL, I would agree with you, were there no forced curve. If I wanted test to measure what I learned, a 3 exam course would probably be a better idea. As it happens, and here I am about to sound like an asshole, I much prefer the test to measure what it really does - studying and thinking under a lot of stress. Basically, the more brutal the test, the less you have to beat your "average" classmates by to break out of the middle of the curve. A 5 hour cumulative test, for which you studied 17 hours a day for the previous week, is a lot more brutal than it would be broken up into 3-4 mid-semester tests.
5.6.2006 7:34pm
Humble Law Student:
okay, this is the last thing I want to hear as I'm studying for my exams. Please just lie to me and tell me its absolutely a rewarding experience! Ignorance is so bliss.
5.6.2006 7:53pm
Abdul (mail):
I've only rarely had the rewarding "A-ha!" moment during an exam, and those are the ones where the professor asks an open-ended policy question like: "What do you think the focus of the tort system should be? Income shifting? Making the injured whole? Morality? Something else? Give examples from the class reading and discussions."

On the few occasions I've had those questions, I had to think about what I actually believed and support that belief with reason. For every other exam, I just related what the cases or the professors told me to think.
5.6.2006 8:23pm
John Jenkins (mail):
As I prepare for P'ship tax (Mon. 0900) and First Amendment (Wed. 0900), I look at them as rewarding in the sense that (1) I am already employed and (2) so long as I pass, nothing else matters. That's rewarding.
5.6.2006 8:25pm
WAL:
Mike,

We had finals in undergrad. There's no reason we couldn't them in law school also. They were cumulative - they covered everything.

My problem here is sampling. It's like taking a poll of 8 people when you can take a poll of 40. The poll of 40 will always be more reliable. Nobody would rely on a poll of 8 people, just like you wouldn't rely on a drug whose medical research consisted of testing 6 patients.

Adjust the time and the amount of information covered and you'd be able to make any test rough. You could make a test of material you learn in one day of class brutal and with enough time you can make a test of an entire semester pretty care-free. I've had those too - but it's as efficient to rely on one test in those situations as it is in a class that puts you under a lot of pressure.

I'd actually argue the opposite happens in a lot of cases after the first year (when you're less likely to be called on in class and especially if you have access to other outlines). In that case you can blow off a course for most of the semester, cram a couple weeks before an exam, and then take the test. Back to the point of the post, I don't have a study I link to off hand, but (from what I have read about this) it's just an inefficient way to teach material in general. You're more likely to forget it than if you'd studied.

On the other hand, there's the whole "think like a lawyer" argument-that you're training someone in a way to think vs. teaching specific material. It's probably not a surprise that I also think this is a crock, but - if that's the case - I don't see why the need to only rely on one test is even harder to defend.

If teaching specific information isn't the main point, why not have tests more often? Especially after somebody has already spent a few months in law school and has been introduced to the case method, why is it necessary for a test to cover at least 70 cases vs. also having a couple that cover 25?

You don't have to have one exam to have a test be brutal. You don't have to have one exam to have a final.

More importantly, I just don't think there's a legitimate reason to test all of the information on just one exam.
5.6.2006 8:27pm
WAL:
Sorry, one sentence

"You're more likely to forget it than if you'd studied."

I should have written

"You're more likely to forget it than if you'd studied for a few different test over the semester."
5.6.2006 8:31pm
Mike BUSL07 (mail) (www):
WAL, again, I admit that I largely agree with you. THere are more efficient ways to test than what we employ now. I'm speaking strictly as someone who has a personal stake in the current system.

However, I think we should bear in mind that the current system of relatively easy-going learning for 4 months, followed by 3 weeks of 15-18 hours a day of work, and then hinging it all on a series of 3-5 hour tests, does approximate what practice is like for a lot of lawyers. (Though if you plan to draft wills for 40 years and then retire, I could see how this isn't the best set up for you).
5.6.2006 9:03pm
Tito:
I find the idea that law school exams are supposed to be 'rewarding' laughable and kind of willfully blind. In fact, I think such a statement is so incredible that it almost makes me burn with anger. How can an exam possibly be a rewarding experience for the vast majority of law students? The outcome of the exams simply determines too much. For example, if I don't do well on my exams this semester, I've pretty much accomplished the following: 1) I'm not in the running for much of anything that I want and 2) therefore, I've pretty much wasted a year of my life and $40K.

In all honesty, I think law school is the most significantly flawed model of education I've ever experienced in my life, and it distresses me to no end that professors think they are doing much more than needlessly destroying 50 percent of their students.
5.6.2006 9:17pm
Mike BUSL07 (mail) (www):
I wonder, to what extent does one's ability to find law school exams rewarding, correlate with ability to perform excellently on those exams?
5.6.2006 9:23pm
Dutch (mail):
Why is there a significant portion of students that do nothing for four months and then cram it all in over the weekend? Because they've learned that they can. Prof. Althouse earlier linked a story about the removal of laptops in law school classrooms, which prompted comments about how sad it is that students don't engage in class. Maybe it's because they know they only need the knowledge for a 3 hour period, three months hence, and they can still get the grades they need. It sure as hell ain't the best way to ensure that you permanently learn the material. There's no reason that law schools do the test-once-a-semester thing, except for inertia and laziness. Then again, inertia and laziness seem to be two of the three main explanations for any bureaucratic question (greed is the other).
Exams may or may not be cathartic but rewarding? That's a real stretch.
5.6.2006 9:40pm
TechieLaw (mail):
Law school exams as a rewarding experience? Never. They feel like I'm trying to cram everything I know into a one hour answer and leave no room for creativity or independent thought. (Even if the professor thinks that he or she has succeeded in writing an exam calling for creativity, the reality is that they're trying to pack it full of issues to spot so they have an easier time grading.) Even the exams I took which had "policy questions" usually involved little more than arguing both sides of "why the law should work like X" by regurgitating every policy argument I heard over the semester. I'm sorry, but with one hour to answer a question, I'm not trying to show you how brilliant my argument is, I'm just trying to show you that I was paying attention during the semester.

Thankfully, this past semester, I had the chance to take two seminar classes. Since there was no final exam, each class felt like it was designed to add to my general legal toolbox rather than just give me a list of rules I needed to memorize. Because papers in a seminar class require research, thinking, and independent thought to solve a particular problem in the law, there's much more opportunity to find the experience rewarding. Instead of copying my outline onto my exam and forgetting about it immediately afterwards, a final paper actually lets students take possession of the project, and (especially for those professors who welcome students in their officers) an opportunity to work closely with a professor in learning to frame and defend an argument. When a professor tells you "wow, that's an interesting idea; I never thought about approaching it *that* way," you know you've accomplished something.
5.6.2006 10:37pm
Bearcat (mail):
Mike: Actually, I think the exams did reflect my intelligence given the fact that I did quite well on them; whether that would hold for the general population is another matter. And, as should have been obvious, I was being sarcastic.
5.6.2006 11:38pm
Lev:

Ann Althouse wonders whether "law students know (or believe) that we lawprofs mean for the exam to be a rewarding educational experience?"


Is that meant to be a provocative statement, or does she really believe that?

In any event, what a load of horse####!

Oh yes, and grading essay exams during a semester would cut far too heavily into perfersors' time for media appearances, speeches, article writing, paid seminar appearances, etc. etc. - a big income drain.
5.7.2006 1:29am
Mike BUSL07 (mail) (www):
Bearcat, I had to search long and hard in this thread to find the post that you thought I was replying to. Anyway, that comment wasn't directed at you at all. And frankly, I agree that most people who have a problem with the law school exam format, are people who don't do well.
5.7.2006 1:34am
Tito:
[Nasty and substance-free comment deleted by Eugene Volokh. Folks, please, be polite and thoughtful. We're looking for analysis here, not insults.]
5.7.2006 1:34am
Bearcat (mail):
Mike: No offense taken, and I agree with you on the point that most students I know who don't like exams didn't do well on them. I look at exams alot like I used to look at hit drills during football practice: pretty miserable, but a necessary rite of passage. Law schools are terribly hide bound in their pedagogy even with all the chic interdisciplinary courses at the top schools, and the exam format is a reflection of that: since our professor's, and our employer's, went through it, so will we. Admittedly not a ringing endorsement of the system, but it seems to work for most deans.
5.7.2006 2:56am
fflint:
No other aspect of the core curriculum appears to be intended to provide a "rewarding" student experience. Maybe after I've hit 2L and 3L and taken some interesting electives I'll feel differently, but right now I see these exams as merely the prelude to the bar.

From what I've read and heard, the law school experience has been roughly the same for a few decades now. LSAT, required core curriculum, socratic method, one exam. Is it possible that only now the supposedly rewarding nature of exams would be revealed? Surely someone long ago, in her most lucid and honest moments, would have been inspired to reveal such a discovery to us? If in fact this traditional and unchanging core element of law school were rewarding, then why the silence of our professors and administrators and counselors and mentors? Why would the introdcution of such an idea seem so foreign to those of us who take/took law school exams?
5.7.2006 3:08am
Federal Dog:
"You cannot duplicate that multiple times in the semester"


Of course you can, and should, as do faculty in virtually every other discipline. There should be synthesis exercises on a regular basis throughout the term/year. There is nothing about law per se that exempts itself from this principle. It's just that law instructors do not, for some reason, necessarily have the means to think beyond law school tradition.
5.7.2006 7:54am
The River Temoc (mail):
One thing is sure, though: I will never consider classes, in which I did poorly, to be among my favorites. Something about the bad grade washes away any redeeming experience one may have had.

I disagree. One of my favorite classes in law school was telecoms law. I was simply not "in the zone" the day I took the exam, which I wrote competently, but not as if I was walking on water. I passed just fine, but I certainly didn't get the top score in the class, which I was gunning for. The professor even told me my score didn't reflect my class performance! The score didn't matter, though. I was a 3L and didn't need the grade, and I can honestly say that telecoms law was perhaps the only class in law school that has actually helped me in the practice of law, since I've worked on several telecoms deals.
5.7.2006 7:58am
Frank Drackmann (mail):
Medical School Exams were almost all multiple guess. I was shocked when my first patient didn't give me a list from (A) to (E) of his possible diagnoses.
5.7.2006 9:48am
Reinhold (mail):
Sure, in a perfect world, where an exam is done correctly by the professors and the students, it is "rewarding" (whatever rewarding means). But if one has a headache for three hours out of one's life, one could be taking a course over. It baffles me that law professors haven't developed a system that better measures how well students have grasped the material. But then again, that would involve a little extra work. And that's reserved for the students, right?
5.7.2006 10:19am
Reinhold (mail):
Why can't you duplicate carefully weaving together everything that's been learned thoughout the semester?
5.7.2006 10:26am
Reinhold (mail):
And what kind of a grade would you have given your student for that unsupported assertion?
5.7.2006 10:31am
classmate-wearing-yarmulka (mail):
No 5 hour in-class exam is a "rewarding experience". It's torture. It's a marathon.

Law school exams don't test actual knowledge of the law. I figured this out after finding no correlation between my exam scores and my knowledge of the material going into the test.
5.7.2006 11:12am
Peter Wimsey:
Federal dog writes:
Of course you can, and should, as do faculty in virtually every other discipline. There should be synthesis exercises on a regular basis throughout the term/year. There is nothing about law per se that exempts itself from this principle. It's just that law instructors do not, for some reason, necessarily have the means to think beyond law school tradition.



This is basically not true, unless you are only talking about undergrad classes. When I was in grad school, our classes also typically only had one test, (of about 90 minutes) at the end of the course, plus a paper. The three-tests-plus-a-final scheme is very undergrad-y, and is really only appropriate for classes with material that can be easily broken up into discrete parts (i.e., this test is on the three shakespeare plays we read; this test is on the enlightentment; this test is on the French revolution and napoleon). Most law school classes are more synthetic that this, and the exams rely on a cumulative knowledge of many different subjects covered throughout the class. And while it's true that you could have a cumulative final, this would only be 1/4 or 1/3 of the material tested; the bulk of your tests would not be cumulative. And, frankly, law students should not have to be spoon fed.

The other issue, though, relates to the quality of the exams themselves. Ideally, an exam should reflect, as accurately as possible, your understanding of the material. The exam should also, at least roughly, reflect the importance the material received during classroom discussions and the readings. (As an example of this not happening, my law school roommate once took a 4 hour, 3 question property exam with two questions relating to easements; the class had spent a total of two days on easements.)

The biggest problem with law school exams is, IMO, the issue of reliability or repeatability. That is, say a prof has three final exams prepared for a contracts class. If the exams reliably reflect that knowledge of the students, the students' scores should be roughly the same no matter which test is given. I.e., those students scoring in the top 10% on test A should also score in about the top 10% on tests B and C. Some variation is inevitable, of course - but if the correlation tends toward zero, there is a significant problem with the test.
5.7.2006 12:25pm
TechieLaw (mail):
classmate-wearing-yarmulka:

While I've admitted that I don't find exams rewarding, what evidence do you have for your suggestion that there's no correlation between your knowledge of the material and your grade? Law school exams are curved. It's not how well *you* know the material, but how well you know the material in comparison to your classmates, how well you can apply that material to a (usually) silly fact pattern, and how well you can write up that knowledge under time pressure.

Saying that you knew the material cold going into an exam is meaningless, because at least half your class probably thought the same thing.
5.7.2006 12:36pm
John Jenkins (mail):
Peter Wimsey, Given that the contracts professor in question has used the same test for 22 years, there are no forms B &C.

Law school exams generally all highly correlative with each other, but that's just because they all test the same basic skill set and really has nothing to do with whether the tests actually test the law or something else (I vote for something else).
5.7.2006 12:45pm
WAL:
- Mike, there are a ton of people who do poorly in college, medical school, business school, etc. My guess is what you say is true as far as what you're saying (the two probably correlate) - but the students outside of law school can be in a lot of pressure in taking tests - their rank can significantly affect their positions after they get through the other schools. Don'tja find it odd that law students b**** about their grading system significantly more than them?

- Re: Peter/synthesizing:

In my Con law class (like all the others) it was divided up into sections - one on due process, another on equal protection, etc. A section would take up ~4 weeks. If you see a line delineating why it's necessary to have all of these before you take any tests, I just don't (please elaborate). Why not have a test on my sections in class? Why not have a midterm?

Inevitably some law school courses at a school will cover material that other con law courses at that same school won't, so, seeing as that's the case - if you have a class that doesn't cover the last section that another class does - wouldn't the grade in that class be equivalent to a test that had been taken say at the beginning of April in the other class?

If it would - what's wrong with also having a test at the beginning of April in the other class?

Furthermore, at some schools courses like civil procedure are a semester. At other schools the course can be a year-long course with two tests where you have one midway through, along with another one at the Spring. Does that make those courses invalid? Chicago has a quarter system where you take more tests over the course of a 1L year than you would in a semester system - does that mean that's an invalid way of teaching law? Where's the line and how do you justify it? If I wanted to toss in a few more tests a la Chicago would make my the grading inferior?
5.7.2006 1:14pm
Dave Hardy (mail) (www):
Speaking from distant memory -- why would an exam be rewarding? It's merely one more exam, the object of which is to be done with it, pass, so you can take the bar, pass that, and hopefully at last be able to do something productive.
5.7.2006 7:01pm
Former exam taker:
I loved only having one test at the end of the class. Less work for me..... I went to law school so I could sit for the bar, not to have an "experience" or become a "legal scholar". Not to say that I didn't get anything out of it. Overall, it was a fantastic experience and I'd say I had about six classes that I loved and really got alot out of as well as relationships (with professors and friends) that were invaluable. However, I didn't need the exam experience more than once a semester.
5.8.2006 3:04pm
SLS 1L:
The "reward" is the lawprofs, who already have lower teaching loads, lower scholarly expectations, and higher pay than the rest of the academy, have to do even less work.
5.8.2006 6:35pm