Thursday, February 08, 2007

Reflections on Law School Exams

I have had several readers ask for my post-exam thoughts about what students should and should not do on final exams. I have posted on this subject before, but since grades come out every semester it's worth writing about again. Hopefully I can shed some new light on the subject, at least from my perspective as a law exam grader. My previous posts on law school exams, by the way, are as follows.

So what else can I say? The views I expressed in my previous posts really have not changed, but here are some supplemental thoughts.

1. Know Your Audience, and Remember the Purpose of an Exam. For law school exams, your audience is your professor--someone who knows the subject better than you, but who nonetheless wants you to demonstrate your knowledge of the subject. You are not talking down to your audience if you demonstrate on the exam that you know, say, the basics of manifestation of mutual assent. If you don't explain in summary fashion what the law is, you risk a lower score.

2. Corollary to #1: Law School Exams Grade Performance, not Just Knowledge. On a law school exam--at least an essay exam--you are presented with a fact pattern. Your task is to identify what doctrinal rules are relevant and then apply them. Knowing the law is necessary for a good grade (you can't apply the law if you don't understand it), but it is not sufficient.

3. Another Corollary to #1: To Perform Better on Exams, Take Some Practice Exams. Let's say you got a lower grade than you wanted. Does that mean you didn't know the law? No, it means you did not perform on that particular exam, most likely by not applying the law as well as you might have. For future exams, practice applying the law. Get together with class mates you trust, draft sample exam questions for each other, and practice answering them. It is my opinion that the process of creating your own sample exams can be a highly educational process, because it forces you to really think about how the various legal rules and principles interact. Also try looking on the web for sample exams--although the casebooks used and the topics covered by those other professors will affect the usefulness of those exams.

Note: For anyone in my current Contracts class, I will be handing out some sample exams later in the semester. But I encourage you to craft your own sample questions too.

4. Organize Your Exam Answers. I saw a lot of exam answers this year that were not well-organized. I sympathize entirely with the urge to simply start writing--after all, there's not much time in a three-hour exam. But if you don't (a) think through how you want to organize your answer (which means you need to outline your answer before you start writing), and then (b) follow that template, you are bound to miss issues or at least give short shrift to some issues.

Here's the point: on average, you will score higher on an exam if you hit all (or at least most) of the issues adequately--as opposed to really nailing some and missing or underexploring others. If you outline that does leave you less time to write, but that is MORE than offset by the fact that you will spend less time spinning your wheels or restating something you have already covered.

5. Corollary to #4: Exam Length is not Always Related to Exam Score. There are 3 general lengths of exam answers: short, medium, and long. That sounds all too obvious, but it's worth pointing out, in order to highlight the relationship between exam answer length and exam answer score.

In my experience, writing less than around 1700 words on a 3 hour essay exam means that you run significant risk of not having enough words to discuss and analyze difficult legal rules and principles. So there is a strong corellation between short answers and lower exam scores.

Medium answers are, in my experience, anything between 2000 and 2700 words. (I guess that means 1700-2000 is a gray zone.) A 2000 word answer can be competent, but in the "medium" category longer answers generally translate into better scores.

Interestingly, however, for long answers--generally those above 3000 words--there is a very weak correlation between word count and score. And this gets me back to my point about organization. A well organized answer can cover more ground in fewer words than a long (but poorly organized) answer.

This means that sacrificing some length at the alter of organization is a wise trade-off.

6. Another Corollary to #4: Organizing Your Answer Helps Demonstrate to the Professor That You Know What You are Doing. The ability to identify relevant issues and then discuss them in organized fashion is a necessary skill for the practice of law. That's what you do in memos to clients, and that's what you do in briefs or other submissions to a court. Whenever I read a well organized answer, the message I get is "this person knows what s/he is doing." In contrast, a disorganized answer that flails about makes it difficult or impossible for me to tell whether the person knew the law, or simply got portions of the exam right by accident--and the result is a lower grade.

7. Yet Another Corollary to #4: Write an introduction for your answer. I may differ from other law profs on this point, but I see very little downside to writing a very brief introductory paragraph for your essay exam answer. It takes about 5 minutes--and all you do is concisely state what the issues raised in the question are and what you will be discussing in your answer. And then you follow that format throughout your answer.

This is another way to demonstrate to the prof that you know what you are doing. It also makes the exam easier to read, because the prof knows what's coming later in the answer. It is always easier to read something--an essay, magazine article, memo, anything--if the author first gives a roadmap. So even if an introduction does not garner you any direct points, it helps the grader follow what you are doing, and that should at least indirectly improve your score. (It's also a way to force yourself to be organized in your answer.) And as I said, even if it does not help, it really does not hurt much, since it only takes a few minutes to write an introduction.

8. Do not Try to be Clever or Original. Points for style and eloquence are nice, but generally you are better off focusing on getting the substance of your answer down, instead of being overly concerned with phraseology. So eschew grandioloquent prose for simple, straightforward language.

Of course you will use use legal terminology (e.g., tortfeasor, party-in-breach, etc.) to demonstrate your knowledge (and ability to apply) the law. Just don't get flowery.

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Those are just some of my thoughts. Any comments?

1 comment:

former law student said...

My most disappointing law school exam in my first year was in my favorite class. I enjoyed the class so much that (in retrospect) I took the content for granted. Then when I wrote the main essay, I got carried away and even emotionally involved in the answer. Instead of being objective, I sympathized too much with the primary character in the exam. The question required an answer that looked at both sides, and I basically only argued one, and dismissed the other.
Lesson learned: Be objective in your answer. You can write passionately but don't get carried away. Use your mind and not your emotions. Read between the lines and consider what your professor is actually interested in seeing you demonstrate.