Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Goodbye, Albatross

Well, my spring 2007 semester grades are done. Hurray! And the fact that I had 109 three-hour essay exams plus 14 research papers to grade explains a lot about why I have not posted much lately. Now that I am done, here are a few quick observations.

ONE: Never underestimate the importance of getting the facts right on a test. People who clearly know what they are doing with the law sometimes trip themselves up by getting the facts (which are given on the exam, mind you) totally wrong. I am perhaps softie in this regard--I remember what law school exams were like from the student perspective. And for that reason I tend to give tests with "evolving" fact patterns that center on the same set of characters. Less confusing, in my view. But getting the facts wrong can't help but affect your grade. And this is a big part of lawyering, after all. So to all you students out there: pay attention to the facts!

TWO: The difference in the quality of the 1L exams between the fall semester and spring semester is amazing. The class GPA in my Contracts II class went up substantially. And I curve my grades, mind you. The grades still went up. Not everyone will be happy, of course, but the average showed a good deal of improvement.

THREE: In my experience, the quality of a test, for grading purposes, has very little to do with whether it is straightforward (read: easy) or more subtle (read: hard). I gave a straightforward exam in the fall, and a more complex exam in the spring, since the 1Ls were by that time battle-hardened. And each time some people got it, and some did not. Some misunderstood the facts, and some did not. And some came up with some really creative answers--in a good way. I love to see that on an exam. In other words, you get a bell curve distribution of grades every time.

In closing, let me say that I think testing with essay exams is very, very important. Clients do not present you with multiple choice questions in practice. The bar exam does that, but at the end of the day we are teaching people how to be lawyers, not bar exam takers. (They of course have to pass the bar, so multiple choice exams have their place in law school.) But I would be interested to hear what readers think about this. What kind of exams do/did you prefer? Multiple choice? Short answer? Essay? Combinations thereof? Please comment and give me some input on this. Thanks!

18 comments:

shell said...

I suppose it depends on the subject. Multiple choice is most suitable for straight-forward subjects such as torts, criminal law, and criminal procedure. Short answer is good to prepare for some subjects that requires a little bit more explaination as evidence, property, and also works for torts, criminal law, and criminal procedure. Essay subjects are best for complex subjects such as constitutional law, contract, and codified law.

It also depends on your preference as the grader. Some professors prefer short answers and multiple choice because they are easier to grade and they eliminate B.S. Some professors prefer essay because it provides more clues as to whether a student understands the entire picture and whether he/she is able to piece together different parts of the code or apply particular tests/analysis at the appropriate time.

Anonymous said...

I do not think that multiple choice exams are representative of one's true ability on an exam. I am a mostly A student and the classes that I received a grade lower than an A in were classes that were heavily multiple choice. As you mentioned, we are learning to become lawyers, and as much as I wish it was from my first experience as a law clerk, the law is not an A,B,C, or D answer. Multiple choice attemps to confuse the student through gamesmanship and subtleties, where essay based exams test your complete understanding of the subject and your ability to articulate it better than your fellow students. While I do not go to the highest rank law school in the nation, I clerk with some students who go to higher and one clerk the highest ranked law school. I, however, can articulate my knowledge better than the other clerks, therefore I get the better assignments and more attention from the partners. They would probably outscore me on a multiple choice exam.

To put it another way, I was on an inspection with some of the attorneys who brought in experts to recreate the scene of an accident. They paid major money for the best expert to recreate the scene and to animate it. All through the day they were talking about what a genious the expert is. At the end of the day, however, all of the attorneys were getting worried after speaking with the expert because he did not articulate himself clearly and did not have a good presence. They were afraid he would be bad for the jury and decided not to put him on the stand. That's just like the A student with a multiple choice, she's like a box of chocolates, you never know what you are going to get.

Anonymous said...

Timed, closed book essay exams are simply teaching students to commit malpractice ---answering questions without benefit of research and reflection, and without consulting others whose insights may be valuable.

Timed, closed book multiple guess exams are useful for measuring the amount of jargon the student has mastered. There is, after all, only one right answer; the job of the other three answers is to dupe the student who has not mastered the vocabulary well enough to recognize right answer when told (and, instead, to be diverted to wrong answers). Students rarely simply don't know the rule on which a right or wrong answer turns; rather, the hinge point is carefully disguised so to favor only the students who have mastered the terms and their meaning and who are systematic about applying that knowledge in a reductive way. Most students would be horrified to know how much answering multiple guess questions correctly is very much part of "thinking like a lawyer." But, happily, not a big part; people, after all, rarely need lawyers to resolve situations where there is only one right answer; moreover, you don't have to graduate very high in your class to be a capable lawyer in those circumstances.

If we were actually interested in assessing whether the student was ready to be unleashed onto the world, then the best way to know is to junk written exams and grades entirely and, instead, have students sit oral boards run by a three-member faculty panels, who would examine the student to determine the student's level of comprehension (and the limits thereof), questioning the student on a few of the subjects the student has completed. (Necesarily oral boards only sample student knowledge; yet they are remarkably good at sifting the wheat from the chaff.)

The result from the boards would be an assessment by the panel (a "grade") that the student is ready to:

Graduate with distinction
Graduate
Graduate with remedial work
Continue studies towards graduation (and reexamination)
Discontinue studies.

If it is thought to be necessary to have something written, then the oral boards could be preceded by a practical problem where the student is allowed an excessive amount of time, full access to the library (including electronic resources), and required to draft a memo about a hypothetical client problem.

That is, you give a memo problem that a competent professional could produce in four to eight hours from a standing start to proofed copy. You give the student up to 48 hours, subject to the limitation below.

The student determines how long to spend on the problem (subject only to the ultimate deadline) and how to divide that time --- how much time to spend researching, how much time to spend writing, how much time to spend seeking other sources. The memo is assigned a grade first on quality, with deductions or additions for speed -- that is, a good memo prepared and submitted promptly beats a very good memo that consumed the entire weekend, so the student has to learn to manage time and quality tradeoffs. The grades are named to reflect the quality of the memo produced:

"Very experienced practitioner"
"Experienced practitioner"
"Competent novice practitioner"
"Novice practitioner"
"Law student"

where anyone receiving the last grade must retake the examination before being graduated.

If the written "exam" is used, then the student's memo is provided to the board and they are free to question the student about it, if desired.

Anonymous said...

One more thing: at oral boards, all of the student's coursework is provided to the board members beforehand, so that areas of weakness can be investigated to determine if the student has rectified those weaknesses.

Anonymous said...

Essays leave me more of a nervous wreck, but I think they better demonstrate what I know & how I "think like a lawyer" (whatever that means). If I can forget the pressure, I actually think they're kind of fun because of the chance to be weird and creative.

I don't think a class in which the answer is usually "it depends" is a good candidate for multiple-choice testing. Classes that have more definite rules (Rule 11 sanctions! Rule 12 motions! Rule 56 standard for adjudication!) are probably better suited for multiple choice.

So, don't go changing, to try and please whoever. It's not broke, don't fix it. Well, the evolving fact pattern is kind of broke. While you may think it's less confusing, I think it's more so. It's harder for me to keep all of one person's causes of action and/or arguments straight than to have multiple characters who each has his own, less complex issues. (my singular & plural may not be agreeing there. sorry.) Whatever, you can't please everyone all the time.

Anonymous said...

I think the evolving fact pattern is much easier. But really, when it comes down to it, it saves time... precious time.

Anonymous said...

It's common knowledge around campus that you tested on the material that you DIDN'T teach (the class you stormed out on because a student was unprepared), AND that you warned your assistant of this ahead of time so that her grade wouldn't sufffer.

You are a poor role model for new lawyers.

Anonymous said...

P.S. A SEVEN PAGE FACT PATTERN????!? What in the hell were you thinking? OK, so our exam time was cut by a 3rd b/c we had to read your short story. Great. Glad (or sorry) that guy could sell his land. Too bad it cost me 1/2 off my exam.

Gregory W. Bowman said...

Thanks to all who have commented. There's some very valuable input here. I was particularly interested by the commenter who said that evolving fact patterns (essay questions based on the same basic facts that evolve as necessary from question to question) are more confusing than separate essay questions based on separate fact patterns. Something to keep in mind for the future.

As for the last two comments (Anonymous 11:12 pm and Anonymous 11:31 pm), I suppose they are living proof that you cannot please everyone all of the time. I would suggest that those students meet with me in person to air their complaints, if they wish.

In the meantime, though, let me say this. Yes, I walked out of one class--just like I warned the entire class that I would do. Too many people had been unprepared too many times. And of course that material was fair game for the exam. Why wouldn't it be? As for tipping anyone off before the exam--well, that's simply preposterous. No other word for it, really.

Finally, I freely admit that it was a long fact pattern on the exam. Be prepared, once you are a lawyer, for clients with complex facts and short deadlines. Part of your task on an exam (and as a lawyer) is to separate the relevant from the irrelevant, and to cut to the chase very quickly. That's more critical to a lawyer's professional success than most students realize. Which is why I did not hesitate to give a long fact pattern on this exam. Can't please everyone.

Kaytie Pickett said...

I suppose the comment at 11:12 refers to me, as I am one of Professor Bowman's research assistants.

Yes, I said in the smoke shack that I thought that conditions would be on the test, but no, Professor Bowman never told me that, and no, I never claimed he had. It was speculation that coincidentaly turned out to be true, and I know I wasn't the only person who engaged in such speculation--we all discussed that exact possibility in the gazebo, as well as other topics we thought would be on the exam. In fact, I know I publicly said many times that I thought conditions would be on the test--if I were as unethical as you claim, wouldn't I, if I had received a tip from Professor Bowman, keep that information to myself? I am truly at a loss to understand where or how this rumor originated.

In short, I greatly resent anyone alleging that I had some kind of an unfair advantage.

Kaytie Pickett said...

As an addendum to my previous comment--

I welcome the writer of the above mentioned derogatory statement, as well as anyone else, to bring such charges to the honor board. In fact, if someone has such a complaint as that, truly the appropriate forum for airing it must be an honor court of one's peers, not the comments section of a professor's blog.

Phaedrus said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Stephen said...

What an uncool comment. I've yet to have Prof Bowman, but I'll have him next semester. I've never heard anything about him other than he is FAIR, which is all I ask of any professor.

And additionally, if a seven page fact pattern confuses you, well... Have fun in appad!

Stop complaining. Maybe you should have studied more.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

People really need to chill out. Contracts class was not fun. Yeah, the test totally sucked but we all knew it would. Just be glad you passed and that the class is over. Complaining now really doesn't help. It is clear the students in the class don't like each other or they could have arranged a prisoner’s dilemma for Professor Bowman to walk out when he was teaching EASY stuff. Many were upset when he walked out but I was glad because it should have been clear to everyone what he would put on the test. I considered it his gift to the class.
If there was any unethical behavior, I am not saying in any way there was, as a previous blogger alleges I wish them good luck trying to prove it. It would be impossible to prove and upset a lot of people, plus I really don’t care. Law school isn’t fair, life isn’t fair, and I am sure the practice of law isn’t fair.

Anonymous said...

I'm a 3L at MC & have never posted on this blog. Nontheless, in light of some of the comments above, I feel compelled to throw in my 2 cents.

I find it absurd that students would "anonymosly" make such unfouded allegations on an internet blog. The only word that strikes me is "immature."

I've yet to take Prof. Bowman for a class, but I'm embarrassed that my peers would demonstrate such disrespect. From all I've gathered, the man geniunely cares about his students' progress & development. He is very approachable & always willing to provide thoughful insight. He doesn't deserve the type of rhetoric displayed on this forum.

the devastator said...

The Devastator was not overly pleased with the C he received in Contracts, but it seems that several people are using the blog as an excuse to... say it with me... whine. The final comments all bring up good points, and Kaytie does too. An internet blog is not the place to go complain about a professor and student's ethics, certainly not to the point of personal attacks.

The Devastator thinks that the people who are whining and moaning on this blog need a nice slice of humble pie and remember a few things: 1. Nobody is perfect. 2. Law school is hard. If you can't keep both of those in mind, you're doomed to a life (at least in law school) full of disappointment.

Now shut up and move on, whiners.

Anonymous said...

sometimes you just have to say "judge it ain't fair"