Musings About Law School Teaching, Exams, and Grading

Class preparation was an unusually heavy chore this year as I not only taught International Law for the first time, but the authors of my Administrative Law casebook issued a substantially revised (and actually much improved) edition. It taught much better than the old version, but making the best use of it required much more thought than just tweaking my old notes. It was all rewarding work, but it took time.

I'm one of those people who likes teaching new things to keep myself fresh. In 11 years of teaching I've taught Constitutional Law I, Civil Procedure I, Jurisprudence, Internet and the State, Internet and the Market, Trademark, and seminars on E-commerce, Digital Intellectual Property, and Internet Governance. And in the only course I've taught consistently since I started here — Administrative Law — I've used three different casebooks over the years. Perhaps that is why one of my students said I'm one of the most enthusiastic teachers he has. The way he said it, it didn't sound entirely like praise (it was almost, “what's your problem?”), but it made my day.

As the semester winds to a close, the focus of daily activity turns from preparing for class towards writing and then (*sigh*) grading the final exams. Every semester is the same cycle. My students are very good in class — indeed this year's International law students seem exceptionally good — and I get hopeful. Maybe this year will be the year I get a crop of great exams. And there usually are one or two great ones, and a few good ones. But the modal student cannot write a good paragraph, much less sustain analysis over several pages. I blame the high schools and the colleges. Surely it's not too much to expect that the possessors of BA's, and good to excellent grades, from excellent to good colleges, should be able to write? But again and again my hopes are, modally, dashed.

I've experimented with exam form. For upper-class courses, I tend strongly to open book exams, and sometimes a take-home. Life, after all, is usually open book, and is often a take-home. This makes exam-writing a lot tougher of course, because you have to test understanding not just memorization. A good test has to have questions that are not too tricky, and yet not blindly obvious. In a fast-moving area of the law, this can be a hard zone to find, especially if you know the subject well, since there's always a danger of assuming students will know something that seems obvious to an expert but may seem baffling to a relative beginner. And for Administrative law, which I've taught many times, there's the constant struggle to avoid writing questions that end up sounding too much like last year's.

In the age of Google, Westlaw, an open-book take-home is a special challenge, as I need to write something with sufficiently idiosyncratic facts that the answer is not 'out there' somewhere—and I have to check for that, which takes time.

For first year classes we have a mandatory curve, which is fair given that we teach multiple parallel sections of the same classes, and students have no ability to select among them. Years ago, we also put our adjuncts on a curve for upper-class courses, because some of them were giving all A's — whether due to sympathy for versions of their former selves, to inflate their enrollments, to avoid the trouble of actually reading exams, or to boost their student evaluations (which lead to rehiring), I have no idea.

Full-time staff don't have to grade upper class courses to a curve, and I do not. I grade to my idea of an absolute standard, perhaps modified down a little bit to accomodate reality. My dream is to have a class do so well that they all deserve A's, which I joyfully give them. Nevertheless, most years I get a normal distribution around a B or C+, or a double humped curve around a C and a B+. (We have no B- grade, for no discernable reason).

Taking exams is the pits. Writing them is almost as bad as taking them. Grading them is worse, because it takes much longer, is much duller, and contains infinite possibilities for self-reproach ('how could I have said something that would make them think that????'). I am the world's slowest grader. Being married to a grading machine only makes it worse.

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One Response to Musings About Law School Teaching, Exams, and Grading

  1. John says:

    Why are law school exams so poorly written? In my own experience (I graduated in 1998 from HLS), there was no reward for writing well. Most professors would SAY that we shouldn’t just dump the data, but the exams that got the highest grades were those that crammed in the most content regardless of form. And so those of us who started law school by writing exams with some care for form learned not to bother — my own grades went up when I started pumping out analysis as fast as possible.

    There was, however, one prof who I know did give credit for “good organization” on the final — Charles Donahue, whom I had for Property and, later, Roman Law.

    Great site, BTW. This is my first visit, thanks to Daily Whirl.

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