Ed. note: This is a guest post by Anonymous Law Professor (“ALP”), who may be writing occasionally for these pages. Given how stressed-out law students are right now — as reflected in, among other things, their exam-time tweets — we asked ALP to offer some advice on the dreaded law school exam, from the professorial perspective.
Do professors really care about drafting and grading exams?
I have yet to encounter a law professor with a flippant attitude toward grading (not that there aren’t some out there.) We want to get it right. Generally, we take pride in creating fair exams. In law schools with curves, a good exam will be a hard exam. A well-constructed exam results in a distribution of competence. I will throw questions into my exams that anyone with a pulse and writing instrument should get right. If someone routinely misses those questions, it’s clear where they fall on the curve. On the best exams, occasionally a student will spot a relevant ambiguity that even I didn’t see when I created the test. To me, that’s creditworthy.
So, yes, we care. But that doesn’t mean we like giving and grading exams.
I think my colleagues at schools that don’t give letter grades may have a different approach. They have it somewhat easier….
Do professors enjoy giving exams?
No, we don’t. They are a necessary evil. Until the supervisory authorities change their minds and come up with an alternative means of consistent evaluation, we are stuck with them.
Grading exams might be the only part of the wonderful job we have in academia that we dislike. Imagine piles and piles of repetitive, half-coherent written material that you must decipher with precision. It’s not the students’ fault. The grading slog is the price professors pay for the joy of being able to teach and write.
Where do you grade exams?
I’m always terrified that I will lose exams. Bill Clinton, when he was a young adjunct law professor at the University of Arkansas, lost all of his Con Law finals. One of his students was Susan Webber, who went on to become Judge Susan Webber Wright, the judge assigned to the Paula Jones case. That’s a situation I want to avoid in its entirety.
I grade exams at home in a windowless room. Some of my colleagues grade them at coffee shops. I will grade one question at a time, front to back. I take frequent breaks. I read every word and I try my best to be consistent in awarding points across the very different styles of essays before me. Every so often, I take an evening off and review the question back to front. Then I move on.
What are the biggest mistakes students make?
Other than not knowing the rules, or ignoring obviously stand-out items in fact-patterns? Wasting time. Time is the exam-taker’s most valuable commodity. If a student doesn’t know the answer to a certain question, or doesn’t know what to make of a fact, that student should move on to the next question. Making up a story or new rules, or tortuously applying a rule, gets a student nowhere. The time could have been used to fully flesh out a correct answer on the next question. Cracking jokes may amuse me (not usually for content, but for attempt), but it never gets points.
Another fatal and common error involves not reading and answering the question asked. If the exam asks what are the defendant’s strongest defenses to negligence, the exam is trying to help you. With that narrower prompt, I am asking you to narrow your response to only concern the defendant. Don’t tell me about the plaintiff! You are wasting time and I won’t give you points.
Are there other stylistic or tactical problems that students encounter?
I’ll share some of my “favorites.” The use of foreign material from a commercial outline or supplement usually leads to trouble. I recognize the foreign material quickly. If a student feels the need to use the supplement on the exam, odds are, I wasn’t testing for the concept that they thought. The exam-taker probably had access to a more on-point and basic rule from the course that he could have applied. If the commercial outline gets it right, and you get it right, I will be forgiving. But the use of the supplement alone rings the “they didn’t understand the problem” bell.
A slight detour, if you’ll indulge me on outlines: I don’t object per se to the use of commercial outlines as study aids, provided that students use them to understand what we are actually covering. I have had students approach me at exam time, waving thick books, telling me things like, “The supplement says there’s a whole lot more to intentional torts… I don’t understand all of this other stuff that’s in this book. What should I do?” I remind them that supplements are… supplements. I note that we have plenty of core material to address. My advice is to use the commercial outlines to help understand concepts that elude you. I did have a student complain once that the supplement indicated that we weren’t covering the “full range of the topic.” I noted to the student that the supplement also didn’t cover the full range of the topic.
Finally, don’t just vomit your knowledge on the page. I know you are under time pressure, but some basic semblance of organization is necessary. Taking five minutes at the beginning of the exam to outline your answer will reap you points at the end.
Are exams an exercise in just showing what you know?
Nothing can replace preparation and deep understanding of the material. If you have that understanding, you have a shot at recognizing the fact patterns and churning out a solid analysis.
Do avoid the “Cliff Clavin” problem: being a know-it-all with a mastery of extraneous legal trivia. Don’t show me what you learned in other law school classes, college, or from the guy at the bus station. In my upper level courses in particular, someone will often go on about the statute of frauds or jurisdictional issues in courses that do not test contracts or civil procedure. If the exam is on White Collar Crime, don’t go off on a sidebar telling me how the victim of the fraud should have noted that the contract should have been in writing to be enforceable, or why the victim should have brought a civil case in Guam. Odds are that the question is about some federal criminal statute, given the course title, and you are wasting your time. In my exam, no points are waiting for you.
What should first-year law students know about grading?
Every law professor grades a little bit (or a lot) differently. If you haven’t already asked your professor how they evaluate you, immediately find someone who was smart enough to ask. Some professors want you to cite cases and compare facts, some just want you to know rules and see how you apply them. Does the professor subtract points for wrong answers or irrelevant tangents? Do they expect a clear, tightly-written exam, or are they more tolerant of rambling? That would affect your strategy.
What should students do if they just draw a blank and panic?
I suffered through exams once, too. I’ve had that happen and I was a decent exam-taker. I think if you studied, you should take a deep breath, remind yourself that the material you learned is somewhere on the test, and start looking for issues. Focus on the big topics. Run through the course sequence in your brain and look at the test again — and start with the questions, not the facts.
If you didn’t study, or didn’t study properly, I think you should examine why you didn’t. If you had a personal emergency, that’s one thing. If you had no such event, maybe you don’t have the passion for law school or becoming a lawyer. This education is an expensive enterprise. Perhaps you are sending a signal to yourself to reexamine what you are doing.
What if you get a bad grade?
If you get low grades across the board, talk to your professors about reviewing your exam. At least one of them will spend time with you, and maybe all of them will. There are common problems that can be fixed, like time management, for example. Maybe you have trouble issue-spotting, or maybe you didn’t explain your answers (even though you could have.) Check and see.
Also, if you did well on one exam, you should know that you are probably capable of performing on that level. See what you can do to extend your success on that test to other tests.
Good luck! I remember how horribly stressful this process was for me. I see the stress on my students’ faces every November. I wish there was a better way, but here we are… That said, some of you will be really good exam-takers and will relish the puzzle.
– ANONYMOUS LAW PROFESSOR