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January 30, 2008

A (risky? helpful?) open dialogue about our class final

As I have already mentioned a few times, I am not yet sure what kind of final I should give in this class.  Though I am leaning toward a 36-hour essay/policy take-home exam (option 2(d) discussed below), I am not sure such an exam format is student-friendly in the Spring Semester after a long 1L year.  Moreover, because I am (intentionally) focused on broad themes in our class, I am starting to think a final paper might be more appropriate than an exam.

Especially because class members have now just received their grades from first semester exams, I thought it might be useful to ponder the class final publically in this space and to encourage student input (either through comments or during our upcoming lunches).  Though I may eventually survey the whole class in a more formal manner, for now I want to lay out six basic options I am seriously considering and hear whatever reactions students might have to any or all of the possibilities.  So here goes:

1.  A traditional exam final (given in-class and closely timed) and comprised of (a) mostly focused issue-spotting questions OR (b) mostly broad policy questions.

2.  A take-home exam final (with some time pressure and strict word limits) and comprised of (c) mostly focused issue-spotting questions OR (d) mostly broad policy questions.

3.  A final paper (with a fixed deadline and strict word limits) and comprised of (e) a few shorter submissions due through the semester OR (f) a larger single paper submitted at the end of the semester.

January 30, 2008 in Class requirements | Permalink


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The suggestion of oral exams gave me this idea:
We are given a topic (fact pattern) that we have to prepare some sort of written document for. This is turned in for 50-75% of our grade. We then have a 30(?) minute session with Professor Berman to debate the points of the fact pattern and our written argument.
This would incorporate both written and oral arguments that are relevant to this class.
Depending on how Professor Berman and the class feels, the oral debate could also be done in a group format.

Posted by: Adam | Jan 30, 2008 2:12:21 PM

I personally think writing several short papers is a well-suited approach for actually learning the material, and not simply learning the material for the exam. You are incrementally required to delve into each major topic in detail... and therefore enabling you to write intelligently regarding it.

Posted by: Paige | Jan 30, 2008 6:09:01 PM

While oral exams were very fun in French or Italian, I agree with Paige, that the best way for us to learn the material is by multiple assignments that can be given time and thought (playing the whole game is more fun then just free-throw drills right?)

Posted by: Amanda McNeil | Jan 30, 2008 6:58:34 PM

I am personally leaning towards (f). I like the idea of being able to go really in-depth in addressing a fascinating question or subject, and in that respect a single paper would allow more room for research and analysis than several shorter papers.

And it would be rather nice to have a change of pace, compared to our other classes.

Posted by: S. Lee | Jan 30, 2008 11:29:59 PM

I think an oral aspect to the exam would be fun and a nice change. Regardless of an oral aspect I would prefer 1 paper, as long as it wasn't 60 pages. I don't think I would be able to dedicate as much time as we should to it. When legal writing ends in April we only have three classes and more time to spend on a paper.

Posted by: Alexandra Dattilo | Jan 31, 2008 6:28:06 PM

I still support the in-class exam, specifically the broad question. (1B)

1. Uniform test taking environment for everyone
2. No need to stress out for 36 hours straight!
3. Expectations for in class exam is lower due to time constraint.
4. We only need to do well ONCE

"Free throwing"
So what? It's nothing new.

As for papers, who wants to deal with the Bluebook again?
As for oral exams, um... SERIOUSLY? What about anonymous grading?

Posted by: ebae | Jan 31, 2008 8:47:49 PM

I would definitely prefer one large paper at the end of the semester. The take-home option is particularly undesirable considering that a few days prior to the due date for that take-home, we will have our Con Law take-home due. The aggregate lack of sleep between those two take-homes might result in chronic delirium and/or binge drinking; neither one of which are conducive to a good law school finals performance.

Posted by: Drew LaFramboise | Jan 31, 2008 8:52:20 PM

I would also prefer a large paper at the end of the semester. Legislation as a course and as a subject-matter encourages us to ask some really difficult questions regarding the strucural inequities that exist in the system. While we are getting a great overview of the topic as a whole I think it is difficult to really develop an in-depth understanding of the process (or the product) without really researching and developing well-informed personal opinions. I think the knowledge gained from producing a researched paper would also facilitate a more informed vote in the upcoming presidential election.

Posted by: Renata Y. | Feb 1, 2008 7:28:54 AM

Personally, I support several smaller papers due throughout the semester. I like this option 1) because it will allow us to get feedback so we can improve throughout the semester and 2) it will prevent me from procrastinating and writing a large paper the weekend before it is due when I am studying for all our other finals. However, I see a lot of people support the larger paper so that there is the opportunity to delve deeper into a single subject. Possibly we could combine the pros of both options by having the larger paper be due "legal writing style" with a draft or two due throughout the semester to check/force progress.

Posted by: Christina | Feb 1, 2008 8:27:34 AM

I would prefer 3e, multiple smaller papers. Because this class is not as formally-structured as some of our other classes, I would appreciate some feedback earlier on in the semester.

Posted by: Erin Butcher | Feb 1, 2008 8:45:15 AM

I agree with most of what is being said here. I like in class exams. I think a take home exam might be a bad idea in addition to the take home we already have Constitutional Law.
While an oral exam would contradict anonymous grading, unless we used a church confessional or something, it would also enable us to incorporate the whole basketball game into the exam. We are learning how to prepare arguments (reading from the perspective of your who) and how to actually debate (in class). A short take home writing assignment in addition to a later oral debate would cover both of these and be supply total coverage to the way class is run.
I think that several short papers doesn't constitute playing the whole game instead of shooting free throws. Several short assignments is lay up drills instead of free throws.

Posted by: Adam | Feb 1, 2008 8:53:43 AM

I never thought I would say I wanted an in-class exam, but I am now. I think the law school exam format is the best way to test skills learned during the semester in a way that separates different levels of analysis.

Posted by: Michael Wilt | Feb 1, 2008 10:20:46 AM

Oh, and I think it'd have to be a broad policy question, not an issue spotter.

Posted by: Michael Wilt | Feb 1, 2008 10:32:02 AM

I would bet that we would have almost an anonymous vote for a broad policy question, as opposed to an issue-spotting question, because it allows one to combine both research and social impact.

I would actually hate a large paper due at the end of the semester, due to my severe procrastination and our hectic schedules. I procrastinate anyway, but add that to our heavy workload, and even those who like to get things done early will have a hard time really focusing on the paper until right before its due date (which would be when we need to be studying for other exams).

I support the shorter papers throughout the semester, because they would cover a broader range of materials, so if one topic is not particularly interesting to you, you only have to write a few pages about it. Also, spacing it out would keep the semester more balanced, instead of end-of-the-semester-heavy. I would like to get a deeper understanding of multiple topics, not a completely exhaustive understanding of only one topic that may or may not be useful in the future.

Posted by: Kristen | Feb 1, 2008 11:31:25 AM

I like Adam's suggested format (outlined in the previous message). Incorporating both a written and oral examination component seems to me the most thorough, engaging approach and the one that most closely mirrors the actual legislative process.

Posted by: Rick | Feb 1, 2008 12:23:37 PM

I would prefer may 1 or 2 smaller papers and then the larger one at the end. I can understand the need for feedback and just to get an idea of what we should be thinking about throughout the course. I also think that a couple papers leading up to a larger final paper would help with organzation, structure and knowing how to impress Professor Berman.

Posted by: J. Page | Feb 1, 2008 12:30:20 PM

What if we had the large end paper due before finals even started? That way we wouldn't have to be writing it while studying for finals? Little papers throughout seem daunting with all that is expected of us in legal writing...just some thoughts. I would like to put my vote in for definitely not an in-class OR take-home timed exam.

Posted by: Allison | Feb 1, 2008 1:17:49 PM

And, of course, in my post above I meant "unanimous," not "anonymous," although both could technically work.

Posted by: Kristen | Feb 1, 2008 1:19:38 PM

I think that regardless of what structure (test, long paper, short papers) that there be an option for that structure to be presented orally.

Posted by: Hyatt Shirkey | Feb 1, 2008 1:40:42 PM

I like the idea of a paper to be defended orally. I agree with Adam that this takes into account the "whole basketball game". As 1Ls we are short-changed in the oral argument department of the game and I think it would be great to get some experience. If we do not incorporate an oral aspect, I would prefer the multiple shorter papers as I think it would allow us to cover more than just one topic. I think it would be a disservice to only cover one topic given the amount of material we cover in a semester.

Posted by: Miranda Leppla | Feb 1, 2008 6:04:33 PM

I liked today's suggestion in class a lot of having a paper for some of our grade, written earlier, and an exam later. Based on the comment that the type of material that we are studying will change, it will also for an examination system that matches the materials.

I think that what we have studied so far is not very suitable for a traditional in class exam, but would work well in a paper format.

If in fact the material later is more typical law-school cases/isssues/rules, etc, then lets just have the typical law school exam. One of the nice things about them is that they are short, and then they are over.

Posted by: Alexios | Feb 1, 2008 6:07:12 PM

This is our first year of law school. Everyone is supposed to be graded based on the same standards in each class. It is why we have a curve, and it is why we have blind grading. Some may not like it but the fact remains that the way first year grading is done at law schools is a time-tested tradition.

There are three things on which the professor in any class should base the grade. First, does the student understand the material? Second, does the student demonstrate the ability to use the material? Third, does the student display professional competence? I don't see an oral examination, unless it is several hours long, giving an adequate opportunity to every student to fully display their knowledge, abilities, and competence. I'm undecided on whether short or long papers would do this, but I suppose they would. An in-class exam certainly would.

For starters, not everyone is an oral advocate. We are supposed to learn how to orally advocate our position in the second two years of law school, but the fact remains that most lawyers never spend time in the courtroom. It is their writing and researching abilities that are most valuable to their employer.

I think we'd be treading down the wrong path to somehow get rid of the anonymity and require people to orally "defend" whatever. There are major problems with uniformity in grading and the expectations for a first year law student in having that type of grading. So I would strongly urge a written-based type of grade.

Posted by: Michael Wilt | Feb 3, 2008 12:57:19 PM

Though I thoroughly disagree with Mr. Wilt's assessment of how different exam types would reflect the "three things on which the professor in any class should base the grade," I do agree that a written-based type of examination would be best. I also am convinced that the best way to do this is through take-home assignments (preferably multiple).

Why Multiple is the Way to Go:
In practice, a lawyer is not going to put a case off and deal with it all at once immediately before trial/final opportunity to settle. He deals with it at a regular pace in response to developments in the case.

Further, the idea has been briefly stated once, but I want to make it clear: short papers are not just about getting feed back along the way, but ***short papers give an indication as to how we are supposed to be learning this material while we're learning it*** A longer paper at the end would be my second choice, but it has the serious flaw that it does nothing to ensure we understand what we're reading, it only checks whether we understood what we read. I would prefer to make sure I'm learning the right things during the semester than to try to figure everything out at once in the end.

Why Take Home is the Way to Go:
Of the various things a lawyer has to do, there are certainly time restraints, but most of them tend to be: "file this within 20 days" or "you have 10 days to make this response." An attorney is usually given a reasonable period of time to come up with a response.

The only ordinary circumstances in which there would be a 4 hour time limit, or the like, is if a superior asked for a quick analysis of some set of facts that they give you. In this situation, they're not thinking, "I must be determine whether this guy is a good attorney based on this one assignment." They're probably more interested in you jumpstarting their own thought processes.

Things happen in life...even during exam week, the world goes on despite law students. To prevent disadvantages (1) to those who have a crisis at that time, which isn't pressing enough to get special exam treatment (i.e. take it at a more convenient time), and (2) to those who might make great lawyers as a whole, but are not fond of the seemingly rare (in practice) "cram as much as you can in as short a period of time" sessions, shorter papers from time to time seem best.

Posted by: John C. Ruiz-Bueno, III | Feb 6, 2008 10:52:57 AM

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