Thursday, May 05, 2005

Beating that dead horse...

Objective law school exams

Well, it's exam time, so a good time for a post on this subject. Professor Bainbridge posted sample objective (multiple choice/true-false) exam questions last week. That provokes some thoughts on this age-old debate.

I don't give multiple choice exams, and don't think they're the best way to go. Here are some considerations that do not explain my view:

--Students don't like them. Actually, I have no idea. On this and other teaching issues I have to use my judgment.

--It's lazy to give multiple choice. Actually, I'm not sure -- it would be very hard for me to come up with multiple choice questions that are as challenging and fair as Professor Bainbridge's seem to be.

--There are no "right" answers, and multiple choice questions fail to hit the nuances of law. There are better and worse answers and good multiple choice questions can be quite nuanced.

So why do I insist on torturing myself (and my students) with essay exams? One reason:

Good lawyers write and speak clearly and persuasively. While an essay exam can identify the students who know the law as well as an objective exam, it can do something an objective exam cannot do -- identify those students who can recognize distinct legal issues and formulate cogent legal arguments. Teaching these skills is an important objective of law school, and the students who have or learn these skills are the most valuable in the marketplace.

I am especially convinced of the rightness of my approach when, each year, I talk to students about their exams. They are often hard-working and smart students who did worse than they or I expected (blind grading, of course). When I look at the student's exam, I am not surprised -- the answers were there somewhere, but it would have taken Houdini to find them. For the above reasons, such students, in my view, deserves lower grades than those with equal knowledge plus the ability to express it clearly.

But having said all that, I am not entirely convinced. So surely there should be room in law school for all approaches.

Any questions?

So suddenly at least one example dawns on me. It is what I call the "straw man" argument. There are many times issues in law school exams that are non-issues. In other words, in a con law test we looked at in class, a there was some question of whether a student's religious freedom was violated. Actually, there was no question at all, because it was the mother who was religious. The kid wasn't and his actions weren't motivated by it. So I discussed it and moved on.

In my first few years of law school I would have avoided knocking down what I call the "straw man". The really important and interesting questions you should spend time on are where the distinctions are blurred and the facts are incomplete, leaving us to do more analysis than "well it isn't that because of this." Such "straw men" questions can be significant points, and more intelligent students will automatically discount them because they have no net effect upon the power of the argument one way or the other.

While I strenuously object to the "straw man" question, that is the game we play. Forewarned is forearmed.


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