Examining Law School Exams
There are a lot of really good discussions going on in the blogosphere about law school exams recently.
In most law school courses, the grade is based on one final exam given at the end of the semester. Eugene Volokh offers a defense of this practice:
Naturally, some students might value the greater accuracy of the multi-exam approach, and the lower risk to them that this approach provides (since they don’t need to worry as much about tanking a class because they screw up one exam). But for many students the downside of yet more studying and yet more worrying exceeds the upside of less risk and better measurement accuracy. And on top of that, grades are on balance mostly a zero-sum game — more accuracy of testing will just rearrange the As, Bs, and Cs, so as many students will lose as will win. Increased time needed to study for exams is a net loss for students as a whole. Therefore, you’d expect that more accurate measurement devices will please only a few students, while greater need to study will displease many more students.
So professors don’t want to institute more exams, even if having more exams provides more accurate measurement. More students, I suspect, don’t want to institute more exams, even if having more exams provides more accurate measurement. Who would predictably benefit from more accurate measurement, and lose nothing from it? Employers, and perhaps indirectly the legal system generally.
My take on exams is that the big problem with them is the format, not the one-exam-decides-it-all system. Exams are given under immense time pressure, thus favoring students who are able to analyze and write cogently in a very quick timeframe. This is a good skill, although it is significantly undervalued in practice, where law firms reward associates based on billable hours. Ironically, law firms therefore should select students who don’t do well on law school exams, since it will take these students longer to complete assignments, and hence generate more billable hours. In the land of the billable hour, the inefficient lawyer is king.
Perhaps the most appropriate thing for law school exams to measure is a student’s ability to produce a thoughtful legal memo under less onerous time constraints. For some classes, I experimented with take home exams where students had 24 hours to complete them. If 24 hours is enough time for Keifer Sutherland to save the world, it’s enough time for a student to write a short memo. I figured that this would give students more opportunity to think and analyze rather than just write in a frenzy. However, there are some problems with take home exams. First, take home exams increase the possibility of cheating. Second, many students find them to be especially onerous. Although my take home exams were designed to be completed in about four to six hours of work time (spread throughout the day so students had some time away from the exam), students would often spend the full 24 hours toiling on the exam. Many weary-eyed students told me that they preferred a three-hours-and-you’re-done exam rather than pulling an all-nighter on my 24 hour take home exam. Finally, I was surprised to find that the quality of the take home exams wasn’t that much better than the in class exams. I can’t explain why this was the case; it cut against everything I had theorized.
Are there better ways to measure student performance in a class? In thinking about this question, Volokh’s point about efficiency is worth thinking seriously about. More accurate metrics of performance often have costs in time and stress, and sometimes the less perfect but more efficient metric is best. Part of the analysis depends on the answer to Ann Althouse’s question. If exams are in and of themselves a rewarding educational experience (rather than just a metric of academic performance), then this is a factor that must be weighed in the balance. I remain uneasy about traditional in class exams, but I have not yet hit on an alternative that is significantly better. Take home exams might be a marginal improvement, and in the future I might experiment more with take home exams.