Exam Writing History: The Fall of the Monster Issue Spotter?
Like many professors, I’ve been spending much of my time this past week putting together my exam (this semester, I’m teaching a Human Behavior Colloquium and Corporations). In doing so, I’ve been thinking about the tension between an old poll I did on best exam writing practices and the comments that it engendered. In particular, I was interested in the possibility that short-answer questions and multiple choice have been on the rise of late in law school exams.
I believe, based on conversations with older lawyers, that back-in-the-day (which is much more recent than it used to be) most law school exams consisted of one, two, or at most three large issue spotter questions. (LISQs) LISQs in turn gave rise to IRAQ, which is a terrific idea if executed with enough preparation and facts on the ground. But over time, in seems, more professors have turned to multiple choice, true-false, short-answer, and other forms of evaluation.
You might be tempted to think that this choice was caused by the movement toward higher academic output standards, since there is a well-known relationship between the intensity of teaching/grading and articles one produces. Or you might think this is pure laziness/Arschlochkeit in action. But I think that there’s an alternative hypothesis: the law has gotten much more technical and complex over time, making it harder to test in one LISQ even a fair proportion of the materials covered in class. Compare, for example, administrative law or corporate law from a generation ago to today, and I think you will find exponential increases in the amount of caselaw, density of the regulatory statutes, and the theoretical nuance of the commentators. Since most professors feel some obligation to test what they teach, smaller, more discrete, questions become more attractive. This despite the fact that law professors are given almost no guidance on how to write exams, and (especially) how to design multiple choice or true/false questions so that they don’t mislead students.
We could test this hypothesis if we could identify an area of law that has resisted the turn toward complexity, and compared the design of old and new exams. I’m thinking perhaps property law fits the bill? Shucks, now that RAP is dead, that course is a cinch.