Ye Olde Professor’s Guide to Building an Exam Curve

Shortly after I joined the faculty at Santa Clara Law, I wandered into the area of our library dedicated to a collection of Arcana and Occult texts. (Disclaimer: This section of the library does not, in fact, exist.) My goal: to find advice for drafting my first set of law-school examinations. I was concerned about making my exams too easy, and wanted some tips on how to construct tough, but fair, tests.

There was no one else about; the hour was late, the staff and students had left. As I wandered about the stacks, one tome caught my eye. The gold lettering on its spine twinkled in the candlelight. I reached out for it – or did it reach out for me? – and, I swear to this day, it leapt off the shelf and sprung open in my hand.

The page that revealed itself bore the image of a man dressed in ancient professor’s garb; of what precise vintage I could not tell, and there was no caption to disclose his identity. Instead, next to the portrait on the yellowed, crumbling page lay this text, written in what I hoped beyond hope was simply reddish-brown ink: “Ye Olde Professor’s Guide to Building an Exam Curve.”

Eureka! This was precisely what I had been looking for, so I read on. I will spare the reader a full recitation of the text that followed, save to say that H.P. Lovecraft himself might have claimed its contents. To ensure that my eyes, and my eyes alone, are the only ones scarred by what these pages revealed, I will simply summarize the advice it conferred, for professors and students to do with what they will. Much of this counsel concerned the concoction of Torts examinations, but may cast its dark shadow elsewhere.

The Guide related five tips:

1. Divide and Conquer

First, the accursed manual advised me to space the facts pertinent to a given issue far apart in a fact pattern. Are you a Torts professor, testing negligence per se? If so, relate the statute or ordinance in question at the very start or very end of the fact pattern, several paragraphs away from your discussion of the conduct that might implicate the measure. Or are you a Criminal Procedure professor, testing the good-faith exception to the exclusionary rule? Reference the date of the incident―say, November 2008―in passing in your introductory sentence, along with several other foundational facts; hold back on mentioning any search of the passenger compartment of a vehicle incident to arrest until a few paragraphs later; and, a few paragraphs after that, finally mention, in as offhand a manner as possible, that the resulting case is being tried in December 2011.  Voila—only the most careful exam connoisseurs will detect that you have laced their drink with a Belton/Gant/Davis good-faith issue.

2. Overlapping Theories, and Peripheral Plaintiffs and Defendants

Here, the guide recommended that I incorporate multiple theories of liability against a potential defendant; students may lock in on only one, and neglect the others. Likewise, defendants such as retailers in a strict products liability hypothetical, employers in a respondeat superior fact pattern, and landowners when intentional tortfeasors are afoot often prove difficult for students to spot, if only because their culpability seems so much less than that of other potential parties.  In the same vein, in a passage I cannot help but quote directly (for I could not have written it myself), the Guide advised, “You will find that passing references to husbands and wives, who might have easily-overlooked wrongful-death or consortium claims, will oil the slope of your curve with student tears.”

3. Dogs that Don’t Bark

The Guide instructed that the best issues, from the standpoint of creating a curve, are those that do not require extensive factual build-up, or peculiar words or phrases that will blow their “disguise” (cf. any reference to “dynamiting” in a Torts examination), but which have a huge impact on the correct answer nevertheless. With Criminal Procedure, standing (in a situation involving multiple defendants) is just this sort of issue; with Torts, but-for causation can have a similar effect―so long as one avoids the word “caused.”

4. Sleight of Hand

Here, the Guide told me, begin by writing your fact pattern such that a particular issue looks like a slam-dunk, with a particular party getting his or her just desserts. Have a drunk driver blow through a stop sign and mow down a nun; he’s guilty of negligence, at least, of course. Or, notwithstanding Rule Three, supra, use variants of the word “conspiracy” to describe a cabal, e.g., “A and B conspired to rob a bank”; they’re clearly guilty, right? Feel free to employ adverbs liberally toward this purpose, e.g., “C cruelly drove drunk and cruelly blew through a stop sign and cruelly mowed down a nun.”

Then, Step Two: Subtly structure the facts such that A, B, and C in fact cannot be found liable. Maybe the nun was pushed in front of the drunk driver, such that even a sober driver who obeyed all traffic laws would have struck her. You get the idea. This way, a student’s moral intuition may cause them to overlook the more subtle reason why, in fact, the defendant can’t be found liable, or successfully prosecuted for a crime.

5. The Ghost

Perhaps most diabolically, the Guide advised me that the best cause of action is sometimes no cause of action at all. Students, it instructed, want to find causes of action, crimes, or other violations of the law within an issue-spotter; an exam that implicates innumerable theories, all of which fail for some reason or another, will prove especially vexing to all but the most confident students.


The reader will have to accept my account of this text’s existence, for as soon as I read the last words above the book shuddered and shook in my hands, then crumbled into dust.  Whether the text yielded wisdom, or only heartbreak, I cannot say; I recount this story solely for posterity, and desire not to be seen as an advocate of its mayhap baleful words.

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1 Response

  1. Jack B. Nimble says:

    So basically the book instructed you to be a dick.