Preparing for the Three Ring Circus (But Not Yet)

Many, many thanks to Dan and the other CoOp regulars for having me back this month.  For Court watchers, June can feel like a vigil for the term’s final, big decisions, but this year that tension is heightened in anticipation of all that may occur in Florida v. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.  To wit, SCOTUSblog has issued what is effectively an emergency preparedness plan.  I am working on a presentation and a workshop paper for two conferences related to the spending and healthcare action this term and will turn to my favorite topics soon.  But, as Gerard noted recently, many are suffering from healthcare reform overload, malaise, exhaustion… .  Accordingly, as I am coming up for air after grading 70 Constitutional Law essay exams (what is that, at least a thousand pages of grading?), I am thinking about the semester’s high and low points and ways in which I can improve my classroom performance. 

There is nothing like the marathon of grading to initiate this kind of reflection, which I think is a useful exercise before diving into the pleasures of summer research and conferences.  I imagine we have all experienced the gratification of seeing that our students have learned something well and rose to the challenge on an exam, and the disappointment of realizing that no one understood a word we said on a particular topic.  It can be hard to self-correct during the semester except to clear up the immediate points of confusion (though I do make notes in my syllabus when topics don’t proceed as planned).  But, the next year’s students can benefit from the prior year’s lessons, some of which can be learned from student evaluations, and some of which can result from ‘exam reflection.’  Taking a moment to reconsider can result in fruitful actions such as better exams, rewriting part of a syllabus, restructuring a class to introduce material better, considering supplemental materials, or revisiting casebook choices.  Sometimes a deliberate choice not to act occurs to see if the issue is a blip or a trend. 

In light of these musings, I have two questions, one general, and one more specific to Con Law:

1.  Do you use exams to reflect on the success of the semester’s teaching?  If so, how?  What kinds of issues do you think warrant attention given the limitations of the law school exam structure?

2.  Do you provide any background materials that are the equivalent of the civics lessons of yore?  Every year I have students come to my office concerned that they will be left behind in Con Law because they know virtually nothing about American history, politics, civics, or the Constitution.  My first assignment is always to read the Constitution, which levels the playing field a bit (funny how many poli sci majors think they know everything but have never actually read the document).  But, I have yet to find a good, concise background reader for my nervous con law newbies.  I don’t think this lack of background affects exam performance, but I would like to find a good resource.  Suggestions?

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4 Responses

  1. Kurt Lash says:


    I do think occasionally exams can be helpful self-evaluations tools. For example, if several exams that are otherwise very good nevertheless struggle with (or miss) the same point in a similar way, I take that as a signal to think about how I taught the subject and consider making changes the next time around. I often make notes (right away) in the master syllabus to remind myself when I start putting together the next class.

    As for background materials, this is very tricky. All of us teach the material in slightly different ways (sometimes in very different ways). Unless we have written our own study guides, it is not likely that any one source will fully or even adequately present information in a manner helpful to a student seeking a decent grade in your particular class.

    Still, I do believe students often can benefit from short “scholarly assists” regarding particularly important historical events, persons, and cases. For this reason, I recommend students pick up a copy of The Oxford Companion to the Supreme Court. Every case, justice, theory and historical event that has any significance to the study of the American Constitution gets a short discussion by a top scholar in the field. Its quick, painless, generally “neutral,” and gives the student enough background material to help them understand the lecture without giving them an “outline” of the course.

  2. Kurt Lash says:

    And sorry about misspelling Nicole!

  3. Nicole Huberfeld says:

    Hi Kurt, Many thanks for your thoughtful comment. I had thought about the Oxford Companion, but I have steered away from it because our library only carries the electronic version. I am rethinking that bias now, as our students are “digital natives” who may find the format intuitive. It sounds like you have your students use the hard copy – do you think something would be lost in the translation to the electronic version?

  4. Kurt Lash says:

    I’ve not used (or even seen) the electronic version, but if it’s complete I would think it would be fine. Perhaps even better (more convenient and “immediate” search options).

    My students have generally bought used hard copy versions from Amazon.