Great Lesson on Exam Writing From Prof. Stephen Bainbridge at UCLA Law

Law school exams, the bane of my existence.  This is such a good lesson from the blog UCLA Law Prof. Stephen Bainbridge.  Reprinted verbatim.

Exam drafting tips for a new law teacher

A former student who is now teaching securities regulation for the first time asked for some exam writing tips.  FWIW, here’s what I came up with:

  • Don’t make it too complicated. You’ll get garbage back.
    • You could put students in a room with a window, ask them to describe the weather, and get a bell curve. So don’t make it too complicated.
  • Try to be fair. If you use three essays (typical) make sure they focus on three areas that ate up a lot of class time.
  • Problems from other case books can be a good place to start.
  • Prepare your model answer before you administer the exam, so you can (hopefully) catch any major glitches.
    • Related: if you can write a model answer in about half the time you’ve allotted for the students, that should be okay. If it takes you an hour and you expect the students to do it in an hour, nobody (but you) is going to finish on time.
  • Give the students a suggested time limit and tell them how much each question will be weighted.
    • Try to make sure the time limits give students 10 minutes or so at the end to reflect, reorganize, and review their answers. Since all students now use laptops (at least at UCLA), you’ll get a much better product.
  • Avoid policy questions. Hard to grade fairly.
  • Ask a colleague in the field to review your exam for advice and tips.
    • Ask your spouse/partner/friend to review the exam for typos and clarity.  Ideally, this will be a non-lawyer who will be closer to the level of the students than to a seasoned practitioner.
  • Think carefully about your trigger question. If you lay out a set of facts and end with “Discuss,” you’ll get back crap that’s almost impossible to grade.
  • A short answer section will help you cover more material (fairer) and is easier to grade, so its a win-win.
    • Securities regulation lends itself to multiple choice.
  • Red herrings are fun to write but the results can be problematic mush when you try to grade the answers.
  • Avoid confusing names (and use only PC ones).
  • Avoid letting students pick 3 questions out of 4 to answer. It destroys replicability and is a pain in the ass to grade, so it’s a lose-lose.
  • Closed book exams do little other than to raise the student’s anxiety, especially in a statutory course. Besides which, life is not closed book.
  • Think about what the question is designed to do. To test one issue at a very deep level (a mining question) or to test a lot of issues at a very light level? Have the trigger question reflect that choice.

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