May 11, 2010
The Law School Exam Autopsy
Posted by Christine Hurt

It's May, and many of us are about to grade, grading, or doing the "I just finished my grading and you haven't" dance.  At some point, students will be notified of their grades, and then we will all spend some time talking with individual students about their grades.  The number of students who want to come in and go over their exams seems to increase each year, leading me to the assumption that students are being told that in order to improve their grades, they should meet with their professors to go over their exams.  I feel like I'm the weak link in the chain here, though.  Students come in seeking clarity, enlightenment or at least reassurance.  I'm afraid all I'm good for sometimes is a pep talk.  I write a fairly detailed model answer outline and let students compare their exam to that model answer.  I create elaborate charts with the points given for each question, means and medians for each question, the total, etc.  Students can see which questions they did well on compared to other answers, how far away they were from the next higher or lower grade, etc.  Yet, students still come to see me to spray some Magic Exam Review on them.  So, in case there are students out there, here are some of my thoughts on the post-exam autopsy.  For other professors out there, I'd love to know what you have to add.

1.  You want me to tell you something specific that will help you do better next time, and I probably can't tell you that.  Unless there was some clear mistake that ran through the exam (you repeatedly misread the question, ran out of time, or spent time reciting the facts or giving a primer on the law), then it's hard to diagnose any particular problem that can be cured quickly and easily.  I wish I could be like Dr. Brennan, the forensic anthropologist on Bones.  I would look at your exams and say, "Aha, you seem to have spent too much time re-reading cases when you should have been doing practice exams.  That type of studying often shows itself in an exam like this."  But, I can't.  If you missed points on an issue-spotting exam, you may have just not seen issues or not analyzed them completely.  In a law school, there are some mistakes (just getting the rule wrong), but mostly omissions (not seeing issues/subissues).  This could be from lack of preparation/retention, but it might not be.   From just your exam, it's hard to know what I can tell you to do better next time.  If I ask you how much you studied, you're going to tell me you studied a lot, and you're going to list the study activities that most people do:  read for class, review class notes, make an outline, do practice questions, etc.  I'm not there with you when you study, so I can't tell what you are doing right or wrong.  Now, if you tell me that you didn't go to class or make an outline or something like that, then I can use my rudimentary "Aha" skills, but that's about it.

2.  You tell me all of your grades were disappointing, and you want me to tell you what to do so that you do better next time.  This is actually a slightly different question, and I may have more to go on.  If your grade in my class were an outlier, then we might be able to see if you studied as much for my class, etc.  However, if you didn't like any of your first-year grades in a particular semester, then I might suggest that issue-spotting exams may not be your forte.  You may prefer paper courses, where you have some control over the subject matter and the process.  Or, you may prefer takehome exams without the time pressure.  As a second-year, you can choose which types of courses to take.  (However, there is also the pain of the two-hour seminar paper -- taking two seminars is a lot more work than a 4-hour exam course.)  Taking a timed, issue-spotting exam is a skill, and not an easy one to learn if it doesn't come naturally.  Yes, complete preparation helps with both the time pressure and the issue-spotting, but some great students just don't shine in that type of assessment.

3.  Relatedly, common law courses may not be your forte.  I like rules, so I did well in "code" classes -- tax, evidence, securities regulation, etc.  There's a bunch of these, so you might look for them.  If you like being in black and white instead of gray, and you don't mind wading through statutes, go for it.  Studying for these classes may ironically feel more like your other years of education, years in which you racked up killer grades or you wouldn't be in law school.

4.   You did well in my class (or in all your classes), and you want me to tell you why.  I guess if you tried 10 different study strategies, it would be nice if I could tell you which one paid off so that you could become a more efficient studying machine.  The reality is that I can't tell you which strategy paid off, and it probably wasn't just one.  Don't worry that it was a fluke.  Just duplicate the effort next time.  That being said, no one makes the exact same grade in every class.  Sometimes you just like a subject matter more or less or perhaps your learning style meshes with a professor's teaching style.  If you did well in a class, take that professor again.  I took four classes from the same professor in law school.  (Which makes me wonder what sort of teaching load they had back then that one professor taught at least four different courses?)

5.  You want to tell me that you felt good when you left the exam, so you're surprised about how the grade came out.  Well, two things.  One, if you discuss all the issues that you see, then you'll feel good about the exam.if you see half the issues and discuss those, you'll probably think you hit everything.  So, most people think they did well.  Conversely, some really good exams are probably written by people who saw a lot of issues, but felt that they didn't have time to do justice to any of the myriad subissues they saw.  The people who feel worst about exams are the ones who see facts but no issues, but know that they should be seeing issues.  These students rarely come to talk about exams because they know what happened.  Second, most law school classes are graded on a curve.  So, you might have not felt confidence leaving Contracts, but maybe no one else did, either.  You may have felt like you rocked Torts, but maybe a lot of people did.  Not a satisfying answer, but reality.

6.  It's hard for me to explain why you got a "7" out of "10" points on a question without showing you all the "8" and "9" point exam questions.  I grade all my exams in about a 48-hour period.  I see the whole pool.  I know what other students wrote down for each question and the categories of answers that were "3" points out of "5," etc.  A month or two later, I really don't remember without doing some serious reimmersion into that pool (which I cannot do in 3 minutes while you stare at me).  I am willing to concede that I should take more notes while I'm grading and maybe memorialize these observations at the time that I am grading, but we generally have about 7 days to grade all exams during the exam period, so it is not a leisurely pursuit.  I can tell you what you missed, but I can't tell you what everyone else caught.  I've asked around, and some professors make no notations on the actual student exam for this reason, but I haven't changed.

7.  I'm not going to change your grade.  Unless I've made a mathematical error or the registrar made a typo, your grade is what it is.  Unlike the experience of Cher in Clueless, who felt that grades were a starting point for negotiations, any exam review will end with the same grade with which it begins.

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