Requiring Midterm Assessments in First-Year Courses

Maybe this is already well-known, but (without conceding that paper-and-pencil exams of any sort necessarily constitute useful assessment of integrated legal skills and knowledge), I thought it was a slightly encouraging example of movement on the assessment front.

I’ve learned from postings on other list-servs that both Loyola L.A. and University of St. Thomas have started to require midterms in certain sections of required first year courses (e.g., Property, Contracts, Civil Procedure, Torts).

At Loyola, midterms are required when a course is taught in a high-credit, one-semester, rather than year-long, format. The goal for the fall midterms, usually offered in October, is to give first-year students a sense of whether they are mastering law school material and test-taking skills before the onslaught of December exams. The goal for the spring midterms, usually offered in March, is a reality check for students who did poorly in December but insist that they have now figured out what went wrong; if the spring midterm doesn’t go well, the students have one last chance to withdraw from law school without the stigma of failing out.

Some professors in the non-midterm courses are unhappy, of course, because they feel as if they “lose” the students in the period immediately preceding the midterms, and some professors who give the midterms are unhappy about the additional grading burden. Since the point of the midterms is to give students meaningful notice, faculty are encouraged to meet with students who perform poorly, which takes even more professorial time.

The jury is still out as to how much of a difference the midterms make in student learning.

At St. Thomas, first-semester first-year courses must have a midterm exam. Offering a midterm is also strongly encouraged in all second-semester first-year courses, most of which do provide some sort of midterm assessment. The midterms are spread over a two-week period and count for 10% – 20% of the final grade.  Although it is reported that students in non-midterm classes are slightly less attentive and engaged during that two-week period than they would be in the absence of the midterms, [so the faculty think – but how would they really know?], the collective judgment of the faculty has been that the value of providing feedback during the semester far outweighs the costs.  Students get real feedback on whether they are studying a given subject appropriately (in terms of notes, outlining, etc.).  They also get a sense of how each professor “tests” prior to the final exam.  Moreover, those who might benefit from additional assistance are identified early enough in the semester to enable them to become better prepared before finals.  A number of students show significant improvement between midterms and finals, which improves morale as students who have struggled during midterms feel genuinely supported by the institution.  (This may play some role in the Princeton Review ranking St. Thomas as one of the best schools for Quality of Life for law students.)

Professors plainly spend more time grading and engaged in exam review. However, one technique used to minimize the “exam review” investment is to encourage faculty to provide a “midterm exam review memo” in the form of a sample midterm answer with an accompanying list and explanation of common problems and errors.  Students seem really to appreciate these memoranda and they reduce the number of students who seek individualized review with the professor to a handful, generally those who have a real need for it. One wonders whether the positive experience with the “exam review memo” has led faculty to do the same for their final exams.

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2 Responses

  1. Thomas Cooley law school employes midterms in all first-semester sections of Contracts, Criminal Law, and Torts. Scores count 10% of the final grade. Students like them; faculty, not so much (they divert attention away from regular classwork for the entire week the midterms are administered). I have had good luck using TWEN’s quiz function to administer bi-weekly review quizzes that serve an assessment function. The practice is described in “Using Multiple-Choice Questions to Assess Academic Progress and Enhance Student Success,” AALS Teaching Methods Section newsletter (December 2009) p.14.

  2. The article on using TWEN quizzes for assessment is available here: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1501292

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