Assessments Requiring Reading Statutes Not Covered In Class:Lessons I Learned

I teach the second half of a year-long first-year civil procedure class.  We spend the semester reading and interpreting the Fed. R. of Civ. P.   Throughout the semester, I give the students hypothetical questions that require them to read and interpret the applicable Federal Rules.  This semester, I wanted to see if I could assess how well students learned how to read and interpet statutes.  The assessment was motivated, in part, by my desire to assess a broader range of skills than are normally covered in essay exams. 

As a small part of a 72-hour take-home exam, I gave students two short answer questions that required them to read Fed. R. of Civ. P that we had not covered in class and to answer two straightforward questions.  Using the fact pattern that served as the basis for the essay question, I asked students:  #1: Who must be served with this Answer?;  #2:  On what date must you file and serve your Answer? 

Much to my dismay, the vast majority of students did not get the correct answer to either one or both of these short-answer questions.  I was more dismayed with myself than with my students because I had no clue that so many students did not know how to read a statute by the end of the semester. 

I found there were some pretty common errors.  For example, with the “who do you serve” question, many students stopped reading midway through the Rule (when they thought they found the answer).  With the “when is the answer due” question, students did not read the entire rule to see the caveat for when service is by mail, or they read the rule wrong altogether (finding the triggering event when the waiver of service was returned by the defendant rather than when the request for waiver was sent by the plaintiffs).

The results, while disheartening, were very educational.  I realized that I need to re-think how I teach the very important skill of statutory interpretation and how I can better assist and motivate students to slog through complicated statutes.  I worry that students don’t really prepare the hypotheticals as carefully as they should – especially if they’ve already been called on.  Thus, I think they miss some key learning opportunities. I think that one way I will change is to give this kind of problem as a take home quiz near the end of the semester so that we can go over the answers in class.  I think making it a take home “for credit” quiz forces everyone to slog through the Rules but does not put a premium on test-taking speed.

I am not sure what other changes I should make and am interested in others’ experience in teaching substantive courses that involve a lot of statutory interpretation.  Do you assess on statutes you don’t teach?  How do you assess whether  students are actually learning statutory interpretation?  Do you do any assessments of statutory reading/interpretation  skills during the semester that require students to find answers (rather than answer multiple choice questions)? Also, I am curious as to what others think about including skills-based (rather than knowledge-based) assessments in the final exam. 

 

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3 Responses

  1. I think this is an excellent idea. Although we regularly give our students novel fact patterns on exams, we rarely (if ever) give them novel legal rules and ask them to apply the rule to a fact pattern. Even though we routinely tell our students that we are not so much teaching them the “law” as we are teaching them how to think about and use the law, we spend a lot of time in class making sure that they understand the “law.” Asking students to read a new rule and apply it to a novel fact pattern is an excellent way to assess whether they are “reading and thinking like lawyers.” I will definitely add this to my first-year course.

  2. I teach Federal Income Taxation and for several years now, I have included on my exam one or two questions that require students to read, interpret and apply sections of the Internal Revenue Code that we did not study in class. I think my assessment would be more effective if I developed a sense of each student’s skills at the beginning of the semester, checked in the middle of the semester and evaluated at the end of the semester. That way, I could determine more accurately whether a student’s “success” in interpreting statutes “cold” on the final exam has anything to do with my course!

  3. I really like the idea of a beginning of the semester assessment, mid-semester assessment and final assessment. Doing this would emphasize the importance of learning to read and interpret statutes – one of the learning outcome goals we presumably have in any statutory interpretation class.

    I am now wondering if I should be spending the first couple of classes teaching nothing but the basics of statutory interpretation before getting into teaching the substance. Does anyone devote a class or two just to teaching the theory/basics of statutory interpretation in their substantive class?

    I also think it would be an interesting empirical study to compare student performance at those three times to see if what we are doing actually results in better learning (and perhaps even compare one section to another???) Great teaching idea with some interesting assessment study implications.

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