Feedback to Students on the Skills Assessed in Exam Answers

Legal writing is not the only course that teaches written analysis. Doctrinal courses do too. Legal writing skills, including research and preparation of a work product over days or weeks, develops important skills. The skills of writing essay answers in doctrinal courses are unique in many ways. Although legal writing skills overlap with the analysis required in an exam, many skills are different. Students have to be able to analyze fact patterns and select issues, typically under time pressure. They must state rules precisely. They must apply relevant facts to rules and often reach sub-conclusions on the way to an ultimate conclusion (e.g., the citizenship of different types of parties on the way to determining whether complete diversity exists). Even more subtly, students have to make judgments under pressure about where to spend limited time in an essay answer because the issue is more important than others, facts are disputed and could lead to different conclusions based on one’s analysis, or the like.

ABA Standard 314 now requires “meaningful feedback” to students. It does not draw the line at meaningful feedback on student’s ability to brief cases, to answer Socratic questions, or other parts of the learning process. The skills of an essay exam (perhaps mixed in with multiple choice) will determine a student’s semester grade. Yet, if there is an area in which doctrinal classes have provided the least feedback (indeed, arguably, the least training in the first instance), it is in essay exam writing. First-year law students are led to believe that they’ll be equipped to answer exams if they read and brief cases, attend classes, prepare outlines, etc. Yet many are not prepared and learn only after having gone through the experience of exams, following up to see what the professor was looking for in an answer, and adjusting as they make their way through law school.

Having recently given my first graded mid-term in civil procedure, I’m convinced that I have not in the past (without such a mid-term) prepared students as well as I could have in performing the particular skill involved in time-pressured written analysis of legal problems. I recently had my class take an essay in which they had an hour to write an essay answer responding to a challenging jurisdictional essay. I then prepared a rubric showing the point range for each part of the answer and, for every student, provided a copy that reflected the points the student earned (or failed to earn) on each part. As is usually the case when I grade at the end of the semester, I saw some very good written analysis in a small segment of exams. What bothered me is that I had met with other students throughout the semester, know they had worked hard, and really believe they knew the concepts but had not yet developed the skill of exam analysis. They just needed an opportunity to write an essay answer under time pressure and see, through the rubric and our class discussion, how they could answer more efficiently and effectively.

After grading the midterms and providing them with the rubric, I carved out a class and devoted it solely to going over the exam, how to spot issue and organize them, how to recognize facts that ought to have been analyzed thoroughly, and how to work toward a logical conclusion.

I realized that this mid-term (and particularly the feedback) seemed to bring home to most students the connection between what they had learned and how they needed to express it. The growing awareness among a larger group of students about what they would have to do to answer essays was the most striking part of this process. Students had their exams, with the personalized rubrics in front of them. After the review class, students had to write a paper summarizing what they learned from the mid-term, what they did positively and could build on, where they need to develop skills, and exactly how they will go about developing the skills.

So, ABA Standard 314 has helped not only the students but this professor. I now know that I need to regularly include assessments on which I provide feedback such as I did on this mid-term. The results on the final exam in my Civil Procedure class may improve as a result of the formative assessment—or they may not. However, I believe my students in this class have received the kind of feedback that allows them to make improvements and to practice putting what they know on paper. They at least have the chance to perform well.

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4 Responses

  1. Ben, this is great stuff. One other thought: for some students, self-assessment does not come easily. Thus, I provide students with some guided self-reflection questions and suggestions for how they could improve their performance in particular areas. For example after they self-grade and compare their grades with mine, I hand out the following self-reflection paper assignment:
    __________
    Below are five skills that students often struggle with when taking exams. Following the skills are suggestions for improvement (indicated in italics). For each skill below, consider whether it was one that affected your performance on the mid-term and identify which of the following suggestions might help you improve. Be certain to explain why the particular suggestion will likely help you. If none of the suggestions will help, explain why not and describe other solutions that may be useful.

    Note: To the extent you think that you really have it all under control, explain what it is you are doing well and why.

    I struggled with:

    1._______ identifying the correct rule/law and/or spotting all the issues [make sure my outline summarizes the key concepts; include examples of key concepts to help me begin to see how the rules apply to problems; in my outline, identify issues that have “sub-issues” & issues that may involve a longer analysis; do a decision tree or develop some other way that helps me walk through all the sub-issues; do more hypos/CALI exercises after completing an outline section; other]

    2._______ applying the law and really understanding the meaning of the law [write out what law means when I do my outline and use my own words to make sure I understand the concepts; test myself with hypos & check my answers and explanations against the explanations in the study guide; other]

    3. _______ providing rich analysis and using the facts, as opposed to substituting conclusions for analysis [underline the key words in a question and identify all the evidence that is the subject of the argument & what the evidence is offered to prove; before writing my answer, do a quick outline of elements & facts that go to each element; write “because” after I make a statement and force myself to insert facts after the words “because; do practice essays and focus on providing explanations; other]

    4. ________ arguing both sides when the issue is not clear-cut [whenever the answer is not clear-cut, use the words “on the other hand” and try to think what facts support the opposing argument; other]

    5. ______ including a lot of irrelevant law/wrong law/irrelevant info [see above suggestions]

    _______ Other

    My self-graded exam score was:

    _____ close to Prof Curcio’s ______ not that close to Prof Curcio’s

    If different, explain where it was different and why you think there was a difference

    In writing out my answer to this exercise, and thinking about my performance I learned:

    Overall, list one or two things you want to work on to improve your exam performance and what steps you plan to take between now and finals to help you improve your exam performance [alternatively, explain the top three things you already are doing well and why you think it is important to continue doing those things]:

  2. Andi,

    What a valuable comment! Part of my message was that I keep learning myself, especially from gifted educators like you. I’m even more impressed that you were doing this before the ABA pushed with its standard on formative assessment.

    Thanks,
    Ben

  3. I am studying the concept of “meaningful feedback” in the law school classroom, and this post is a great addition to my base of knowledge. As a skills/writing professor who also teaches traditional “doctrinal”courses at times, I believe that integrating the LRW feedback vocabulary into the traditional doctrinal course would create much needed “feedback consistency” for students – especially first-year students. Your approach to the mid-term is a great example of how “meaningful feedback” can work across the curriculum, and I fully agree that devoting a a class period to a post-test breakdown is a necessary component of the process. Thanks for sharing.

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