An Exam Debrief Exercise for Getting Students to Think Like Graders

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By Jeremiah A. Ho, University of Massachusetts School of Law

Two weeks ago, I finished my midterms in first-year Contracts. Instead of doing the usual exam debrief the next class day, I tried something new that I very admittedly borrowed from Professor Allie Robbins at CUNY Law. Rather than merely walking through the essay problem and explaining the issues and answers, my students graded sample partial exam answers based off the exact same essay problem I gave them on the midterm.

My Contracts midterm this fall covered the major formation issues (governing law, manifestation of mutual assent, and consideration). For this exercise, I wrote up two sample answers addressing only the mutual assent issues (i.e. offer and acceptance). Both sample answers hit the issues and discussed the facts and analysis similarly. On the substance alone, both answers would have likely received the same score for issue spotting. However, Sample Answer A was much better organized and discussed the issues using a very detailed IRAC structure, while Sample Answer B was less well-organized, often failed to follow the IRAC format, and in essence, was a sloppier answer.

Since they had already taken the midterm and we had already discussed the entire essay, they were already familiar with the essay problem and particularly its coverage and analysis. With the two sample answers and grading rubric in front of them, I gave them 10 minutes in class to grade both answers.

My goal was to show them that organization is really important and that an otherwise good answer can lose points can be lost if the grader cannot readily find it. My students were surprised, at first, at how hard it is to grade an answer. My sarcastic response (“Yay, happy holidays to me.”) drew some irreverent laughter. But the more important response was the shift in my students’ perspectives from thinking that the exam was where they illustrated only what they knew about the subject matter to understanding that the exam was also where they had to demonstrate their knowledge in the most effective way—in an organized manner that can better display their mastery of legal reasoning.

When I polled the students for which answer they preferred, the overwhelming choice was Sample Answer A, the more organized, structured answer. Their preferences for Sample Answer A were followed by responses such as, “Answer A is much more effective and easier to read,” and “The writer for Sample Answer B really didn’t sound like a lawyer.”

I told them that format and structure counts on my exam: “So you see how Sample Answer A is likely going to get a higher grade because what I’m also looking for is effective legal reasoning?” I revealed to them that I didn’t think Sample Answer B would fail, but if it wouldn’t have received as high of a grade than Sample Answer A. “And if you’re going to spend all that time and energy on my final talking about the same things, why would you not aim for higher?” Students also noted that following the IRAC format more closely seemed to allow Sample Answer A to craft more precise rule statements and juxtapose law and fact for a more balanced analysis. Sample Answer B, on the other hand, tended to ramble. On law school exams, format and structure does makes a difference. Hopefully, this exercise did get my students to be much more motivated on developing their IRAC and essay organization skills for their fall final, alongside their ability to understand the doctrinal material. Happy holidays to me.

At CUNY Law, Professor Robbins uses this exercise also in bar support to show bar takers why a well-structured and organized answer would make a difference to a bar grader with hundreds of essays to grade and only a few minutes to grade each answer. My variation brings this into the first-year classroom. But in both settings, the exercise hopefully tries to convey that on exams, it’s not just what you say, but also how you say it that matters.

 

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