Topic: Exams

Serenity Now

At the moment, I’ve taken one exam (Property), am preparing for another (Business Associations), and am working on a paper for Children & The Law. At this time of the semester, I find myself in need of some help to maintain my normal cool, collected demeanor (those of you who’ve met me in real life obviously know that I am joking). So I’ve broken out the trusty sticks and gotten into my knitting again.

Knitting, you may ask? Well, I refuse to smoke, the last time I tried yoga I think I sprained an internal organ, and there’s only so much coffee I can drink before my eyeballs start rotating independently of one another. So back to knitting it is. I’ve been a knitter for more than twenty years — yikes, that makes me feel old! — and haven’t found anything that gets me in a more serene frame of mind. I love it. Besides which, it gives me the opportunity to make lovely things for people I care about. My youngest has been asking me to knit for her for some time, and I’ve put it off time and again. But since she’s a small person, knitting for her takes up very little time and is quite easy to do. She’s getting a cowl and mittens.

Speaking of Miss Z, we celebrated her birthday today. A gaggle of preschoolers descended on our house and amazingly, left it in about the same condition as they found it (thank you, awesome parent-friends for the help). The girls had a great time making pizzas and decorating her cake. And the best part? Once they were all filled up with sprinkle-covered cake, the party was over and everyone went home. This is how I felt about that.

My Street Law class came to an end this past week — my students worked on mock trial for our last class, which was fantastic. Despite the short amount of time we had to work on it, they did an amazing job and I am truly proud of them. My students were great in general, but here they really shone. I know one student is considering joining the police force, but after listening to him play the part of an attorney in our mock trial, I hope he at least thinks about giving law school a shot.

11 December 2011

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The Challenge

Throughout the course of my first semester, I consistently heard from upper division students that law school was challenging.  Most attributed this to the fact that law school is a competition among extremely intelligent people.  Many told me that:

By the end of the semester, like you, all of your classmates will know the law.  The true difficulty is in how you apply that knowledge in a time-pressured, sweaty-palm, exam scenario.

I heard variations of this over and over again.  But, I did not fully comprehend what this meant until I took my first law school final on Monday.  I walked in feeling satisfied with my study efforts.  By the end, I understood why law school was difficult.  Exams require you to fully understand the law so that you can make important judgment calls as to what you can and should fit into fourteen lines.  Exams require you to manage your time well and keep your nervousness in check.  Exams require you to read a hypothetical, know what is important, apply the law to the facts, and write your answer in a succinct and clear manner.   Exams require so much more than ‘knowing the law’.

That exam was not easy.  That said, it is comforting to finally understand the law school challenge.

7 December 2011

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Exams, Grades, etc.

There are two things that are hard to comprehend for someone coming from undergraduate and even graduate level education: 1) why do we not do postmortems on examinations, and 2) why do we find grade discussions largely unhelpful?

Legal education is just different.  Performance in other arenas is measured mostly by regurgitation, and that’s incredibly easy to do in hindsight.  Gone are the days of parroting and thinking that knowing the structure and function of areas of knowledge was somehow meaningful on its own.

Speaking as a former professional chemist, I can tell you that really smart people who know a lot of things still need to be trained to use that knowledge and to apply it, and the best of the undergraduates I hired had a long learning curve to get good at performing chemistry.  Yes, their talents helped them get there, and they did get there, but to get really good, you had to apply your knowledge, and those skills are fundamentally different from simply knowing chemistry on a theoretical basis.  We scientists may have had some advantage going between the theoretical and the practical because we had to calculate things and do laboratory practicals while many other majors contain no practical component at all.  Those are the students that may have a longer learning curve, and unfortunately those students represent a large portion of students coming to law school.  But whatever slight advantage such creates is likely erased after the first set of exams.

To take an examination is a performance, a practical application of the law to a fact pattern.  It’s an analysis, as practical as one can get with words.  It’s to imagine these things are happening, and you are the lawyer advising a person in that situation what to do.  You assume a role, you consider all dimensions, and you are equipped with knowledge, but like chess, there’s a lot of different moves you make.  You can’t talk about all the things you know, you have to play the game, and do it strategically so you win.  If you make an error, you can lose.  Later, that can mean your case.

Getting to answer the two questions goes something like this.  Postmortems on examinations are useless, because there’s no such thing as challenging a grade, and moreover, the grading criteria are so subjective as to render your guesses at how well you did useless.  We all know the law, the difference is how we applied it in those facts and circumstances, and what tools in our box we applied.  The result of a grade may reflect your knowledge to a point, but your strategy matters.  It doesn’t matter how smart you are, it matters that you applied the law correctly, showed your knowledge was correct, but also that it was appropriately applied.  You need to be correct, and you need to be creative, and your exam will necessarily be unique.  It’s hard to relate it to another in many respects.  There are many ways to skin the cat, so to speak.  So, what racked up points for you, even an equal number, means a whole different strategy and analysis for another.  How can you validly compare?

Moreover, these exams are curved, and you’re compared to the number of points racked up overall, normalized and then distributed across a Gaussian plane.  I’ve even borne audience to the professor who’s fed me an anecdote about how consistent they are year to year in how the distribution goes.  If this was science [it is emphatically NOT], such would be met with a glare and a small quip: “calibrate your instrument; precision does NOT denote accuracy.”  Another anecdote from another professor: “I sometimes can’t believe the exams I give an A”–meaning, their grading rubric allowed for a paper devoid of eloquence or advocacy but technically correct and mentioning a list of items for which points are allocated to receive a better grade than someone who demonstrated lawyer-like skills.  Thus, are these metrics meaningful in absolute terms?  Absolutely not.  It’s about as useful as comparing people to one another for their intrinsic value.  It’s grotesque when attempted.

Where grades are concerned, I can tell you that this school admits amazing people.  And they come.  Having been elected by my peers in the SBA to represent them on that committee gives me perspective that indeed the people at whom I smile on campus every day are unique, smart, accomplished, and they are each infinitely valuable in ways that cannot be measured.

When it comes to performance, after that “normalization” I mentioned is done with the points, sometimes that spread can be thin.  You simply cannot plausibly argue to me that when there is a 20-point spread from an A to a D grade when points earned are already subjective and artificial, that the  five point difference between the A and the B student in that class is so different as to say one better understood the class or represents something beyond the fact they are both competent.  You can’t do that undergraduate form of “calculus” in your head about the meaning of grades measuring amounts of knowledge or ability when they confound and contort the already subjective measurements they make–the metric loses its meaning.

In fact, it reinforces the idea to me that perhaps law school grades at our school should be as other top-ranked schools who have abandoned them for Honors Pass, Pass, Marginal Pass and Not Pass.  I of course am naive to the politics of such a policy change at our school, but as someone who used to interview people, there are so many reasons to hire someone that has more to do about character than grades even when they are more straightforward.

I write this as I took a final and feel great about it, but truly I’m just pleased I knew as much as I did and argued as I did, because in a class as hard as it was from a world-class authority on the subject who talked a gazillion miles an hour, it built my confidence because I performed competently when push came to shove.  I was ready because I pushed myself hard–and I have no idea what my grade will be.  But truly, as I’ve said before, to be counted an equal to any one of my peers here, I’m much esteemed.

When you push yourself, sometimes you discover new limits.  I’m happy the longer I’m here, the better I get.  I think despite the stress of the performances we’re doing of late that many of my fellows will agree the truly hard work one does in this path is valuable in itself.  The evaluations thereof are merely a facet, perhaps unnecessary.

So if you join us, do focus on who you are and what you want to do–the things that made you want to go to law school in the first place.  Don’t focus on how you compare based on some artificial evaluation you get when you perform your legal analyses.  Don’t ever lose track of the fact people matter first, always, and that includes yourself.  To know that is to recognize what still is the most important part of what this profession is all about.

7 December 2011

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95% Sure I Didn’t Flunk

Last night, the Green Pod (that’s the evening school class) had our first final exam. It was Professor Steverson‘s contracts class, and whew! It was *intense.*

Having been one of those people for whom undergrad was relatively easy, the exam was a bit of a shock to the system. Not that I didn’t know what was going on — I’ve been studying like a maniac, as have all my classmates. I did a few practice tests, so I got a sense of what Professor Steverson’s exam writing style was like, and I think that helped a lot. But the pressure of it being The First Exam, though, combined with the challenge of expressing my knowledge in a coherent fashion and managing time well enough to give at least adequate answers to all the questions was highly stressful. Expected, but still stressful.

Prof. S was lovely, though: when she came into the room to give us the skinny on the exam, we went over the usual rules (watch your time, remember to start your analysis at the *beginning,* don’t cheat, etc.). But one thing she said really stood out for me: “Have fun.” We all laughed, but she was serious. She reminded us that if we were all wound up at the beginning of exams (Who, us? Crazy type A law students?), that it was only going to go downhill from there. So we should at least try to lighten up a little.

It was good advice, and shockingly, I did, at one point, find myself laughing as I typed, thinking, “I can do this!” It was an awesome feeling.

I’m trying to retain that spirit for the next one. On to Torts!

14 December 2010

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