Saturday, February 24, 2007

Rapoport's tried-and-true method for learning how to take law school essay exams (with a shout-out to Mary Beth Beazley)

After way too many years talking with students after they've received their grades (especially first-year students), I started to think about how I could help students diagnose their grades. Typically, when I hear a student tell me that he "knew the material cold," I wonder whether the problem isn't about understanding the material but about misunderstanding what it means to write an essay exam.

We can talk about IRAC, CIRA, and every other acronym under the sun but, often, students hear what we're saying but can't apply it. Here's why I'm giving a shout-out to Professor Mary Beth Beazley at Moritz College of Law, The Ohio State University.

When I was lucky enough to be teaching at OSU, Mary Beth taught me a great deal about teaching, and she published this wonderful article called The Self-Graded Draft, Teaching Students to Revise Using Guided Self-Critique, 3 Leg. Writing 175 (1997). (MBB: please, please post a copy on SSRN!) In this article, Mary Beth gave me an "aha!" moment:
The process of finding the elements and of physically marking them -- e.g., with a highlighter -- forces the writer to focus his or her attention on one element of the document at a time. This focus often helps to provide enough psychological distance to allow the writer to conduct an objective evaluation of his or her writing and, ideally, to improve it.

When I go over students' exams with them, I use a jazz riff off of Mary Beth's approach. (I've also done several talks to law students about how to take exams, and I spend the first portion of the talks explaining how I come up with ideas for exam questions and how I turn those ideas into the questions themselves.)

So here's the Rapoport method.
1. The best way to prepare for an exam is to take practice exams and diagnose the answers to those exams. (Analogy: the best way to play a sport is to play it, not read about it.)
2. You get points on exams for what you put in your answer, not what you have in your head.
3. There are two types of errors that I see on most exams. The first type of error is serious: not understanding the law. (Let's call that error the input error.) My method doesn't deal with that error. It deals with the second type of error: not understanding the components of a good answer. Let's call that error the applicaton error.
4. Often, students with the second type of error systematically skip one or more of the components of a good answer, thereby cheating themselves out of points that they could have gotten.
5. So, to the diagnosis part. Get four colors of highlighters. You'll use one for highlighting your statement of the rules, one for highlighting your use of the facts from the hypothetical, one for your application of those facts from the hypothetical to the rule (including any exceptions to the rule), and one for any conclusions that you draw after you apply the facts to the law.
6. Students who systematically forget to put the rule(s) down on paper will see that mistake. So will students who jump to conclusions without demonstrating each step of their analysis, or those who write general statements about the hypothetical without looking for those particular facts on which a given hypo will turn.
7. After the student has had a chance to look for systematic errors, then it's time to start with step 1 again: more practice exams, more diagnosis, then still more practice, and still more diagnosis.

Some students resist the extra work that this method takes, preferring instead to focus on more detailed outlining or on buying more commercial outlines. But knowing the law and using the law are different skills, and both skills are necessary. Each without the other is useless (except at cocktail parties).

Will this work for everyone with an application error, rather than an input error? I don't know. But I know that not diagnosing the problem is a sure-fire way to repeat the error each semester.

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