The Pros and Cons of Mid-Semester Graded Work

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19 Responses

  1. Mark McKenna says:

    Steve –

    I’ve been struggling with precisely the same thing. I’ve always given my upper-level courses some graded assignment during the semester (this semester I had them write a brief), and I’ve given a variety of different midterms in Civil Procedure. I’ve done it in upper division classes primarily because our school began a big push a couple of years ago to increase the number of writing assigments, particularly for upper-division students. This was driven by a sense that we weren’t doing a good enough job teaching writing, as well as repeated student complaints about a lack of feedback. I also have felt that final exams often do not test skills lawyers actually use in practice. I mostly support that non-practical focus, by the way, but doing mid-semester assignments allows you to add some things.

    Having said that, I don’t know if I’ll keep doing them. As you note, it substantially increases the amount of time I spend writing assignments and grading them. But quite frankly, the thing that’s bothered me more is that, in my experience, students don’t really take these other assignements seriously. At first I thought that was just because I wasn’t weighting them sufficiently (when I started, I made writing assignments worth something like 10-15% of students’ grades). But it hasn’t really changed as I’ve weighted them more substantially (this semester, for example, the brief was 40% of their grades). I don’t know if there is something about it not being an exam that makes it less serious to them or that they’re so used to waiting until the end of the semester to pull things together that they just aren’t accustomed to putting in serious effort earlier in the semester. But it’s pretty unmistakable how much worse they are than exams, both substantively and stylistically.

    One might take this as more evidence that we should do MORE of this type of thing, rather than less. It’s really frustrating though, and it’s hard not to feel like you’re wasting your time.

  2. Steve,

    Interesting post. I admire your soul searching. If the goal is better learning, all the research is one your side (e.g., research that supports the Law School Survey for Student Engagement). Interim feedback makes a difference. Unfortunately, norms in the legal academy reward research, so mid-semester testing or graded assignments are pretty rare.

    I also sympathize with Mark’s view that students may not rise to the occasion. That has happened in some of my classes. But the goal here is (or ought to be) preparing students for professional success. So I would encourage you and Mark to persevere. The interim feedback does provide a “teachable moment” on the importance of preparation and work ethic. bh.

  3. Steve Vladeck says:

    Bill and Mark — Thanks for your comments. Mark — Like Bill, I sympathize (and empathize) with the view that the students don’t take it quite as seriously. To me, I guess that’s their choice.

    But Bill raises the elephant in the room, which is junior teachers fighting against two institutional obstacles: (1) taking time away from academic work; and (2) doing something that is “unusual,” which brings with it its own costs.

    I’m willing to accept both of these, but I can also see how not everyone in my position (i.e., pre-tenure) would be as sanguine. Are there ways for schools to incentive profs, especially pre-tenure, to assign mid-semester work?

    As for the “teachable moment,” I could not agree more, especially vis-a-vis first-semester 1Ls, who, in my experience, all but _crave_ graded work at some point mid-semester to see how they’re doing… That’s part of the reward to me. But I think the calculus is much harder for upper-level courses. To me, that’s the real locus of the dilemma.

  4. Kaimi says:

    Steve,

    Interesting question, and interesting comments so far.

    I’ve got a somewhat different take. I teach at an institution where almost all of the professors give midterms. And yet, I’ve taken a personal stance against this.

    My own sense is that it’s possible to have too much of this approach. If all of the professors give piecemeal assignments, students might not learn how to really study hard for a single exam where they play for all the marbles. And this could negatively affect students’ ability to prepare for the bar (no small concern at my school).

    I think that one purpose of law school (not the only purpose, certainly) is to prepare students for the bar. And one key to this is helping students develop testing endurance. The bar is a grueling marathon of an exam. And, as I like to tell my students, there’s no midterm for the bar.

    I don’t mean to be too critical of yours (and my colleagues’) approach. I can certainly see the other pedagogical gains available in a midterm. They offer feedback, potentially keep students engaged, and so on.

    But for me, given my school’s culture, I think it’s important for students to be exposed to some instances where they really have to put it all on the line in an exam situation. Students need at least some experience riding without the training wheels, before we toss them out on the highway. That’s why I break tradition (in the other direction) and avoid midterms.

  5. Kaimi,

    Your theory is that “all the marbles” testing will help on the bar exam. But education research shows that interim feedback improves learning–and presumably this learning will pay off on the bar exam. While it is possible that some practice at high-stake testing will improve a student’s performance on the bar, how can you be sure you are making a wise tradeoff for your students by forgoing interim feedback? We law professors who ace standardized tests need to be careful theorizing about how to pass the bar, especially if when we have a personal stake in the underlying issue.

  6. Paul Ohm says:

    I can tell you what not to do: Don’t do what I did this past semester, at least not if you dislike the idea of a near-revolt. I wanted to offer a mid-semester graded assignment (specifically, an in-class simulated legislative drafting session) and I wanted to motivate my students to participate, but I didn’t want unnecessarily to raise anxiety levels.

    So I concocted what I thought to be a Solomonic compromise: the graded assignment (a 4-6 page memo reflecting on the in-class exercise) would raise the final grades of fewer than 20% of the students in the class, not affect the grades of all or at least the vast majority of the rest of the class, and only lower a final grade if a paper submitted by a student was truly subpar. Before the assignment’s due date, I stood in front of my class on multiple occasions and said, “this is the one time in law school when it is enough to phone it in, to put in some effort, but not much, because most of you won’t be helped or hurt by this.”

    Even typing this in, I realize now how naive I had been! I was naive to be surprised by the fact that most of the students poured significant time and effort into the assignment, hoping to be in the coveted 20%. Most of them did not phone it in. Most probably calculated that writing the paper in the first place was so much work that there was little marginal work required to polish it up and try for the grade bump. Happily, 20% of the papers really did shine above the rest (there was a natural break), but it led to a few uncomfortable (for me at least) classroom chats about how I planned to grade it, and why I had set it up the way I had.

    The lesson: if you give a midterm graded assignment, be sure to make it count for everybody in the class.

  7. Deven Desai says:

    Steve, one piece of advice I received was that if one gives a midterm in an upper division class, weight it somewhat heavily (e.g. 30%). Some of the others have noted this idea. The difference in the advice I was given was not to make the final cumulative. So in classes where a clean break in material is possible, one can give the sort of feedback about which Bill wrote. Of course some classes will not lend themselves to this approach.

    To be honest I was a bit dismayed that so few took the chance to see me about ways to improve their writing or why they were not grasping the material. Still the roughly ten percent of the class who did take the time did improve on the final. A few even moved their grades up such that the overall grade was much better than the midterm.

  8. Kaimi says:

    Bill,

    I’m _not_ sure I’m making the best trade-off. It’s a trade-off that makes sense to me, but the only way to be absolutely sure about it would be to check it empirically — to run a whole bunch of numbers with different populations of students, something that would be really hard to do. (Then again, the same uncertainty applies to your approach as well, right? Are any of us really 100% sure that our approach is empirically best out of all possible options?)

    I see it this way:

    I teach BA. One option is a non-cumulative final. That is, a midterm on partnership law and LLPs and LLCs, and a final on corporations. This is not uncommon.

    As you note, incremental learning is real. It’s likely that if I split things up this way, students might retain a little more about one or both subjects. That would be a benefit.

    They would also miss out on something, though. They would never be required to know all that information at the same time. They would not be required to build up the mental stamina to know not just Part A or Part B at any one time, but both Part A and Part B at the same time.

    And I think there’s a real benefit to forcing students to develop that kind of mental stamina — particularly since the bar will be testing parts A, B, C, D, E, F and G all at the same time.

    Passing the bar, in my experience and observation, isn’t just about knowledge learned. It also requires the sheer mental endurance necessary for sitting down and taking a test for a long time on a lot of different material. And I don’t know that a lot of incremental tests will develop that. I don’t think that it’s wise to train for a marathon by only doing a lot of 2-mile runs. At some point, the long runs are necessary.

    Of course, I can only do so much in this area. I don’t give my students a truly long run; I don’t test them for three days straight. But I do give them a process that will, hopefully, help them build some degree of mental endurance.

  9. Scott Scofield says:

    Professor,

    As a ‘non-traditional’ full time student (47 y/o retired military) beginning my senior year at University of Wisconsin – I benefit from other graded material during the semester. Granted, the pedagogical approach to law students may be different than that of undergrads – but, in one sense, a student is a student.

    The other graded material helps keep me focused and gives me an early opportunity to put the concepts in question to work – with the bonus of professorial feedback. I certainly understand (and agree with) the ‘mental endurance’ argument, and believe there is a way to educate/train to that end – as well as providing other graded opportunities to synthesize/apply the material.

    You probably weren’t looking for comments from an undergrad – but I’ve admired this blog for a quite awhile now, and have shared it with my professors – really quality stuff. Thanks!

    From the other side of the lectern,

    Scott

  10. Mark McKenna says:

    Steve –

    I agree with you that the calculus is very different with first years, who do tend to crave mid-semester feedback. I’m confident I will continue to give midterms to my Civ Pro students. In terms of institutional support – first year classes at my school are sometimes very large (I once had 140 in Civ Pro). That all but guaratees that there will not be anything but the final, and grading even that was miserable. What I’ve done in those classes is given an ungraded midterm and told the students that they could make an appointment with me to go through their exam. Usually less than 10% take you up on it.

    As for the upper division students, I’m not sure how much improved learning is going on if most of the students aren’t taking the assignments seriously. I appreciate the research that suggests that would be true, but it assumes that everyone’s working at it. In my experience, a good chunck of them are not; the ones that are working at it generally are not the ones who need the extra work. Given that we all work in a culture that doesn’t really recognize or reward this effort in the long term, it’s got to be pretty effective to feel worth it.

  11. Howard Wasserman says:

    Two considerations that have not been mentioned, but that are implicit in some of the comments.

    First is the issue of time for students, particularly 1L’s. We expect and want them to read everything closely and be prepared to participate in class. We also (at least here) encourage them to begin outlining early in the semester. And there are the ever-present legal writing assignments. To add graded work in one or more doctrinal classes to that mix, something is going to have to give–probably class preparation and participation. Perhaps this is an acceptable trade-off, but it is a trade-off.

    Second is the fact that many law classes (civ pro, which several of the participants here teach, leaps to mind as my key example) build on themselves throughout the semester and do not really make sense until students have a chance to put everything together at the end. So the value of testing one discreet component, almost in the abstract, becomes problematic.

  12. Mark McKenna says:

    Both very good points, Howard. On the second point, it probably depends on the order in which one teaches Civ Pro how effective a midterm can be. What I often do is give out old exam questions that cover material we’re dealing with in class that day and have them work on the question before we talk through the issues. Then we go back to the problem when we’re done doing the material.

    On the first point, this strikes me as a really good reason to do LRW the way a few schools (not mine) do it – build it on as an adjunct to a substantive first year course and create assignments around material from the course. I know Yale does this, and I recall that others do as well. Then you can kill two birds with one stone, so to speak.

  13. Rick Garnett says:

    I have not even *given* my Criminal Law exam. The (one) downside of Chicago’s quarter system . . .

  14. Howard Wasserman says:

    Rick:

    Off topic, but I would love to hear your thoughts (perhaps in that *other* blog) about teaching law school on the quarter system (asked as someone who loved being a student on it as an undergrad).

  15. Craig says:

    I agree with Bill’s point that interim feedback improves learning, and I also believe that considering the first day as a 1L to be the starting point and the bar examination to be the end point, the comprehensive exam at the end of each semester (or quarter) provides that feedback.

  16. Ethan says:

    As a non-1L, I tend to favor mid-semester graded work. When I’m picking classes, I tell myself it means less work at the end of the semester, but the truth is I don’t study any less when it’s less than 100% of my grade. So to the extent that I am still studying a great deal, there’s no reduction in psychological stress. But my attitude about it, knowing that some percentage of my grade is already anchored, does provide relief. The trade-off certainly is the additional time required during the semester, but it’s worth it. Mostly because if I know about the graded work at the beginning of the semester, I can anticipate where my time will be allocated, and I’ll know when I need to work more efficiently. To be honest, when the only work I have is to do reading and be prepared for class, 70% of the difficulty is sheer volume, but the rest is self-generated efficiency/focus/discipline issues.

    My guess is also that I learn more substantively, but it’s hard to know for sure.

  17. Robert Rhee says:

    At times, I’ve given a group midterm that weighs a small portion of the final grade (25-30%). The benefits are two. First, students learn to work in groups, something that law schools do not stress enough. I’ve found that legal education is a rather monastic pursuit. Second, group assignments dramatically cut down the grading effort. In a class of 80, if the groups are 4 students, this is 20 papers to grade. These benefits are balanced by the one big con — students hate group work, which I find interesting as well. They don’t like the feeling that their fate depends in part on the efforts of others. This is the case in the practical world, but students don’t respond well to this side of practical experience.

  18. Frank says:

    Great question and discussion. There is some recent research emphasizing that retention goes up significantly if there are repeated opportunities for “effortful retrieval.” The following is an excerpt from

    http://chronicle.com/weekly/v53/i40/40a01401.htm

    “In education today, people tend to think of tests as dipstick devices,” says Henry L. (Roddy) Roediger III, a professor of psychology at Washington. “You stick it in to measure what people know. But every time you test someone, you change what they know.”

    ***

    The basic premise of the testing effect is easy to grasp. Just take the advice that your overbearing 10th-grade French teacher gave — “If you really want to learn the language, stop staring at your textbook and have a conversation in French” — and apply it to every domain of learning.

    When a novice student strains to apply her fledgling knowledge of French in a conversation, she engages in what scholars of memory call “effortful retrieval,” a process that sharply improves long-term retention of unfamiliar knowledge. But the power of effortful retrieval extends far beyond language learning: A student who has just read a complex article full of unfamiliar facts about 17th-century Poland will retain that information much better if he is quizzed — thus forcing him to retrieve the data from memory — than if he simply rereads the article two or three times.

    “The testing effect cuts against the lay understanding of memory,” says Jeffrey D. Karpicke, who recently completed a doctorate at Washington University and will become an assistant professor of psychology at Purdue University this fall. “People usually imagine memory as a storage space, as a space where we put things, as if they were books in a library. But the act of retrieval is not neutral. It affects the system.”

  19. Christina says:

    As a two-time student of Prof. Vladeck’s, I loved midterms–as both a 1L and 3L. Although it’s true that the bar is a marathon, it’s also an entirely different sort of project, and bar review courses help prepare us for it. Perhaps the ideal is to have a mix; there may be no one single answer. But since many if not most law school classes do not have midterms, it will take a fair number of professors teaching that way in order to provide a mix.