Kerr on Exam Answers

Josh Wright —  13 February 2007

Orin Kerr gives an hypothetical law school question and works his way through what makes law school exam answers good, bad, or terrific.  As a general matter, I find myself in agreement with the distinctions between answers that Orin makes, including the following:

To get a top grade, a student needs to identify the relevant legal question accurately, and then articulate exactly why applying the law to the facts leads to a particular outcome.

This advice sounds a little generic, as Orin notes, but I think it is pretty valuable.  Especially in first year exams, there is a good deal of variance in student ability to nail the second half of that formula (the analysis part).  I find that students from quantiative backgrounds sometimes have trouble with this since in those fields, the quality of being able to get to the answer in fewer steps or more concisely is appreciated and sometimes even viewed as elegant (think mathematics … ).  Though most of the problem, I think, is just a function of going through the process of figuring out what law school exams are about and what exactly the student is being asked to do.  I have spent a substantial amount of time attempting to articulate these distinctions to my Contracts 1Ls both in class and in exam review meetings — I hope with some success.  In any event, I really like Orin’s example and think it is a very useful illustration of the characteristics of good, bad and mediocre answers.

P.S. On law school exams and grading, CoOp has a whole series of interesting posts up right now.

One response to Kerr on Exam Answers


    I tell my students to be careful with IRAC — the traditional template for answering a law school exam question. (For the uninitiated, IRAC stands for Issue, Rule, Application, Conclusion — it’s a commonly recommended outline for an exam answer.)

    The trouble with IRAC, I think, is that students tend to place equal emphasis on each of the parts. In reality, it’s all about the “A.” If a student correctly applies the rule, then its clear she knew the rule and recognized the legal issue. (The conclusion is the least important part, since I typically pose questions in the gray zone.)

    I’m particularly troubled when students spend lots of time writing out rules on open book exams (which I give). I’m not impressed that you can transcribe the elements of promissory estoppel from your outline to the exam booklet. I am impressed, though, if you can explain to me why each of the elements is or is not satisfied in the facts before you.