Wednesday, December 27, 2006

On Word Limits On Law School Exams

There is a big debate going on about enforcing word limits on law school exams on PrawfsBlawg. A professor's take-home exam clearly stated that the word limit will be strictly enforced and that exceeding the limit is not allowed. A student went a few words over; what should he do?

I only skimmed the long thread, so maybe I missed some important comments, but I think the important question is why word limits are necessary at all? Are they in place to guide students or to make grading easier for the professor? Both objectives are valuable in my opinion, but the former is more important because grading is part of a professor's job. The guidance that a word limit offers is tangible because most questions or fact patterns are vague and students need to know whether to write a whole treatise on property law or whether to just focus on one narrow issue. And that's especially true where the exam is timed.

So how should the offender be penalized? I think the best answer is to stop reading at the word limit or at the end of the sentence thereafter. I don't see any point in actually punishing the offender; if he spent his time thinking of issues, analyzing them, and making arguments both ways in excess of the word limit, he's punishing himself when the professor ignores that work. What purpose does extra punishment serve?

One professor, Mike Dimino (who I've mentioned before), argued that the student should get a F (!) because he broke the rule. Recognizing that failing a student could be more of a problem for a professor than it is worth, he advised a two-pronged penalty: stop reading and deduct points. I don't understand the point of the latter. Dimino claims that a professor who stops reading at the word limit is not penalizing the student, because the student could take a chance and exceed the limit, and if the professor abides by his rules, the student is worse off. But that isn't true. The student who wastes his time writing extra is being punished. But more to the point, why must students be punished anyway? As long as he doesn't benefit from the extra words, who cares? Is it the law school's job to punish people who exceed word limits? These people take themselves way too seriously.

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