Law School Take-Home Exams as a Game of Scattergories

This semester I gave a take-home exam. Students had ample time to think about the exam and consult any source they wanted, so almost everyone properly identified and applied the applicable legal standards. This compares favorably with tightly-timed in-class exams (especially closed book exams, though it occurs with open book exams too) where it’s relatively easy to downgrade poor performers who widely miss major concepts.

I often worried that such mistakes reflect exam anxiety or speededness, neither of which I want to test, instead of substantive difference in learning. As a result, like Dan Solove, I’m considering moving to take-home exams as a better assessment tool.

However, when most take-home exams competently cover most of the basic points, grading distinctions become more subtle. This year, I noticed that my grading followed a process not dissimilar to the board game Scattergories. If you’re not familiar with the game, players are given a limited time to write down all of the words that they can think of that meet specified parameters (such as “list fruits beginning with the letter ‘C’”). Players earn points only if they list words that aren’t on other players’ lists. For example, if two players out of 6 list “cantaloupe,” neither of them get a point, but if only one player out of the 6 lists cantaloupe, the player scores a point. Thus, a player’s strategy can be to defensively list easy-to-identify words (to block other players from earning points for those words) or offensively list esoteric examples that other players aren’t likely to come up with (which scores affirmative points).

Writing a take-home exam follows a similar strategy. When most students analyze an issue virtually identically, these analyses all knock each other out, and no one scores any differentiated points for their work. If I expected the analysis, an omission would have detrimentally affected the score, so for these points a student could either earn a zero or a -1. On the other hand, when a student makes a relatively unique and valid point, that student earns a +1.

This suggests a “Scattergories strategy” to achieve a top score on take-home exams: address all of the basic points competently so you don’t lose any points due to omissions, but spend some time coming up with some “unique”/differentiated analysis to score extra points. Note that this may be a different strategy than in-class exams, where the top scoring paper typically gets there simply through consistently correct analysis without obvious mistakes, compared to the other papers that have one or more major mistakes.