June 20, 2004

The mystery of the humps: learning to love the valley.

The previous post reminds me of something very important about doing well on law school exams (at least mine). Frequently, students interpret an exam question at the first hump on the Yin graph, that is, ignoring the difficulty. They may see the difficulty, but they know they can write a crisper, clearer answer if they pretend they don't. They think unless they can get to the second hump and work out the problem, they would be better off characterizing the problem simplistically, so they can handle it. But this would ensure a mediocre grade on my exams! Recognizing the difficulty and attempting to grapple with it may be the most anyone in the class is able to do. It may very well be all I can do. Holding back at hump 1--the timid, simplistic way of looking at the problem--will make half of the raw points for that question unavailable to you, while plunging into the difficulties and talking about why they exist could win you full credit or nearly full credit. I regularly reward the students who go into the valley between the humps. The state of confusion Prof. Yin describes would not be associated with a low grade on my exams.

There is a sort of confusion that befalls law students who are really trying to engage with the materials. When they talk to me about it, I always tell them to regard that confusion as an achievement on the path to understanding. The judges writing the cases attempt to gloss over the difficulties as they harmonize the precedents and weave the various legal principles together. When you are able to perceive the difficulties, you may miss the pleasant clarity you had before and want to resort to supplemental material as a solution. That would be like perceiving that you have a personal problem and dealing with it by getting drunk. The perception is a valuable thing, even though it is scary and painful. And now I'm talking about something more than doing well on law school exams. Don't you want to be the person who does not deny the value of your own perceptions?

I understand the law student who says: Well, let's just talk about law school and not life generally--I want to be the law student with the excellent grades who gets a great job. My answer is: I completely understand and respect that important interest of yours and that's why I write exams and grade them so that those two goals are not contradictory.

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