Tuesday, May 21, 2013

The U.S. Legal History Survey Revisited: III -- Methods of Evaluation

This is another installment of my series of posts on teaching the U.S. Legal History survey. (Earlier posts are here and here.) Having just finished grading, the question of how to evaluate student learning is on my mind. I decided to give my students a choice: they could either complete a ten-hour, essay-style take-home exam or they could write a 20-25 page historiographical essay on a professor-approved topic of their choice.

For the exam: I gave the students three essay questions and asked them to choose two. I placed a 5000-word limit on their answers. I encouraged the students to engage with material from across the semester and to include examples from at least three distinct historical periods.

Here is one of the essay questions I used:
A prominent U.S. historian recently made the following observation: “The language of the Declaration of Independence and the preamble to the U.S. Constitution expressed a powerful vision of the fundamental right to freedom, liberty, and equality.” One way to understand U.S. legal and constitutional history is in terms of that vision’s “incremental[] transform[ation],” over the span of many decades, “into a lived reality for a broader and broader number of Americans.” Do you find this interpretation persuasive? Why or why not?   
[The quotes are pulled from Barbara Welke's Law and the Borders of Belonging in the Long Nineteenth Century United States (Cambridge University Press, 2010), although, for the record, these snippets do not represent the argument of her book.] This particular question gave the students lots of interpretive space, lent itself to clear thesis statements, and produced a range of answers, some quite sophisticated. From a grading perspective, the question resulted in a nice curve. I'm also pretty sure that for students, it was not overly intimidating.

Here's a question that gave the students a harder time:
Notions of the boundaries of government authority over individuals and groups have been central to all of U.S. history. Explore the ways in which these boundaries have shifted or been re-imagined and suggest an explanation for this change over time.  
In retrospect, I still think it was a fair question, but it produced some weak answers -- perhaps because I did not build into this prompt an interpretation for the students to argue for or against.
Answering the question required original thought. Curiously, some students also assumed that the word "government" meant "federal government" and wrote answers that were essentially about federalism.

For those of you who use essay questions to evaluate your students: What do you think about when you are designing your questions? What types of prompts tend to work well for you? Which are less successful? Do you try to make your questions straightforward, like my first example, or do you try to make your students think harder about what the question is after?

Next up: thoughts on the historiographical essay assignment.