Bad Answers, Good Answers, and Terrific Answers:
Law students around the country recently received their fall semester grades. Students are often puzzled about what professors are looking for on exams, so I thought it might be helpful to offer some thoughts on what makes an answer bad, good, or terrific. Obviously different professors look for different things, but my guess is that what works for me is relatively close to what works for other professors. Abstract guidance on how to answer exam questions is easily found and usually pretty useless, so instead I'm going to conjure up an imaginary law school class with an imaginary exam. I'll then grade an imaginary set of five different answers and explain what makes the different answers better or worse.

  Welcome to the Imaginary Law School! Every 1L at ILS takes a mandatory class in "Park and Recreation Law." The class includes coverage of Section 1 of the Park Act, which states that "No vehicles are allowed in the park." The class covered two cases interpreting this section. The first case was State v. Jones, where the court concluded that roller skates were not vehicles. "Although the Park Act does not define the word 'vehicle," the court stated, "we follow the plain meaning of the term. The word 'vehicle' calls to mind a motorized mode of transportation, not a human-powered one." The second case was People v. Thomson, where the court held that a motor home was a vehicle. "We think it clear that Thomson's motor home is a vehicle," the court explained. "The classic example of a vehicle is a car or truck. A motor home is much like a truck in size and complexity, with a small living area connected to it. We can imagine close cases that would force us to draw difficult lines as to the scope of the Act. But this case is not one of them."

  Okay, now imagine being the professor who wants to test students on Section 1 of the Park Act as part of the final exam. Being a law professor, you'll create facts that are annoyingly in the middle of these precedents — this forces students to grapple with the facts and the law, and you can grade them on how skillfully they do that. Here is the question you write:

  Betty is a law student at ILS who lives off-campus. She often rides to class in a gas-powered scooter, a two-wheeled motorized scooter that has a one-cylinder gasoline engine and a top speed of about 20 miles per hour. One day she decides to ride her scooter through a nearby park on her way to school.

  Analyze Betty's liability under the Park Act.
 Ok, now imagine that the students have taken the exam and it's time to do some grading. There are five students in the class and therefore five exams to grade. You pick up the first answer:
1. Betty may face liability under the Park Act. However, I think she is in the clear. I don't think her conduct violated the law. There are laws that regulate the park, but here Betty has not violated them. The government may disagree, and it's possible that there is a judge somewhere who would rule in favor of the government. But on the basis of the law, I think it is absolutely clear that Betty is not liable.
  Ack, this is a really terrible answer. Why? Well, it doesn't tell you anything. It tells you that there is an issue of park law in the question — which you would expect, this being an examination on park law — and that the student has a view that Betty is not liable. But it doesn't tell you what the legal issue is or how it applies to the facts. Even worse, the answer suggests that the answer to the legal question — whatever it is — is "absolutely clear." You intentionally wrote a question that has no clear answer; a student's announcement that the answer is clear suggests that the student is just missing the boat.

  Time to move on to the next exam. Here it is:
2. The issue is whether Betty is liable under Section 1 of the Park Act because she may have brought a "vehicle" into the park. This is a close question. On balance, though, I don't think the scooter was a "vehicle."
  This is still a below-average answer, although at least it's an improvement over the first student. On the plus side, the students clearly recognizes the legal issue: specifically, whether the scooter is a "vehicle." But the answer is still very weak; I need to know why the student thinks the issue is hard and why the scooter wasn't a vehicle. There are good reasons and bad reasons to reach that particular conclusion, and I need to hear the reasons so I can tell which are guiding the answer.

  Now you pick up answer number three:
3. The issue is whether Betty is liable under Section 1 of the Park Act because she may have brought a "vehicle" into the park. Vehicle is not defined, but under Jones we follow the "plain meaning" of the term. This is a close question; on one hand, a scooter is kind of like a car, but on the other hand, its also pretty different. Under the plain meaning approach, I don't think a scooter is a "vehicle."
  This answer is better than number two; it's roughly an average answer. Note that answer 3 did two things that answer 2 did not: first, it used a relevant case to focus the intepretive inquiry (plain meaning under Jones), and second, it suggested a reason why the case was hard (like a car in some ways, not like it in others). On the other hand, it didn't offer a very clear rationale for its conclusion; "pretty similar" and "pretty different" can mean lots of different things, and I need to know what the student means by that.

  Now you pick up the fourth exam:
4. Did Betty violate Section 1 of the Park Act because she brought a "vehicle" into the park? Vehicle is not defined, but under Jones we follow the "plain meaning" of the term. That advice is not very helpful here, though as whether a scooter is a vehicle does not seem plain one way or the other. I think the scooter is probably a "vehicle" because it has a motor, which seemed to be a very important factor in the Jones case. Roller skates don't have motors, but Betty's scooter had a one-cylinder gas-powered engine.
  This is a very good answer, definitely above-average. The student did everything that that the student did in #3 but added two important steps. First, the student offered a clear rationale as to why one case was distinguishable: in the roller skate case, Jones, the Court had pointed out that vehicle suggests the presence of a motor; in this case, by contrast, there was a motor. Second, the student had the presence to see that the "plain meaning" guidance isn't very helpful in this particular case; while it's a broad principle worth noting, the real answer to this particular question comes from the prior cases and their reasoning.

  Now you pick up the last answer. It reads:
5. Betty's liability hinges on whether her motorized scooter was a "vehicle" under Section 1 of the Park Act. The Act does not define vehicle, but Jones and Thomson provide guidance. The facts here are somewhere between those two cases. Unlike Jones's roller skates, Betty's scooter has a one-cylinder gas engine: It is "a motorized mode of transportation, not a human-powered one" under Jones. On the other hand, it is a very modest means of transportation that is far from the size and complexity of a car or truck under Thomson. This seems to be one of the "close cases" mentioned in Thomson, in part because Jones's focus on the powerplant points in one direction and Thomson's focus on size and complexity points in another direction. Scooters are powered but small and simple. It's unclear which matters more, and Betty's liability under Section 1 depends on it.
  This is an off-the-charts A+ answer. First, the student directly and accurately identified the precise legal question and exactly what makes it hard. Second, the student explained exactly why the two cases point in different directions without resolving the question. The student clearly gets it: she seems to know the relevant law perfectly and has mastered applying that law to the facts. The answer is so good it's like the student read your mind — this is exactly what you were thinking when you wrote the question. And the student did it all in the context of a high-pressure 3-hour in-class examination. Wow, that's incredible. As they would say on eBay, A++++++++.

  So what do these examples tell you? I think the basic advice is that precision and explanations are everything. 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. Of course, when stated that way, the advice sounds pretty general. At bottom it just means that you need to show your professor that you are an excellent lawyer. Which of course is exactly the point.

  Anyway, I hope this is helpful. The hypothetical is of course highly stylized, as it involves only one part of exam-taking (rule application). But I hope it gives students a flavor of what their professors want on exams. And I'm particularly interested in hearing from other professors on whether they agree with my scale or would use a different approach.