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Yes, Students Who Write More Do Better on Exams (Usually)

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By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on October 05, 2016 11:00 AM

If you want to score higher on your law school midterms and final exams, try writing more. A new study by researchers at Brigham Young University's law school claims that law students can bump a 3.3 grade on timed essays up to a 3.4 simply by including 923 more words in their answer.

But don't just mash your keyboard during your upcoming exams. If you want to do better, you'll probably have to do more than just up your verbosity. Here's why.

Size Matters

The new essay length research, conducted by BYU law professors Kif Augustine-Adams and James Rashband along with BYU statistics professor Candace Berrett, shouldn't be too surprising. There's long been a correlation between essay length and essay grade. More than ten years ago, for example, a study found that students who wrote more for their SAT essays received higher grades, even if they were full of factual errors. Indeed, length alone could determine the score "over 90 percent of the time," according to researchers.

The academics behind the BYU study worry that typing skill may be having too much of an impact on student performance. "If you get more words on the page, it's hard for a professor to say 'I'm not going to give any extra points for an additional three or four pages,'" Augustine-Adams told Law.com's Karen Sloan.

"If the top students are merely the fastest typists, or if a strong correlation exists, it would say something very troubling about the entire first year law school examination enterprise," the study says.

More Than Just Speed

My guess is that there's more than just skill at typing at play here, however. As a former educator, I've graded thousands of essays and while I haven't put the results through any rigorous statistical analysis, anecdotally speaking there tends to be a correlation between longer pieces and smarter pieces, whether it's an on-the-spot standardized exam or a thoughtful, complete-at-your-leisure essay.

There are a few reasons for this, I think. First, those who write more typically have more to say. That's often because they've thought more thoroughly (or at least more intensely) about an issue, or because they have more information to share than others. For timed writing, longer essays usually indicate that a student already has the needed knowledge on hand and can quickly get to explaining their conclusions. They don't have to, for example, try to remember the difference between negligence per se and regular old negligence; they can just flip to the proper section of their outline and go.

And if the extra words are just nonsense, most graders can spot that pretty easily.

Of course, there are other factors that can influence an essay's lengthy besides just knowledge. Typing skill may indeed play a role. With the average American typing 40 words a minute, hitting the extra 923 words that the BYU study recommends would take just over 23 minutes.

Students who have trouble organizing their thoughts or concluding one portion of an essay and moving on to the next could also see their writing speed and essay length reduced.

What's a Law Student to Do?

If you want to improve your essays scores, the key is practice, not just length. If typing is an issue -- and you should test your typing speed here to see if it is -- there are plenty of training exercises out there.

If you struggle to organize your thoughts, consider making template outlines beforehand. Don't practice answering an actual essay prompt -- start by trying to get a full outline sketched out as fast as you can.

From there, being writing practice essays. You can use sample exams from your school and the internet, or create prompts with your study group.

And, of course, the more you know, the easier writing should be. So don't forget to study content as well. Who knows, you might even be able to make it from a 3.3 to a 3.5 next time.

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