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May 13, 2007

Urging exam (and paper) innovations

Posts by Dan Solove at Concurring Opinions and by Ethan Leib at PrawfBlawg provide insights on an important question for any would-be law school innovator.  Dan poses the question in the headline of his post when he asks "Should We Get Rid of the Law School In-Class Essay Exam?"

My answer is simple: YES!  I see very few pedagogical benefits from a traditional in-class exams (especially closed-book exams).  I think inertia, status quo biases and administrative convenience are the only reasons that traditional in-class exams persevere.  (Even more than essay exams, multiple-choice exams seem to place administrative convenience even higher in the scheme of evaluation priorities.) 

Ethan asserts that "'issue-spotting' over the course of a very compressed time period is [a skill] that lawyers actually use."  I suppose I can recall a few times getting a call from a client or fellow lawyer that called for a quick off-the-cuff analysis, but never was I asked to respond in the timeframe and form of an in-class exam.  (I often tell students that they risk a malpractice suit if they ever try to respond to a complicated legal problem in the manner we ask them to respond during an in-class exam.)

Except in my first-year criminal law course, I never give a traditional in-class exam (and, were it not for the administrative headaches I would create for students and colleagues, I definitely would change to a take-home exam in my first-year course as well).  For various classes, I have assigned 48 hour take-home tests, one- and two-week take home tests, traditional research papers and non-traditional written projects (such as the white-paper assignment in my death penalty course this term).  Though creating and grading non-traditional exams and paper assignments is not easy, the pay-off is usually exceptional.  Perhaps more importantly, I can justify to myself and to my students how the exam/paper experience further develops real lawyering skills rather than just being a "who-can-show-off-while-reading-and-writing-quickly" contest.

Perhaps just to generate some comments, I challenge readers to provide any truly satisfying pedagogical justification for in-class law school exams.  I also encourage readers to report on exam innovations that perhaps could replace in-class exams as a law school norm.

Posted by DAB

May 13, 2007 in Teaching -- pedagogy | Permalink


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I'm with you, Doug. After my first few years of teaching, I moved away from the in-class exam where possible. In short, I think it tests memorization even more than issue spotting, and memorization simply is not a skill that lawyers need very often, outside of certain forms of oral advocacy.

Posted by: Mark Osler | May 17, 2007 9:36:51 AM

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