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March 30, 2010


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Dave Heal

One could certainly argue that having more closed book exams is better preparation for bar exams, but that person would be crazy if they thought that was a good argument for them. The last thing law school exams need is to look less like the practice of law.

I think a 6-8 hour open book take-home is the best format. There's enough time to do some serious fingers-to-temples thinking, sketch out an answer, and then edit that answer so it doesn't look like you pecked it out on a cell phone from the back of a motorcycle. I know many in-class law school exams say that you're supposed to take part of the time to think about your answer, but most I've encountered don't actually provide that time. And I don't really see a whole lot of value in writing a test that's designed to have some people not finish it.

By about 5 minutes into the test period the cacophony of furious typing has reached maximum loudness and a student is not typing at his or her own peril. Sure, you don't have to get sucked into the Typeracer mentality, but grading seems to frequently reward quantity over quality. Or, rather, the conventional wisdom is that you can make up for imprecision with an avalanche of conjecture. Whether this is just law student folklore, I'm not sure, but students definitely seem to believe it. Either way, professors can't honestly enjoy reading the kind of garbage they get during the 3-hour in-class exams, right? Put a word limit on the take-home so you don't get any monograph-length exams and give the students 6-8 hours to complete it.

Mike Madison

I abandoned final exams years ago in favor of multiple graded writing projects during the semester, and I have never looked back. The shift is hardly costless, but in my view the costs pale compared to the benefits.


As someone who usually gives somewhat time-pressured exams, I don't agree that open book, unlimited time is necessarily the most reflective of actual practice. Rather, practice has a diversity of experiences. Some things like a detailed client memo will permit lots of time to research, organize, and write. But there will be partner meetings, client meetings, conference calls, and court arguments where it really will be like a timed exam: You get lots of time to prepare beforehand, but once in the room it is enormously important to be able to think on your feet and draw on a knowledge of the material from memory, and generally be able to talk in a way that makes sense while "winging it" to some degree. If there is truly some legal point that requires research, you can tell the client/partner/judge that you are going to look it up; but at a minimum you need to be able to identify the issue, and describe the consequences if the case law resolves it one way versus the other.

Joseph Vardner

As a student, there is one major point professors should learn: if you give a 24-hour take home, your students will hate you. We would seriously prefer some other torture instead. My con law exam was a 24-hour take home. Thankfully there was a short word limit, but you create paranoia nonetheless. Students seriously begin asking the question: how much do I need sleep? I know another student who read the exam, outlined the major issues, then reread both his outline and every single case covering the major issues. Only then, around 2am, did he start writing the exam. I'm not sure if he got sleep, but he looked terrible the next day.

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