Sunday, April 12, 2020

Preparing for a Different Exam

Everyone is dealing with a new normal during the crisis.  The world faces significant challenges, and I do not want to ignore the very real struggles others are going through.  My family and I are blessed to be healthy during the crisis.  For us, the new normal includes no live sports.  That is small compared to other's struggles, but I spend significant quality time with my boys playing on baseball fields and watching spring football.  Since we have seen many of the replayed sports airing right now, we are watching some re-runs of American Ninja Warrior for the first time.  I feel like the show is a good analogy for law students' upcoming final exams.

Traditional sports have clear rules, objectives, and expectations.  Football games will include kickoffs, runs, passes, and field goals.  Basketball games will have a player attempting to put a round ball in a slightly larger round hoop.  Anyone can train to throw to a running receiver or take jump shots.  The expectations of the games are relatively predictable.  American Ninja Warrior is different.  Contestants know their strength, flexibility, coordination, and endurance will be tested.  They can watch previous seasons to understand the possible obstacles.  However, every new seasons brings a new course with new challenges.  Contestants can train generally, but they can't train for the very specific challenge that will be in front of them.  This year, that happened to law students.

Virtually all law school final exams this year will be open book.  Most states implemented stay-at-home orders requiring schools to shut down for the semester.  Shut down schools mean students will take finals at home with access to every material in the house.  Examsoft may shut off the internet, but it doesn't close casebooks or printed outlines.  Every student will have access to the rules for the final.  Open book finals occur sporadically in law school, so many students have not experienced this type of exam.  The general training in each course and legal analysis will help with the final, but this is a new test for most students.  Students were only recently aware that is the new normal for finals.  

Open book finals are the equivalent of a trap game (the easy opponent all the players overlook on the schedule).  Students have their book and outline at their disposal, so students believe the exam should be easy.  Some students won't prepare as well, and will end up performing below expectations.  Don't fall victim to this mentality.  One reality is that if students have access to all the rules, the professors will not allocate as many points to knowing the law.  Even more points than normal will be allocated to application.  Knowing open book finals are different will help create a plan for those exams.

I suggest a few strategies for open book finals:

  1. Prepare as if the final is closed book.  The best piece of advice is to be prepared for a closed book final.  I encourage everyone to make an outline, review the outline, test knowledge of the outline, practice essays, etc. just like a regular final exam.
  2. Print an outline (if possible) and tab it.  Rummaging through a casebook won't help.  The casebooks doesn't have concise rule statements.  An outline is critical, and then, create tabs to quickly find the rules.
  3. Practice writing essays.  I know I give this advice for all finals, but practice with feedback is always critical.  
  4. Still write down the rules.  This may seem contrary to the statement in the last paragraph, but still write in the IRAC format (or whatever format your professor prefers).  The professor may not allocate many points to rules, but there are probably some points.  Not only that, but the IRAC format is a way to ensure you do good application in the analysis section.  I emphasize to my students that IRAC isn't a magic pill that rains points.  IRAC is a method to systematically go through a problem discussing rules with specific facts applied to the rule.  If the rule isn't there, students sometimes forget to apply facts to that element/step/etc.
  5. Follow the timing of the exam.  I give this general piece of advice for open book finals, and it may not apply right now.  However, I always tell students to take note of the time for each question and follow it.  This is advice I give for closed book exams as well, but some students become too focused on getting everything perfect on open book finals.  They end up spending too much time in an outline and don't finish the test.

Many students have not practiced for open book exams and others become overconfident.  You can overcome this new obstacle with the right training and application on test day.  You are ready for this.  Now, practice and execute.

(Steven Foster)

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