Tuesday, August 10, 2021

The Mistaken Impression that Prior Exams are for Review and Not Practice

Over the years, I have noticed that many legal educators and students have an imperfect understanding of the utility of using prior exams for practice.  This misunderstanding usually holds that the purpose of such materials is for students to review the exams simply to see what topics professors test and methods with which they do so.  In turn, faculty become leery of providing such materials, as doing so might create an unwarranted expectation on students’ part that their exam will test the same topics and use the same methods.

This impression is problematic.  Both students and faculty are squandering the opportunity for students to use materials that will make them better learners, improve their performance in law school and the bar exam, and increase their knowledge and skills (both in classes and on the bar exam).

An important recent (methodologically sophisticated) study supports this claim. In Understanding the Metacognitive “Space” and its Implications for Law Students’ Learning, Professors Jennifer Gundlach and Jessica Santagelo found statistically significant evidence that:  “Students who reported using active strategies at the end of the semester were more likely to succeed in the class … relative to students who never used active strategies.”

Plenty of studies in other fields express similar results.

Faculty should better understand the use of prior exams and other materials that would allow students to practice rather than re-read over and over again.  Although many law professors used re-reading and re-reviewing prior exams in their studies, their success quite possibly could have been despite and not because of those flawed methods.  Faculty tend to have had an elite education, elite aptitude, and elite socio-economic condition opportunities for academic success.  They thus had a great degree of wiggle-room in terms of the efficacy of their learning methods

Many of our students are not so lucky.  If we admit students with fewer socio-economic opportunities and with non-elite academic credentials, we should not erect further obstacles to their success by assuming that the methods we used in very different circumstances will be effective for them. 

Especially given the recent findings quoted above, we should not rely on the anecdote fallacy (that because one person had success with a method all will have such success) and the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy (that because certain study methods preceded success, those methods must have caused that success).  Instead, we should rely on the empirical evidence that shows that active learning, including taking practice exams, fosters success more optimally.

(Louis Schulze, FIU Law)




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Great point, as usual, Louis, and one that can be extended to other forms of review throughout the semester. My personal favorite - treating questions at the end of each chapter within the E & E series as an actual quiz. Even early in the semester, I urge students to complete these exercises under timed conditions as a check on what they have mastered as opposed to sort of know. This allows them to address deficiencies in their knowledge base on a weekly basis.

Posted by: Herbert Ramy | Aug 11, 2021 6:02:08 AM

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