Should We Get Rid of the Law School In-Class Essay Exam?
I’ve long been unhappy with the typical law school exam format. The entire grade for the class is based on one 3-hour in-class essay exam. The problem with this format is that many students aren’t particularly adept at writing very quickly under immense time pressure. So the exam tests, in part, the ability to write quickly — a skill that is only of limited usefulness in the practice of law. In real life, lawyers don’t write briefs in 3-hour timed sessions. Law firms would be very unhappy if they did — first because the brief probably wouldn’t be that good and second because it would amount to a meager 3 billable hours!
Most law school classes still use the 3-hour in-class exam. Why?
Perhaps because many law school classes are quite large (80-120 students) and unlike other fields, law professors don’t have teaching assistants to help with the grading. With a large class, having students do more writing will make grading even more onerous. The 3-hour in-class exam keeps the amount of writing professors have to read to a manageable level. Most 3-hour exams amount to about 3000 to 4000 words, which amounts to about 10-14 pages double-spaced typewritten text. In a class of 100, that’s about 1000 to 1400 pages of reading! A greater dosage could send one into a coma. But this problem can be overcome — just give a take home exam with page limits.
Another reason for the in-class exam is to prevent cheating. Take home exams increase the opportunities for students to cheat. Although this is certainly a problem, I believe that we must at some point rely on students’ integrity and honesty. Trying to create airtight cheat-proof evaluation systems is not teaching students to be honest — it is simply delaying the problem. After graduating, students will have many opportunities to engage in dishonest conduct. Law schools may have less cheating to deal with, but when students without integrity enter the world of law practice where it is possible to act dishonestly, will they continue to abstain? Academic dishonesty is always a risk, but it is a risk we should confront. Better to address it in law school than afterwards, where lawyer dishonesty can cause tremendous losses to clients, investors, the public, etc.
I’m increasingly growing dissatisfied with the in-class exam, although I still use it. The reason I’ve done so is more my inertia about shaking up existing traditions than it is well-reasoned pedagogy. I’ve used take home exams in the past, which have worked well. This semester I tried an experiment with one of my classes. I had the students write a short paper (with strict page limits) due at the end of the semester on a topic of their choosing. I also had them answer an exam-style question (again with page limits) in a take home exam format. I thought that this system worked quite well and I’m inclined to use it again. I’m starting to wonder whether I should move away from giving in-class essay exams in all my classes.
So is there any other reason to continue to test students based on the 3-hour in-class exam? Does this format of examination really have a good pedagogical purpose? Is it a fair way of evaluating students? Please note that I am referring to an essay exam, as multiple choice questions would probably best work with the in-class format.