View from the Classroom: Exams

Steven D. Schwinn is an associate professor of law at The John Marshall Law School. He is co-editor of the Constitutional Law Prof Blog and he can be reached at or (312) 386-2865.

One of the problems with the first year of law school is that most of our students don’t really learn how to succeed until it’s over.  Most don’t see, for example, that smart studying (and not brute force or rote memorization) earns the “A.”  Most don’t understand that multiple sources (and not just the casebook, the classnotes, the study aids, or a friend’s outline alone) lead to the deepest understanding.  And most don’t get that the indeterminacies and ambiguities in the law (and not merely the “right answers”) form the backbone of the first year.  Most don’t understand these truths until it’s too late.  (That’s a reflection of our pedagogy, by the way, not their smarts.)

This is especially true for final exams.  Many first-year students approach exams merely as a test of rote knowledge (maybe with special tricks thrown in, just to keep them on their toes).  They think that if they can recount the many things they’ve memorized—and sort out the issues from the herrings—they’ll do well.  For many, the hard part about an exam is finding the issues and recalling and applying the rules under a time crunch.

But we on the faculty side know that this isn’t what exams are about at all.

Exams aren’t just a test.  Instead, they’re a conversation.  They’re an opportunity for a student to communicate in writing with a professor, just as they might chat during office hours.  The hypos and questions open the conversation; the student answers respond to it.  And the best student answers go on to explore the issues from all perspectives, as if they imagined a follow up question from the professor that prompted them to drill deeper into their answer.

Just like any conversation, the exam works best when parties listen to each other.  In particular: students should “listen” to the professor by taking cues from the exam itself and from a semester’s worth of studying together.  They should “write to their audience” by considering their professor’s expectations and anticipating their professor’s own challenges in reading their exam.  (It may seem obvious, but exams should be easy to grade—clear, concise, and well organized.)  In short, an exam is an ongoing, back-and-forth, conversation—a conversation like any other, except that parts of it (some of the back, some of the forth) are necessarily make believe.  In short, exams are a two-way chat, not a one-way test.

Exams aren’t about reciting rote doctrine.  Instead, they’re about demonstrating real understanding.  They’re framed to elicit analysis, argument, and critique, not just application.  They’re asking for a variety of perspectives and a depth of knowledge, not a narrow formalistic approach that yields a single “right” answer.  And those twists and turns are designed to inspire careful reading and analysis, not just to hassle and trick students.  In other words, exams gauge the breadth and depth of understanding—all that a student (hopefully) gained throughout the entire course—and not the rote memorization that a student crammed in days or hours before the exam.

Viewed in this way, exams aren’t at all the sadistic instruments that so many first-year students see them for.  Instead, they’re a well designed cap-stone to the course.  Success doesn’t depend upon stressful, last-minute memorization; it depends on consistent engagement with the material throughout the semester.

This should be liberating.  It means that a strong, even effort beats the stressful cram on almost any exam.  But, alas, we so often only learn this too late.


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