When I was teaching law school, I’d approach grading final exams with a sense of anticipation. That pile of bluebooks and ExamSoft printouts was the only thing standing between me and the holidays or summer break. I was curious to see how much my students had learned. After submitting final grades, I’d eagerly match the anonymous ID numbers to students’ names. I’d find out whether the student I’d caught on Facebook had actually been paying attention most of the time. I’d discover whether the eager participant in class discussion merely talked a good game or really absorbed the material.
Inevitably, there would be some surprises – students who did better or worse on the exam than I would have predicted from their classroom demeanor and participation. But just as surely as there were surprises, there was always one constant: an exam that made me question whether the student and I had really been in the same room at the same time for 56 hours. (Due to the ABA’s attendance policy, strictly enforced at my school, I knew the student had been present physically. So why was this exam so bad?) Each semester I would warn the class: Don’t be that student. You don’t want to be that student, either.
What features of an exam made me question whether the student had really been in class?
Incorrect statement of the law.
We all know the “R” in IRAC stands for “Rule.” And we all know that a good exam answer must state the applicable rule correctly. This is the easy part. Still, sometimes a student would get it wrong, even though the student had access to the casebook, my PowerPoint slides, commercial study aids, and the Internet.
Incomplete statement of the law.
The “R” has to be complete. I expected students to set out the whole rule, including its subparts and exceptions, just like we did in class.
Failure to spot issues emphasized in class.
The more time we spent on an issue in class, the more likely it would turn up on the final. Why? Because it was important. If we worked through a hypo in class, something like it often turned up on the final. When it did, and a student missed it, I had to wonder if she’d actually been in the room.
While the longest answer may not be the best, it’s very likely that the shortest answer will be the worst. Students who are engaged in contemplating and discussing issues for an entire semester should have a lot to say at the end.
What caused these problems, and how can you avoid them?
You need to pay attention in class and take good notes. This doesn’t mean transcribing the entire lecture and dialogue – although I’ll confess, this was pretty much my approach in law school. It means determining what’s important by following the professor’s cues. How did she respond to a student’s answer to her question? How did she redirect a discussion that was getting off track? If a student asked a question, what was the answer?
Outlines are personal. But one thing all good outlines have in common is accurate rule statements. This is the easy part. Don’t get it wrong.
Not seeking clarification.
If you’re confused, do you ask questions in class? Do you go to your professor’s office hours? You should. If there’s anything you’re unsure about, ask while there’s still time for you to process and internalize the answer – and apply it during the exam. It’s possible that you were in the room, but you were confused by what you heard. If you’re not “getting it,” ask for help.
Not doing practice exams.
There is no better way to prepare for a final exam than to do practice exams from your professor. Most professors hit upon a style and structure for their exams and stick with it. This isn’t because they’re lazy; it’s because they’ve found a model that works. This is particularly true for the “call of the question.” Some professors prefer broad, open-ended prompts, like “identify every possible claim.” Others ask targeted questions, like “Did the court err in granting the motion to transfer the case from state court to federal district court?” You can gain insight into your professor’s expectations by working through practice exams.
Not interacting with classmates.
You can’t succeed in law school alone. You need to form relationships with your classmates for reasons social, professional and academic. You need friends and future professional contacts. And to succeed academically, you need to study with people who caught something you didn’t, or who can explain something in a way you’ll understand. You need other people who were in the room.
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