During the pandemic, take home exams have become more common. One silver lining of this change is that students have more control over their exam environment.
Normally, law school exams happen in a classroom in a law school building. The exam is proctored, and the exam software often restricts internet access. Students would put in earplugs in order to block the sounds of 50-80 people tapping on computer keyboards, prepare enough stationery and scratch paper for outlining and taking notes, and make sure their computers were plugged into an electrical outlet. Some would arrive at the testing room thirty minutes to an hour before the exam to grab their preferred spot and set up everything. Once the exam began, going to the restroom or taking a break meant losing precious minutes.
With take home exams, students have more flexibility to set up ahead of time, find the quietest space possible, and surround themselves with calming forces, rather than the sight of other stressed-out students.
Having taken multiple take-home exams, I have developed some strategies and tips to set up a workspace that works for me:
Preparing exam materials
When I have open book exams, I consider what materials would help me best during the exam. While I have my casebook and supplements near my testing area, I generally don’t reach for them. Instead, in addition to having my digital outline on my computer screen, I create summaries by hand of important topics and doctrines. They often take visual formats rather than a block of text or bullets, most commonly tables and flowcharts. I then stick the pieces of paper to the wall or lay them out on my exam workspace. I also use post-its for various purposes: listing the key topics in the class, highlighting concepts I’m prone to making mistakes in, reminding myself of the time allocation, or just motivating myself.
I also prepare the stationery I need: scratch paper, different colored pens, and highlighters. I ensure my water and snacks is quickly accessible, and put a good luck charm on my desk to cheer myself on.
Setting up my computer
Getting an external monitor was a really great investment for me. In the exam context, it allowed me to keep my exam response document up, while using the second screen to refer to my digital outline or other materials. You can also use an iPad as a second display.
However, a second screen isn’t essential. In fact, I took my first set of take-home exams with just my laptop. I discovered that I could set up multiple virtual desktops on my laptop. “Virtual desktops” allow the user to manage different set of applications and switch back and forth with quick keyboard shortcuts. Putting them to work, I would have my exam response document on one desktop, my outline on the second, my class notes on the third, my reading notes on the fourth, and my internet browser on the fifth. Some other uses for a virtual desktop include: break time activities, music or white noise, timer, and other student outlines. I would highly recommend familiarizing yourself with virtual desktops before taking the exam.
Calculating the time allocation
Take home exams tend to be longer than in-class exams in my experience. Some professors give more time than they expect their students to use. Some professors impose word limits and tell students to spend some time editing their answers for clarity and brevity. I always make sure to know what my professor’s expectations are and prepare accordingly.
Many professors indicate how many questions there will be and the format, how much each portion is worth, and sometimes how much time you should spend on each question. If your professors are not specific, you can get a sense from past exams, or ask them directly.
Knowing how much time I should allocate to each part of the exam keeps me on pace. For self-scheduled exams, I figure out the specific timestamps for when I should move on to the next part. I use my phone as a timer, making sure that I’ve turned off my internet connection and notifications, in order to prevent unwanted distractions.
Knowing my keyboard shortcuts
The big advantage of electronic reference materials is that I can search through them easily. CTRL + F (on Windows) or CMD + F (on Mac) is a crucial shortcut to know.
If you are using a pdf document, make sure that it is searchable, or turn on OCR (optical character recognition) to get the text digitally recognized.
Everyone has different preferences about noise levels when they are taking exams. I like my environment to be near silent. To that end, I let other people living in the house know that I am taking my exams in a certain time period, and ask them not to disturb me.
If you work better with music or white noise, you can cue up an exam playlist or set up the white noise generator beforehand.
Everyone has a different system that works for them in taking law school exams. The take-home format offers more possibilities for law students to create a comfortable exam-taking space. I hope that my advice helps you find your system for preparing and tackling take-home exams. And remember to be kind to yourself before, during, and after the exam!
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