6.1 – Types of Law School Exams


Types of Law School Exams

This class is going to be about the mechanics of exam prep and what exactly you need to do. Outlining, which we talked about in the previous class, is a big part of that, but we're going to get a little bit more into the nitty-gritty of how do you actually go from outlining to really being ready to walk into the exam room on the day of your exam, take that exam, and succeed. In the next class, we'll dive a little bit more into exactly how do you write a really successful essay exam.

At the outset, when you're thinking about how to prepare for your exams, you need to be aware of the different types of exams. There's a number of possibilities. One big difference between types of law school exams is between what's called an in-class exam and a take-home exam. What we usually mean with that distinction is an in-class exam isn't literally in your regular class.

In-Class Exams

Proctored and lasts for a few hours

It's usually at some separate time after classes have ended, but it's proctored, it's timed. You go to a classroom and there's people there. Maybe your professor is there, maybe it's someone else, but they're walking around and monitoring the exam conditions.

Those exams, the amount of time can vary. It can be as little as maybe an hour, or as much as four or even five hours. I think two to four hours is pretty standard for an in-class exam.

Take-Home Exam

Unproctored and can last hours, days, or a week.

A take-home exam, by contrast, is one where you are given the question and then you go back to your apartment or your dorm room or your house, or you go to the library and you work on it there, and then you come back and turn it in at a later time. There can be a range of how much time is allowed. One common format in a lot of law schools is an eight-hour take-home, where you pick it up in the morning and return it at the end of the day, but there's twenty-four-hour take-homes, there's week-long take-homes.

As the time period gets longer, it starts to look more and more just kind of like a final paper requirement rather than an exam, but you can imagine anything on that spectrum. You'll see different professors have different preferences, different schools have different norms about the kind of exams that most professors tend to offer.

Multiple-Choice Exams

Among exams, there's other distinctions. One distinction is between essay exams and multiple-choice exams. Multiple-choice exams should be pretty familiar with what they are. They're just questions and then you're given some number of choices to answer and there's a right answer. Here's the question and then you get option A, B, C, or D, and you have to pick one of them, and one of them is right or wrong.

Essay Exams

Essay is where you write something out. It can be a long thing you write out. Then there's something in between, which is a short answer, where it's not multiple-choice, but you're expected just to write a little bit. There, there's maybe more of a clear answer. Then among essays, we can draw further distinctions. One classic distinction is between the so-called issue-spotter exam, where you're given a fact pattern and you're asked to analyze the legal issues, figure out who would win, maybe in some kind of legal dispute, maybe you're asked to analyze how a motion would proceed, and a lot of different possibilities there, but you're asked to apply the law to a fact pattern and see what the legal issues are. Then there's a theory or policy question, where you're often asked to provide some kind of maybe normative analysis, say what you think the law should be, make an argument for how the law should change, and those test different skills. Any given law school exam can have some combination of all of these. In my classes, what I often do is I do a four-hour in-class exam, half of the time is multiple-choice questions and half of the time is essay questions, and then the essay questions are divided between issue-spotter and policy-type questions. Each of these kinds of questions really tests slightly different skills, and you're going to prepare for them in slightly different ways.

The thing I want you to understand is how you're going to prepare for any given exam is going to depend a lot on the exam type. You're going to want to figure that out at the outset. How would you figure that out? Well, you'll look at the syllabus. Professors usually are required to say, "This is an in-class exam, this is a take-home exam," and provide some information. You might be able to look at past exams. Sometimes those are made available by the school. Sometimes they're made available by your professor. You could look at those and figure out what type of exam it is.

Don't look too closely at those yet because I'm actually going to want to have you use those at a very discrete later point in your study, another very important part of your studying. Don't just read them at the very beginning of class because then they might become less useful to you later on in your studying, but you do want to have some sense because it's going to inform how you study. For example, here's another distinction that might be relevant to how you study.

(1) Closed book, can't bring material; and (2) open book, can bring material

The distinction between closed-book exams and open-book exams. Closed-book exam, you can't bring anything in, you're supposed to have everything in your head.

Open-book exam, you can bring your book, maybe you can bring other study materials. Again, there's anything in between those two possibilities. Some of the exams you can bring certain things in, but you can't bring everything in, and so forth. I'll talk more about the distinction between open-book and closed-book exams a bit more in the next class. The larger point is, for each exam, you want to have some sense of what you're walking into because it really does inform what exactly you need to do. An example of that is if your exam is all multiple-choice, multiple-choice exams really can only test rules that have clear right answers. There's not really a way to use multiple-choice to really test the real gray areas of the law, so certain courses might be better suited for multiple-choice than others.

Whereas an essay exam can really dig into the gray areas of the law. If you know, "Hey, this class is going to be just a multiple-choice," you might think, "Okay, then I really just need to know these rules really cold and know exactly what the bright-lines are and what's on either side of the line." Whereas an essay exam, you might want to be more focusing on the gray area. You could really compare, contrast, analogize if you were faced with a fact pattern that really just doesn't have a clear right answer. Think about this. Be aware of the different types. Try to get a sense of what you're walking into because that is going to be part of your study plan.

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