6.9 – Treat All Exams as Closed Book


Treat All Exams as Closed-Book

One more point I want to talk about connected to what I introduced this class with, which was the different types of law school exams, which is the idea that I really want you to treat most of your exams as if they are closed-book exams. At least, particularly if you're taking an in-class timed exam, whether that exam is open-book, open-note, open-outline, or closed-note, closed-outline, I don't want you to really think about the exam differently in any meaningful sense.

You might feel like, "Oh, gosh, there's a big difference between a scary closed-book exam and a warm and fuzzy open-book exam where I can just look things up." In practice, if it's a timed in-class exam, you just don't have the time to spare to look very many things up. Imagine you're taking a three-hour in-class exam, and you have an issue-spotter question, and the professor has buried ten issues in that issue-spotter fact pattern.

Do you think you have time to look up ten issues in your notes or in the book, and figure out what the right legal rule is, in order to put that into your exam answer and then apply that, while still writing a good answer and covering all the points? There's just no way you can plausibly do that. Making matters worse, how are you even going to spot the issues to look up in the first place? The issues don't usually spot themselves in typical law school exams. It's just a fact pattern and it's up to you to realize even what the legal issues that are implicated by the fact pattern are. If you don't have a really, really deep understanding of the material, you're not even going to know where to look in the book to look something up.

(1) Open-book exams being easier than closed-book is a myth, (2) reference to material in open-book is an emergency option

Thinking about open-book as being a crutch that you can lean on, I think that's a real trap. If it significantly changes how you study for a particular exam, you are likely going to be making a mistake and not taking the optimal strategy. Because in an ideal world, whether it's open-book or not, you're using all of the time on a timed in-class exam to write an effective answer, and not to figure out what the law is, using your book.

Now, there are moments where having that open-book ability is useful. If you have a temporary brain freeze, let's say you forget what exactly one rule is, and you need to look that one rule up in order to finish your answer, it's really going to be beneficial to you to be able to look that up, and that's fine, and I'm not saying don't do that, but think of that as an emergency option, not as the default, not as something you're going to be doing most of the time to figuring out what to say on the exam. Some exams are going to be open-outline, and some are not going to be open-outline. Some exams will be open-outline but not open-book, or open-outline but not open-note. Or you can bring in a short outline but not a long one.

Every professor does this a little differently. You want to think a little bit going in, in terms of how you are going to take advantage of that if you need to take advantage of that. Imagine it's an open-outline exam, think about if I do need to refer to my outline, ideally, I'm not going to have to refer to it very much, but if I do need to refer to it, how am I going to do that quickly? If I need to figure out on page 32 of my outline, where I lay out the test for willful blindness, how am I going to find that quickly?

I don't know, maybe you want to do a table of contents at the beginning. Or maybe you want to do a little quick cheat sheet for yourself where you just write out all the rules on two pages, something that you can refer to really quickly when you need to, but you don't want to put yourself in a situation where you've suddenly spent half an hour flipping through your outline or flipping through the book and trying to find something.

I think, in a perfect world, you wouldn't have to look at the book at all, because everything that's relevant from the book, you have distilled and imported into your outline, but if there's some chance you might have to look in the book, then maybe you want to have tabbed up the book with little tape flags or something so you know the key sections. If there's a statutory supplement, maybe you've put little tabs on the key statutory sections. Think about it, have a game plan, and have a realistic plan for how you're going to use the open materials if you're going to use them, and how you're going to use them sparingly. Because it's really not as much time as it feels like.

You might think, "Oh, gosh, three hours is so much time," but if you're having to write two essays in that time, if you burn twenty or thirty minutes flipping through your book reading stuff, you have used up a lot of possible time in which you could be generating points and improving your grade on the exam.

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