Legally Ranting

The Myth About Open-Book Exams

Posted in Law School by legalrants on July 3, 2010

Having gone through the first semester of law school, I’m not sure if I prefer open-book exams or closed book exams. Sure, open-book exams allow you to bring in any materials you can possibly conjure up: notes, “cheat sheets”, textbooks, your favorite magazines, photos of your dog….you get my drift. Unfortunately, adopting such a mentality is a sure recipe for disaster in the exam.

As my Torts tutor once said, “in an exam, your biggest challenges are nerves… and time” — Oh trust me, these combine together to form a lethal cocktail of palm-sweating, bowel-squeezing, gut-wrenching anxiety.

Let’s face it, real estate is already at a premium in an exam hall. When you have 400 students taking the same paper in a hall, how much space can they really afford to give you for your desktop decorations? I’ve seen students bring in huge water bottles (as if they are really gonna need it or have time to even drink it), snacks, 19th century leather-bound textbooks, notes, seniors’ notes, yesteryear seniors’ notes, comprehensive notes, detailed notes……to put on a table smaller than the size of your laptop computer. This is not to mention that you actually have to find some space to position the exam booklet so as to be able to answer the exam itself.

Ok, my point is really that there is limited space on the exam table. So most students wind up putting their “mini libaries” on the floor below the table, immediately diminishing the usefulness of those materials expotentially.

The thought of an exam being open-book usually has a somewhat calming effect on the most panicky of students who comfort themselves that by bringing in all the materials they can possibly muster, they would be able to find an answer to ANY problem in the exam. Of course, to some extent, that is true….. if you are given 2 days to finish an exam that would otherwise be over in 2 hours.

Like I said above, this mentality is a recipe for disaster simply because there isn’t enough time in the exam to go digging through your personal legal encyclopedia to search for the ratio of an obscure case that is probably only worth 2 marks. This is made worse when you have MULTIPLE sources from which you can find that information because you would want to triple confirm the information you gotten from the first source by comparing that to other sources. Well, it’s not so bad if you actually understand what you are reading, but unfortunately, some or many students go into an open-book exam not having really read and understood their notes or materials. The deadly combination of nerves, pressure, not knowing your stuff usually results in students lifting the information from the material wholly verbatim — of course, you know how that would end up.

From personal experience, it is much easier to have just two sets of notes — one acting as a general outline to all the topics/subjects and supported by a one-liner description of the relevant cases. The second set of notes act as a more detailed, albeit summarized version of the information in the textbook and/or lectures. Oh, and forget about the textbooks….bring it in, but chuck it on the floor and forget about it. Only refer to it in the most desperate of situations. Even so, I’m sure the answer can be found somewhere in your notes.

Lastly, read your notes a thousand times and make sure you know EVERYTHING in those notes backwards — memorize it if need be (sounds counter-intuitive for an open-book exam, I know). I’ve found that knowing your stuff well is more important than the most detailed, comprehensive and exhaustive set of materials that you can bring into an exam. An open-book exam is not the time to do research, but a time to demonstrate the knowledge gained from the  research and preparation that you have done throughout the semester.

Hopefully, this would be helpful to anyone embarking on exams anytime soon!

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