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Friday, April 17, 2009

The Take-Home Final Exam

It's that time of year, so I'm working on my final exams. In my 1L structural constitutional law course I'm giving a take-home exam, as I have done for the last two semesters in this course. My sense with this subject had been that I was reading too much of a rushed exam when I tried to test in three hours what I thought the students should take out of the semester, which made me less confident that the better-prepared students could distinguish themselves consistently.

The biggest challenge has been how to schedule a take-home exam in the midst of the 1Ls' very structured final exam schedule. But overall, I have been happy with this exam format for this particular course. In other courses, though, I find the timed in-class exam more effective for assessing my students. I haven't polled my students formally, but they generally seem pretty split on which format they prefer.

What leads professors to give take-home exams in certain courses but not others? The nature of the subject generally? What a professor wants to test in a particular semester? Whether the course is a 1L or upper-class course? What specific testing goals do professors pursue with a take-home exam that differ from an in-class exam, and how are these goals reflected in the exam itself? And, do some professors object to take-home exams in law school?

Posted by Brooks Holland on April 17, 2009 at 02:05 PM in Life of Law Schools, Teaching Law | Permalink


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Our section is having an in-class Con Law exam, but its open everything (notes, book, study guides, etc). From archived tests our professor tends to pose some multi-issue con law question that incorporates issues from various cases, and we have to go through the whole constitutionality of the question(s). Having an in-class open v closed probably doesn't pose much difference since it would kill time to actually flip through all of those resources.
My property exam, on the other hand, is totally closed.
Both courses are single-semester, 5 credit courses.

Posted by: Anon Student | Apr 17, 2009 2:28:42 PM

There are certainly a number of "pros " to take-home exams such as them more closely resembling the actual practice of law and the greater quality of exam that they produce. Here, however, are the reasons that I don't give take home exams:

1. I give students outlines throughout the semester and a final outline at the end of class. Thus, with enough time on the final, I think that most students could objectively do very well. By giving time constrained exams, I avoid leveling the playing field too much and harming the students who worked hardest throughout the semester.

2. Cheating. As I said in an earlier post, I'm not sure how prevalent cheating is in law schools, but I do know that when I went to law school, many students were concerned about cheating. It is very difficult to cheat in an in-class, time constrained, open everything exam while it is much less difficult to cheat on an 8 or 24 hour take-home exam. Again, I don't know how many students actually do cheat on take-home exams, but I don't want students worrying that other students might be cheating.

3. 8 and especially 24 hour take-home exams can be exhausting. Most students don't have many days between exams (and some 2Ls and 3Ls have exams on back-to-back or even back-to-back-to-back days). I avoided take-home exam classes in law school because I knew that, like many students, if given 8 or 24 hours to complete an exam, I would take 8 or 24 hours, and I would be wiped out for the rest of that day and/or the next day.

4. Take-home exams might present particular problems for parents, students with jobs, etc.

Posted by: Colin Miller | Apr 17, 2009 2:33:23 PM

Colin: Thank you for the thoughtful feedback. I'm still relatively new to the teaching and testing biz as a lawyer, so I find myself revisiting these questions each semester. Point 2 is a serious concern, and we have seen the occasional honor code violation with take-home exams--although we see them with other exams and assignments, too. I have contemplated not giving a take-home for this reason. Much of the practice of law is based on an honor code system, however, and so I've wondered, if we can't entrust them with this system now, should we be sending them into it a year or two from now?

Posted by: Brooks | Apr 17, 2009 2:55:07 PM

I abhor take home exams. I didn't have any during my 1L year, but I had two during the first semester of my 2L year, and I will never take a class that has a take home exam again. I would much rather sit down and work through an exam in traditional format than try to take it over several hours or days outside of class. Maybe it's because I'm easily distracted, but I really like the in-class final format because it forces you to focus only on the task at hand. With a take home final, you can't just focus only on the final for a 24 hour period or a three day period, even though you might want to or think that you need to in order to stay on the front end of the grading curve. I also prefer closed book exams.

Posted by: stephanie | Apr 17, 2009 3:55:51 PM

I give take homes for a variety of reasons (8 hour only - note 24 hour):

1. The fact patterns are often quite complicated for my exams. Patent law involves technology, no matter how simple, and Cyberlaw covers a wide variety of subjects. I don't want to penalized students who might take longer to synthesize the facts.

2. I like to make my exams relatively hard/tricky. I'm willing to give more time to my students to try and solve the difficult problems presented.

3. I can give the exam over a period of days - students can take the exam at any time during exam week - any day, any time of day. This gives us all flexibility.

I worry some about cheating, but I haven't seen any evidence of it. The exams all look different, especially the top grades. Also, the top grades come in both early and late, so that I'm not too worried that folks are sharing the fact pattern. That, plus see No. 2 - I'm not sure the extra time would help - students either understand the material or they don't.

Posted by: Michael Risch | Apr 17, 2009 7:43:28 PM

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