Why Do Law School Exams Look the Way They Do?

John Goldberg & Barry Friedman, guest-blogging

With Halloween comes a scary prospect for law students and law professors alike. Exams! So it seems like a good time to ask: why do law school exams still center around issue-spotting questions?

It certainly isn’t for the good of professors. As the saying goes: “They don’t pay me to teach, they pay me to grade.” We’re curious for your thoughts. Why do exams look the way they do? Where’s the value? Should we be testing differently?

We offer an explanation for issue-spotters in our new book — Open Book: Succeeding on Exams from the First Day of Law School. As the title suggests, our aim is to demystify exam-taking, in part by helping students understand why exams are as they are. It’s early, but initial positive reviews suggest we’re on to something.

Our account of issue-spotters is straightforward, almost embarrassingly so. The traditional issue-spotter exam connects legal education to law practice. This may seem a strange claim, given the fondness professors often show for exam questions featuring bizarre narratives. The point, however, is that they are narratives. And narratives are what lawyers deal with every day.

Somebody –- a client, another attorney –- comes to a lawyer and tells a story. The lawyer then has to translate it into the language of the law, giving advice and predicting possible outcomes. That’s what issue-spotters ask students to do.

We certainly don’t mean to suggest that other evaluation methods lack merit. Well-crafted multiple choice and short answer questions reward careful thinking and writing. But the classic issue-spotter has the special virtue of tracking legal practice.

Taking law school exams is never going to be fun. Nor will grading them. But we think that professors can take some comfort in recognizing that, on the whole, we are testing for the right thing; that elusive ability to ‘think like a lawyer.’

And students, too, can benefit from realizing that they are not merely being asked to play an arbitrary game. Indeed, a basic claim of the book is that students will tend to do better on exams when they connect the “how” of exam-taking to the “why.”