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It Was the Best of Exams; It Was the Worst of Exams: How to Maximize the Learning Opportunities of First Semester Grades

Associate Professor of Law, Mercer Law School

The cold winds of January usher in a new semester. This may be an invigorating breeze of excitement or a bone-chilling gale of dread. The shine of newness has begun to rub off of law school. First semester grades are released. Jump-start your spring semester by reviewing your fall semester exams.

It may seem like the last way you want to start the spring semester is by re-immersing yourself in the limits of cartilage, the standard for summary judgment, and the peppercorn of consideration. Nevertheless, reviewing your exam responses is a prime opportunity to maximize the learning opportunities provided by first semester grades. While professors are available to review your exam responses, you can prepare for the meeting and gain insight into your own study and exam taking process. Consider using this approach to guide your review.

Select at least two exams to review. Ideally, select the exam you scored the highest and the exam that you scored the lowest to review a spectrum of responses. (Exams may be held by the Registrar or the Professor. Consult your student manual for the procedure to obtain your exam.)

After obtaining your exam responses and a copy of the exam, use the following five strategies to focus the review.

1. Identify the call of the question.

Calls of the question are question prompts that help guide the exam taker to frame the response. Examples of calls of the question include the following: (1) write a memo to the partner articulating all of the options, (2) advise the client on the most likely outcome, (3) write the opinion. These calls require different framing. Consider how responsive the answer was to the particular call of the question.

2. Review the organization.

Exams are not the place to channel James Joyce, Virginia Wolf, or William Faulkner—at least not channeling these authors’ choice to write in a stream of consciousness manner where words seemingly pour onto the page in a meandering (occasionally incoherent) fashion. Note the use (or absence) of use of headings, topic sentences, and transitions to construct a cohesive response.

3. Access thoroughness.

“Because I said so” was never a satisfying result when appealing a parental verdict. Neither is it a satisfying exam response. Ground recitation of legal rules with application (and direct reference) to the supplied facts and tether policy to the practical application offered by the fact pattern. Ensure that the response defines terms, identifies underlying assumptions, and clearly articulates rules.

4. Check the length.

While exams must be thorough to demonstrate the steps, reasoning, and knowledge of the exam taker, exams are also not the place to channel Marcel Proust. An exam response shouldn’t be a remembrance of everything ever said in the course. The response should be defined by the call of the question and restricted to those rules, facts, policy, and terms relevant to the particular question. It’s an exam response: not a treatise.

5. Verify completeness.

Exam time flies by in the click of keys and the flipping of papers. Pacing is a critical component to ensure that the submitted responses showcase the taker’s depth of understanding and mastery of the course concepts. Consider whether the time allocation permitted you to write your responses as fully as you would like—and double check that all exam questions were answered.

Painful as the review of exams can be, the review is an invaluable experience to evaluate those reading, studying, and reviewing techniques employed throughout the semester to prepare for the final exam. The review of exams at the beginning of the spring semester reinforces those personal choices that resulted in the exam that projected mastery of the concepts. The review also uncovers those personal choices that hampered that projection.

About the Author

Karen J. Sneddon is an Associate Professor of Law at Mercer Law School where she teaches in the areas of legal writing, client counseling, and trusts and estates.

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