15 Aug Rethinking the Traditional 1L Exam Experience
The first year law school exam experience has remained relatively unchanged for decades – a single, cumulative, high-stakes test at the end of each doctrinal course. But the COVID-19 pandemic and ongoing discussions about improving legal education have prompted questions around whether it’s time to re-evaluate traditional 1L testing approaches. While major sudden changes are unlikely, there are some key considerations around possible updates to the 1L exam format and process:
- Incorporating More Formative Assessments: Some schools are experimenting with more midterms, short papers, problem sets, etc. throughout a course rather than just one final exam. This provides students with more feedback and can surface comprehension issues sooner. However, vastly reducing the emphasis on finals would be a major shift.
- Practical/Applied Exam Questions: Issue-spotting essays and multiple choice questions test a certain skill set. But some professors are trying more practical exam questions modeled on real legal work like client memos or lawyer interviews. This could enhance readiness for legal practice.
- Take-Home, Open-Book, or Remote Options: More flexible and accessible exam formats used during COVID-19 could continue, but their impact on rigor and quality preparation is debated.
- Reducing Stress and High-Stakes Nature: The single final exam structure creates an intimidating do-or-die experience. Changes like dropping the lowest grade may help relieve student stress.
- Diversity, Equity and Inclusion: Over-reliance on one exam raises concerns about fairness across different groups. New approaches may support a more diverse student body.
- Institutional Resistance: The final cumulative exam seen as a rite of passage in legal education. Schools may be hesitant to abandon such a central component of 1L year.
While the traditional law school exam system has its defenders, it’s worth analyzing how pedagogical goals and student needs may be better served through some carefully considered innovations. The 1L exam experience could likely benefit from balanced evolution, if not outright reinvention. But any changes seem unlikely to fully displace the seminal role of the final exam anytime soon.