Black-out Periods

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November 2015

By Emily Grant – Washburn University School of Law

With exams quickly approaching, I’ve been pondering the utility of black-out periods – times when students may NOT ask you questions about an exam or other assignment. I conducted a survey (totally scientific, I’m sure) of my friends and colleagues to gather perspectives other than my own, and I offer these thoughts for you to ponder as well.

I was primarily interested in when professors imposed black-out periods and why. Do black-out periods advance student learning? Are they primarily for our convenience? Some other reason?

I impose a 24-hour black-out period AFTER I return any major writing assignment – I guess more of a “cooling off” period than a traditional black-out period. When I announce that restriction, I explain why: I want you to take time to process my comments and think about my suggestions or questions before marching (deliberately aggressive word choice) to my office with complaints. In other words, think before you speak.

Do they actually do that? No, not always; I’ve seen people three days after I returned an assignment who are just then opening the Sealed Envelope of Graded Memo for the first time. But this last time I returned a memo, I had a student email me within an hour. I was able to respond and say “that’s actually a really good question and precisely the reason I impose a 24-hour black-out period. I want you to wrestle with that question for a bit, dig back into your research and see if my comments help you better understand the case law and analysis.” So maybe?

But black-out periods BEFORE a particular exam or assignment can also be useful in sending a message to students: you need to have figured this out by 24 hours before the exam, because if you haven’t gotten it by then, you likely aren’t going to. Or, perhaps more compassionately, if you’re still asking major substantive questions twelve hours before a writing assignment is due, I will be very, very worried. In that way, we can perhaps signal our expectations for our students’ preparation.

A black-out period is also a matter of professionalism and courtesy. Please don’t expect me to be reading your email at 10:00 p.m. the night before the exam. You’ve had all semester to raise questions, and you shouldn’t feel entitled to any kind of response that late in the game. Some professors address this concern by allowing questions on a TWEN forum, but not guaranteeing any response after a particular day / time.

Additionally, late questions can have the potential to benefit one student at the expense of others who didn’t have or take advantage of the same opportunity. To that end, some professors prefer to send email answers to the entire class, in which case a one- or two-day black-out period may allow the professor time to carefully craft a thoughtful response to student questions.

On the other hand, as one of my colleagues put it, “Why would I want to stop student learning?” If they have questions up until the time of the exam, then some professors are more than willing to field those questions. Particularly given the compact exam schedules at law schools, a black-out period prior to exams would necessarily impact some students more than others.

What’s your policy? And what’s your motivation? Do you find black-out (or cooling off) periods effective? I’d love to hear from you!

Institute for Law Teaching and Learning