By Jeremiah A. Ho, University of Massachusetts School of Law
Yes, it is again that time of the semester again. The post-Thanksgiving emotional climb of test anxiety is upon us much like the Christmas music that has begun to trail us at retail stores. I can see that anxiety in the eyes of my first-year students coloring their expressions when I greet them in the hallway or stare at their faces in the lecture hall. Once November hits and the days start to get shorter, the inevitable fear of exams loom.
For many of them, the fear of exams is really about not having any confident direction or know-how in terms of preparing and taking law school exams. That’s natural for new first-years. What I’ve uncovered over the years is that a simple conversation with students is very helpful to allow students who are new to law school testing to get a handle on how to perform well on first semester finals. I call this my yearly exam pep-talk.
What has been even more helpful prior to having my pep-talk is to give my first-years an exam-writing exercise that doesn’t focus on whether they are substantively correct on the material, but focuses on the skills of exam writing itself. Then afterwards I have the talk about exam taking. I tried this exercise recently with high satisfaction and success. My theory is that after having an exercise that only focused on exam-taking allowed us to have an even fuller discussion of exam writing and solidified much of the truth about that process in order to dispel the fear of finals—the fear of some sort of unknown, in other words.
Here’s what I did:
(1) I gave a one-issue hypothetical fact pattern in class that covered a recent doctrine we recently taught in class. Through class dialogue and discussion, I tested the students on their substantive application of that fact pattern. I made sure to go the rule and the most correct response, working out the substantive answer together in class so that we’re all on the same page.
(2) Then I requested that they each take the same fact pattern home and write a one-issue IRAC response that reflected what we’ve already worked out for this fact pattern.
(3) At the next class, they returned with their written IRAC responses. I passed a rubric for that response. However, the rubric only measured their ability to write an organized IRAC essay—measuring for characteristics such as organization, IRAC structure, clarity, and grammar/syntax. I made students turn to a partner, exchange fact patterns, and grade their partner’s response using this skills rubric.
My intent was that if the substantive issues had been clarified previously, the students were then able to focus on the how-to of writing exams when they wrote the one-issue IRAC at home. For instance, they were now better able to focus on strategy and making effective choices in organizing an IRAC during the exam session. Then grading each other’s responses with my skills rubric made it easier for them to understanding my thought process as the grader.
Doing this before my exam pep-talk helped them have better questions to ask me when I took the time to talk to them about exams. What resulted was more effective focus and questioning regarding the skills part of their answers rather than the substantive aspects. It led to a much better and more constructive conversation about exam taking that I had ever had.