Daniel Walker is a third-year Scots law LLB student at the University of Strathclyde. Here, he explores the nature of online exams and discusses why they should be approached in the same way as traditional, pre-Covid examinations.
Students have now gained experience of sitting online examinations and, in comparison to a pre-Covid examination, a distinguishing characteristic is the invigilator. Unfortunately for them, it is metaphysically impossible to dash between candidates’ houses. In response, virtually all law schools have recognised that students will access their materials.
In light of this, students have altered their exam preparation methods. One student I talked to ‘felt like he was no longer studying a law degree’. His revision had reduced to inertia. Another felt less pressurised to know the substantive law. In contrast, a third student claimed that she did prepare in a similar way, though she did not find it necessary to continuously repeat information in order to embed it into her memory. This is consonant with a final student’s viewpoint: traditional examinations were like ‘a memory game’, but it is now possible to digest information after the paper is released. ‘Cramming [is] no longer necessary and thus there's no need to prepare flash cards and mind-maps’.
For some, the extended time limit and access to materials is sufficient to deter revision. This will, however, impact them significantly.
Heuristics can explain the immediate effect; these mental processes allow students to make prompt decisions when under pressure or suffering from cognitive overload. The submission deadline will hang over the unwise student like a Damocles sword: they will have to make rapid decisions without the luxury of deliberation. Compounded by the fact that extreme levels of stress are conducive to confusion, students will be less likely to recall previous knowledge and struggle when confronted with new/conflicting information.
The long-term effect is also substantial.
MacQueen has described a good memory as a prerequisite for legal practice: a practitioner should be able to draw from previous knowledge to respond quickly to client queries (Studying Scots law, 2016).
But forgetting information is entirely normal. An advocate will not rely solely upon the knowledge attained in preparation for their first-year law exams. That said, if the student endeavors to retain information, it is more likely to transfer to their long-term memory. By electing not to prepare, the student decreases the chances of effective recall in later life.
Paradoxically, a characteristic common to all students is the variation in their study methods. This is entirely normal. Visual students should therefore continue to draw graphs and tables; likewise those that prefer translating narrative into their own words. Irrespective of the method employed, every student should set daily objectives. Consistent progress will be made, thus reducing the likelihood of the above occurring.
By continuing to study, the student will enter a ‘virtuous cycle of competency’: the ability to identify patterns and inconsistencies will improve significantly. However, we are the ones who must implement this cycle.
Without consistent study the ability to ‘re-frame questions…and information…’ will stymie (Ahrens, ‘How to take Smart notes’, 85). The examination questions will be posed to prevent ‘copy and pasting’ and to encourage critical thinking. The student should therefore continue to study and ‘dare to learn’ (Kant , What is Enlightenment, 1784).