If my first year of law school was any indication, first year law students are looking ahead to final exams during the coming weeks with some trepidation. Undoubtedly one of the main sources of that trepidation is the fear of the unknown – specifically, what is the final exam going to look like and are students adequately prepared to take that exam?
What I have learned as a law professor is that one of the best ways to reduce that fear is to try to manage it, to the extent possible. In the case of final exams, that means, as an initial matter, studying all the legal principles and concepts learned throughout the semester to understand what their elements are, and how, when and why they apply.
However, a student must not only know the “law,” but also be able to analyze facts in light of that law. That, perhaps, is the greater source of uncertainty, for there is no telling in advance what the hypothetical fact pattern on the exam will look like. I believe one of the best ways to reduce that kind of uncertainty is to practice the skill of legal analysis by taking practice exams. That does not mean passively reading over practice exam questions and answers. Rather, it means taking a practice exam (or several of them) in a timed environment, possibly with one or two colleagues taking the exam at the same time in the same room. Only by simulating the exam-taking experience can a student identify areas for improvement, and then work on improving in those areas.
If a professor has made any of her old exams available, as I have, those are some of the best indicia of what that professor’s exam will look like (assuming she has not changed her testing method or format), and thus are one of the best exam-practicing tools. If not, then a student can either take exams from other professors who use the same testing method or even try to write her own exam questions (which can actually be a quite effective study technique). In short, to master the skills involved in taking an exam, much like playing soccer or arguing a moot, a student needs to practice the skills over and over again.