We have moved away from the conventional exam to a take-home exam. We publish the exam paper on Blackboard at an arranged date and time. We give the students approximately 48 hours to complete and submit their answers electronically.
The impact has been entirely positive as compared to the old exam approach. Students prefer this format. The quality of their answers is markedly better. The results are better, and are consistently the highest of all second year modules.
I include the following statement of rationales and expectations in the module overview:
Three Rationales for the Examination Format:
Our first, and main, reason for requiring you to produce your answers on a computer at home (or wherever you choose to be), is to encourage good, professional presentation. You will be able to edit your answers using all of the familiar word-processing tools. This will make it easier to structure and construct your essay. All of the well-known disadvantages of hand-written answers will be eliminated (slow, uncomfortable, messy, illegible etc).
Greater depth to your answers
The take-home exam format will give you access to all of your notes, books and other materials, along with internet resources (e.g. legal databases). By giving you this freedom, we want to encourage you to provide greater intellectual depth in your answers than a conventional exam would allow. In this respect, the exam format allows for an element of independent research on top of the knowledge you have acquired during the year.
Managing your time
We have purposefully placed the submission date at the start of the examination period. This will force you to manage your time, making make space for your different commitments (e.g. revision for other exams).
Our expectations reflect the three rationales listed above.
We expect your work to be well-presented, well-structured and free of spelling or typographical errors. You MUST follow the precise formatting set out in the School of Law Assessed Work Rules. You MUST cite any authorities (cases, articles etc) in your footnotes.
Greater depth to your answers
We expect a level of depth and detail over and above the level expected of you in conventional examinations. You should demonstrate your knowledge of the materials covered during the year, but also that you have brought some independent research to your answers. We expect you to produce work of such depth and detail as is reasonable given the constraints of space (three pages per answer) and time.
It is CRUCIAL that you make a critical argument in your answers. Take a position on the question. Explain why you think a particular doctrine, judicial decision or academic view is correct or incorrect, and defend your view against rival views. It is not enough simply to offer an uncritical description of a particular doctrine, judicial decision or academic view.
We DO NOT expect you to spend two days on your answers. We will assess your work on the assumption that you have spent approximately two hours per question.
We DO expect you to spend more time on your answers than you would in a conventional exam. This expectation reflects the additional time required for formatting and independent research.
We DO assume that you will have revised thoroughly before you receive the examination questions. The two hours per question guideline above DOES NOT include time spent revising.
We DO assume that you will have access to sufficient materials (e.g. notes, books and internet resources (e.g. legal databases)) without requiring extensive use of the library. The two hours per question guideline DOES NOT include time spent travelling to and from the library.
We had three reasons for undertaking the activity.
First, we reasoned that the public law module was better suited, pedagogically speaking, to the new format. The subject-matter is theoretical, and we assess by essay only (as opposed to by problem questions). We look for deep understanding of the issues rather than an ability mechanically to apply memorised rules. The take-home format encourages an independent research mindset.
Secondly, we thought it valuable to provide some variety in the way that second years are assessed. The assessment across the second year modules had hitherto been by conventional exam only. Whatever the merits and demerits of the traditional exam, it can be refreshing for students to experience some other form of assessment.
Thirdly, we responded to the University call for alternative assessment. On pragmatic grounds, the take-home exam frees up room space and reduces complex timetabling requirements.
We prepared the first cohort of students by giving them a mock take-home exam in lieu of their usual non-assessed essay. We asked them to prepare an answer to a question as if they were preparing for the exam itself. We have continued this practice ever since.
In addition, I prepared a detailed explanation of our rationales and expectations for the take home exam (see the ‘objectives’ box above where I reproduce this text). I talk through this document with the students repeatedly throughout the year.
I address the impact of the initiative in the ‘overview’ box above. In short, the activity has been highly successful. I believe that colleagues are considering this format for their own module. Above all, we have found that the format is a better way of encouraging scholarly engagement with the module content. We emphasise in our rationales/expectations document that the format has an element of independent research.
The level of success of the activity was unexpected. The first cohort of students to do the take-home exam were nervous and rather distrustful of the activity. Happily, they passed their positive experience down to the next year group, and that pattern has continued ever since.
In my view, the take-home exam format treats students as independent thinkers in a way that the conventional exam does not. The emphasis is on the quality of argument and research rather than on memory skills and the ability to perform under pressure. Having said that, the new format does not entirely dispense with the latter types of skills – there is still a deadline, and students will still need to revise in advance.
There were admittedly risks involved in introducing this new format. Public law is an extremely important, compulsory module which counts towards the final degree. With hindsight, it may have been more prudent to experiment with this format in a first year module. On the other hand, we put a great deal of thought into the format, and communicated well with the students. In these respects, we minimised the risks.
The activity has remained largely the same as it began. We have experimented with changing the publication and submission times for the exam. I recall that we originally published the exam at 12 midnight. This led to many students staying up all night to work on the paper. We now publish the exam at 9am