Take-home exam

Stuart Lakin, Law
s.j.lakin@reading.ac.uk

Overview

In a Part Two Law module, Public Law (LW2PL2), 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 among the highest of all Part Two modules.

Objectives

  • To ensure that work produced in the exams is presented to a professional standard.
  • To allow students the opportunity to provide greater intellectual depth in their answers, and allowing the ability for independent research to form part of the assessment.
  • To have students demonstrate time management, in order to allow them to effectively complete their take-home exam while revising for their other examinations.

Context

We had three reasons for undertaking the activity:

First, we reasoned that LW2PL2 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 Part Two students are assessed. The assessment across the Part Two 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.

Implementation

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, and provided this to the students. This document exists to inform students of the benefits and the opportunities provided by the format, and also ensures that they fully appreciate the assessment criteria of the format. I talk through this document with the students throughout the year.

Impact

In short, the activity has been highly successful. I believe that colleagues are considering this format for their own modules. By having students word process their exam answers, a lot of the recognised disadvantages of handwritten answers (handwriting often being slow and uncomfortable, and producing results that are messy and poorly legible, as well as the anxiety caused by these disadvantages) can be avoided. It is also easier for students to structure their essays.

By having the take-home exam scheduled during the University exam period, it is important that students manage their time effectively in completing the exam. Students are made aware that the assumption when marking is that they will have spent approximately two hours answering each question: this allows them more time than a conventional exam, but also allows time for students to make space for other commitments they might have, such as revision for other exams.

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’s cohort, and that pattern has continued ever since.

Reflections

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. LW2PL2 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 Part One 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.

Follow up

The activity has remained largely the same as it began. We have experimented with changing the publication and submission times for the exam. We originally published the exam at midnight. This led to many students staying up all night to work on the paper. We now publish the exam at 9 am.

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