Studying with computer. Photo: Shutterstock.

 

Final exams for the spring semester are already underway at some law schools, and the usual pressure-cooker situation looks a little less intense this time around amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Gone are in-class exams, timed and taken under the watchful eye of a proctor. Library study carrels sit empty, closed off to students like the rest of campus. And those cute therapy animals that usually show up to help ease students’ stress? Well, the family pet will have to do this year.

Law professors have been forced to get creative with final exams amid the coronavirus pandemic. The most obvious shift is that all exams are being delivered online instead of in person. That change, in turn, has prompted many professors to alter the nature of their exams.

Some have moved from closed-book tests to exams in which students may reference any material they choose. Others have eliminated the use of multiple choice questions or gotten rid of time limits on their tests. Some professors are emphasizing material taught early on in the semester, before the COVID-19 outbreak in the U.S. And in many cases, students may complete their final at their own leisure, rather than at a predetermined time or specified day.

And the shift to either optional or mandatory pass/fail grading made by the majority of law schools this semester has reduced much of the pressure and anxiety students feel during finals, professors say, even if other aspects of their lives remain stressful because of the pandemic. Finals week is typically hugely stressful at law schools because those exams often make up most or all of the course grade.

“I usually get bombarded in the week leading up to the exam in office hours, answering questions,” said Pepperdine law professor Derek Muller, who is visiting this semester at the University of Notre Dame Law School. “I basically have received none this semester. The pass/fail option has had a dramatic change in student behavior. It has eased their spirits significantly.”

Test security is one of the key issues that law faculty have had to grapple with when figuring out how to transition to entirely online exams. Without a proctor in the room, it’s difficult to ensure that students aren’t using resources outside the parameters of what is allowed. And with so many exams administered on a floating basis, it’s impossible to ensure that early test takers won’t discuss the exam with others before they have the chance to complete the test. But professors are hoping that pass/fail grading—and the elimination of the curve—will ward off cheating.

“I would hope it would reduce any temptation,” said Molly Van Houweling, associate dean of J.D. curriculum and teaching at the University of California, Berkeley School of Law, which has adopted a mandatory pass/fail grading scheme for the spring. “I think it lowers the pressure on any variable that might normally make us anxious about unfairness at the margins. There aren’t really going to be any margins here of the type we’re used to.”

Drexel University Thomas R. Kline School of Law is leaning heavily on its honor code to stave off cheating, said professor Lisa Tucker. Students will sign statements before and after each test pledging that they have maintained academic integrity.

“Our dean sent out a message to students saying, ‘This is what we’re going to do and we see it as an opportunity because we’re a self-regulated profession and we’re all based on ethics. We consider you to already be members of the profession and we have no qualms about being able to test you because we know you are committed to the ethics of this profession,’” Tucker said.  “It was a good opportunity to educate the students and practice what we preach.”

University of Alabama professor Paul Horwitz typically gives closed-book exams in his first-year courses, allowing students to bring only a one-page outline into the test. But his property test is open-book this year—a recognition that he cannot effectively police student behavior when they take his exam at home. Class notes and outlines are fair game, though Horwitz is not allowing students to use commercial outlines. He is also avoiding his usual “ripped from the headlines” exam questions because they are too easy for students to look up online.

At Alabama, another pass/fail school, students have the entire exam period to complete their finals, meaning they can work on the exams whenever is most convenient for them. Berkeley too has mandated that students have the full 10-day exam period in which to choose when to take their exams.

“We know there are students who are relocating and are taking this window to get back home,” Van Houweling said. “Some students have family-care responsibilities. Some are doing the grocery shopping for their parents, for example. It’s also difficult for people who are sharing living space in unexpected ways to find specific quiet times when they can focus on their exams. In light on all of that, we thought it was a good ideas to maximize students’ flexibility.”

Van Houweling, who has more than 100 first-year students in her property course, is maintaining her traditional four-hour limit on the test. But students can choose any time within the 10-day exam window to complete the test. Berkeley’s exam administration system tracks when students are testing to ensure they stay within the allotted time, she noted.

Muller said he is ditching the multiple-choice portion of his evidence exam this year. It’s logistically more difficult to do without the aid of Scantron sheets. Plus, he reuses multiple-choice questions over a period of years and did not want to compromise the security of those questions by giving students access to them at home.

“I don’t want to burn multiple choice questions when it’s going to be pass/fail,” he said.

Whether students are preparing for exams as diligently as they normally would if they were receiving traditional grades depends on who you ask. Van Houweling her students remain motivated.

“I have been impressed and if anything pleasantly surprised that students seem remarkably motivated to perform as well as they can on their exams even though their excellent performance won’t be distinguished by the grading system, as it would otherwise,” she said. “I’m expecting a lot of attendance and participation in my upcoming review sessions.”

Muller said the students in his evidence course have been prepared and engaged in class, but they seem more relaxed around the exam than usual.

“For this particular exam, my sense is that a lot of people are not doing the kinds of work they would have done in the past,” he said. “But a lot are.”