Preparing for closed book law exams

Go study law they said… every exam is open book they said. While this might have been true a few years ago, Australian law students are no longer guaranteed to have open book exams. In fact, more and more law schools are swapping to closed book exams every year, and I think most universities will start making the change within the next few years.

While these are admittedly obvious and unspectacular practical tips, they are (almost) guaranteed to help you smash your closed book exam, all while leaving the law library in the actual library.

Closed book exams – just like open book exams but without notes

Closed book exam

I’ll let everyone in on the big secret about closed book exams; they are just like open book exams. You need to undertake the exact same preparation, you still need to prepare your exam script, and going through old exams is just as important. Other than not being allowed notes, nothing actually changes (although some universities might give you some extra material with the exam booklet, like a list of cases on the reading guide).

Of course, the other big difference is that everyone stresses out about them. To be fair, this is totally natural and I would have freaked out too. Your exam notes are like your safety net and without them you would feel a little naked.

If you can get your preparation right and manage your stress levels, you’ll be well on your way to great marks.

Closed book exams – it’s all about the process

In my post on exam scripts, I mentioned that it’s the process of creating the exam script that is the most valuable part of exam preparation. This is just as true for closed book exams. One thing that I didn’t mention on that post is that it’s even valuable to practice taking exams closed-book when you’ve got open book exams – it helps commit things to memory because you need to engage your memory, rather than just write down your exam script .

At the end of the day, I think students will be better off once all exams change to closed book.

In summary, the steps that you should be taking when you’re faced with a closed book exam are:

  • Find out what will be on your exam by reviewing a few old exams;
  • Start writing some answers with the help from your lecture notes and course materials; the first few attempts will be terrible but do your best and don’t spend too long getting them perfect;
  • Once you understand the type of questions then turn those answers into the script base; identify the best structure for “rule” in the answer and where the “analysis” will be (see my post on the IRAC method here);
  • Practice both open and closed book past exams;
  • Fine tune your script and practice some more.
Closed book exam preparation
It all seems pretty familiar…

If you’ve read my other post on exam scripts then this will seem familiar – its literally the same preparation strategy you would go through for open book exams.

The case against closed book exams

It is a pretty terrifying prospect if you’re used to open book exams, but there are some good arguments for closed book exams in law. I think the main one is that students can walk into exams with notes handed to them by their friends, copy out the script verbatim without understanding any of it and walk out with OK marks. To me that’s plagiarism.

Cathy Sherry in her post (Re)introducing closed book exams at law school argues that it’s time to change, despite research showing that “open book exams, take-home exams and research assignments have been shown to promote deeper learning and genuine understanding”. That’s how bad the situation is.

Sherry raises a few points to support her position. One is the ‘tip truck’ method of answering exams, where students copy out everything in their notes so that just enough sticks to pass. Most of the information will be irrelevant, but not incorrect, so while these student will never get high distinctions they will never fail either.

Another reason is excessive pre-preparation which Sherry explains as the “academic equivalent of ‘here’s a cake I made earlier’, as opposed to ‘here are the ingredients I have assembled in preparation for making a cake now.'” I’m pretty sure this is a reference to exam scrips (which I obviously recommend). However, it seems like the issue is that the script may not be a student’s work or understanding: “This fundamentally changes the nature of an exam answer from work that a marker could be confident was solely the product of a student’s personal understanding at the time the answer was written to an answer that may be their own understanding or it may not.”

Definitely head over and take a read. There is also a summary of a student survey taken after the closed book exam that’s really interesting.

In all, I think the points raised in Sherry’s article are valid and most law schools will eventually acknowledge that open book exams have introduced too many disadvantages to ignore.

Gaming the closed book exam system

Oh, don’t get me wrong, you still absolutely need to work smart.

It’s perfectly fine for lecturers to worry about educational standards, but as law students, our main worry is getting good enough grades or enough extra-curriculars to get a food in the door of our incredibly competitive graduate legal job market.

I mean learning is one thing, but it’s not going to pay for 3 years of your life and your help fee debt. As an older graduate spending $110k on a law degree, I was willing to do whatever it took, shy of plagiarism and being a jerk, to get ahead of the curve.

So the question is, if you use scripts in open book exams to essentially game the system and get ahead of the curve (meaning that you place a greater focus on exam technique than anything else, because exam technique is where you will squeeze those extra marks in an exam and push yourself higher on the bell curve), then how do you do it for closed book exams?

The answer is, unsurprisingly, to focus on exam technique more than anything else because this is where you will squeeze in the extra marks! It’s exactly the same as in an open book exam.

Put in the preparation (to learn the content), complete past exams (to learn what questions your university will ask), prepare your script (to get your exam technique down) and then instead of running through practice exams with your script, complete every second exam script without your script.

I personally would have liked closed book exams at uni. In reality most people don’t study nearly as hard as they make out, so it can give you a massive advantage if you know your material and other people, who have only crammed for a week or two, don’t have recourse to their notes.

Stress less

Hopefully this post has shown that there’s nothing to worry about for closed book exams. If you’ve been preparing properly for open book exams then keep doing the same thing – just try a few more practice exams closed book.

If you’re a crammer and have never properly prepared for an open book exam, well, it’s probably time to start!

If you found this helpful, please share it around!


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