Competitive advantage is an illusion
Monday, July 10, 2017
Justinian in Barely Legal, Examinations, Law students

Barely Legal asks: why the resistance to typing exams on a computer? ... Student objections ... Fear of change ... Handwriting is better for the brain ... ExamSoft to the fore 

THERE were plenty of things that riled Barely Legal's property lecturer this year. PowerPoint slides. Using the word "sue" in the Australian legal context. Bright colours. Colonialism. But she always saved her most vehement maledictions for crappy student handwriting.

"It's 2017," she declared during our first seminar. "It's high time we stop having to decipher your appalling scrawl in order to mark exams. This year, you'll be typing your final exam on your own laptop." 

Not much has changed about law school exams since the good ol' days of oil lamps and male-only tertiary admission. Every year in June and November a semester's worth of learning boils down to you, a pen, a script book, a sheen of fear-sweat on your brow, and the desperate but insatiable need to pee during the last 20 minutes of writing time. 

You'd think, then, given how essays can only be submitted electronically and students almost universally type their class notes, that shifting longhand exams to a computer is a natural - even overdue - evolution of student assessment. Yet, judging by my cohort's reaction, the property teachers might as well have been proposing a school-wide caffeine ban.

Debate raged for weeks. The Students' Society's education portfolio organised an emergency meeting with faculty to discuss student concerns. Opinion pieces came out in the weekly newsletter calling for calm, and asking: need we really fear change? (Resoundingly, we did.)  

Later it was announced that prospective typists must supply their own laptop with an operating system capable of running a piece of American software called ExamSoft. Soft. Kind of cuddly-sounding, really. Like HAL.

Eventually, we received confirmation that students could choose whether to handwrite or type their property exam. But what kind of lemming would sabotage themselves by choosing to write longhand when their peers in the next room could keymash twice as much, twice as fast? 

Yet, I still wanted to handwrite. Trying to rationalise this preference, I pointed out that downloading ExamSoft was likely to make my geriatric laptop burst into flames. I argued that handwriting had been scientifically proven to help the brain process information, and that the inevitable delay between thought and paper would help me frame qualitatively better arguments. Never mind that the only other law test I'd ever typed had produced the worst mark I'd received since that tectonic plates pop quiz in Year 9.

Also, I'm a longhand speed demon. I can scribble page after page, hour after hour, cramp-free. In every law exam I've ever taken I've rapidly filled the first script book and been obliged to ask the invigilators for another. I've kindled this puny achievement in my heart.

"You only did well because you can physically write more than most students in the same amount of time," I'd tell myself. "You wrote so much that the marker had to give you points for something." 

When everyone's graded on a curve, you selfishly hoard any little edge you've got.

It turned out I wasn't alone. A good third of my cohort opted to handwrite the final exam, whether it was because they lived in mortal fear of technological failure, knew they'd waste time trying to format their responses on a word processor, or were like me in staunchly believing it was the only way they could do well. 

But "belief" is the operative word. I learned this the hard way when a group of us went out for pizza after our last exam.

"I wish they'd just give us three script books from the start," a friend complained.

"I just ask for my second and third books at the same time," someone else chimed in. "Saves the hassle of having to ask twice." 

A third script book? I chewed my pizza, the better to stop my jaw from dropping. I always wrote flat out without pause the moment writing time began, and after 10 law exams, I'd never once gotten close to filling a second book, let alone a third.

I took this as evidence that I needed to get out of the habit of comparing myself to others. Any competitive advantage you have is either an illusion, or else severely diminished by someone - probably a string of someones - who can do it better than you.  

I have resolved to make this my new law school resolution. Or at least after clerkship application season ends. At some point. One day. 

*   *   *

Here's another exam method ... 

Article originally appeared on Justinian: Australian legal magazine. News on lawyers and the law (http://justinian.com.au/).
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