Home is where the exam is
Monday, November 20, 2017
Justinian

The take-home exam collapses time but is on its last legs because of student collusion ... More invigilatory supervision required ... Exam audit underway ... Barely Legal reports from her corn-chip cave 

The design precept of the law school exam is thus: 'if the student's brain isn't on fire after ten minutes, then we've done it wrong'. And so one of the few perks of law student life becomes horrifying one's friends and loved ones with war stories about compulsory assessment. Where the med student has cadaver dissection, the law student has the three-day take-home exam.

"Three days!? What do they do, lock you in a room?"

The best part is that they don't need to. There is no greater motivator than terror, and nothing more terrifying to the law student cum perpetual job applicant than an N marring one's transcript. At least with a traditional exam it's all over in 3.5 hours or less. It's like ripping off a messy bandaid in a hall filled with your comrades in suffering.

Barely Legal is one of the lucky ones. I have no children, no pets, no carer obligations, a boss happy to give me the time off, and a housemate content to ignore the muffled midnight cries of confusion from beneath my bedroom door. My only commitment is to the health of my juvenile zebra cactus. 

Yet, I dreaded turning my home into an exam venue.

Do I even have fuel to complain, though, when the take-home exam gives you complete freedom of movement? You're not confined to a chair, let alone your house. You could do your exam in the university library, or a local cafe, or on the banks of the local pond, contentedly feeding your shredded exam cover sheet to the ducks. Why not on holiday in New Caledonia? That's your business.

This semester Barely Legal's Criminal Law and Procedure exam was a take-home released on the afternoon of the last day of semester - perfectly timed, it seemed, to coincide with the final rendering down of our brains into unresponsive pulp. We weren't prepared for so much as an optional multiple choice quiz consisting of a single question. How were we going to get through a multi-day marathon? 

"This is a good thing," my Crim teacher insisted, with the implication: You should be thanking us

"On the first day you'll have time to read through the questions and do research and structure your responses. Then you'll have a whole day to answer each question. That's two thousand words a day. Anyone can do that!"

Exam conditions, though, have a way of collapsing time - even three days' worth. By the final day, perhaps twenty or forty hours in front of your laptop later, with the sun setting and time ticking down, a five metre commute to the toilet becomes an unaffordable extravagance. Your bed is a sinister, downy temptation. Treasured mementos mock you from the pre-law life you left behind. You've stocked your room with snacks requiring a minimum of both preparation and mastication.

A haze descends: you stare vaguely at the cornchip you sent tumbling to the floor with a careless sweep of your elbow. Actus reus. Is the offence the blow to the chip or the result, its consignment to bacterial death on the carpet? Which fault element attaches? Was I reckless or negligent with my flailing limbs? Would the other corn chips choose to prosecute?

The exam wasn't due until 9.30AM the following day, a deadline that seemed designed to trick us into waking up at the crack of dawn or not going to sleep at all. 

I decided to stick it to the man by submitting my final paper at 4.23PM with the cavalier fatalism of someone destined to startle awake in the wee hours with the realisation that every single question had been screwed-up. 

The email arrived a couple days later. The Academic Support Office was announcing an 'audit' of all 'non-supervised final assessment tasks'. 

Put plainly, the Law School was on the verge of scuppering take-home exams altogether. Not because they unfairly burden students who have real life responsibilities, or because they imbue new meaning to the term weekend bender. Not because the teachers had finally realised giving students three days to write incoherent dross was the same as giving them three hours to do it.

Collusion was the academic misconduct du jour.

("I don't get it," my Crim teacher once lamented. "You all say you hate group work, but when we give you an exam to do by yourself we can't keep you apart!")

Enough students this year had gone public about getting together with their friends to answer take-home exam questions that the Law School apparently no longer trusted us to write our own names without invigilatory supervision. Pending the results of the audit, the take-home exam is an endangered species. 

Its adherents are up in arms, petitioning for its survival and writing submissions to faculty, yet I can only find it within myself to feel sorry that they didn't scrap the take-home exam before I'd been obliged to do one. Which isn't to say that the three hour exam is a preferable model. No one word-vomits a semester's worth of rationes onto a page in three hours and walks away proud of their scholarly achievement. 

Nor am I advocating for all assessment to become the research essay, the most loathsomely protracted assessment of them all. Perhaps it is most correct to say, that all exams are alike, and each student is unhappy about them in their own way. 

Rest In Peace, take-home exam, and no thanks for the memories. 

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