Every semester at about this point I have students asking me about how to study for open-book exams. With so many law students taking their exams online at home this time, the number of open-book exams have only increased. So I decided this is a good opportunity to discuss some strategies for success on open-book exams.
Let’s think about the scenario. Your professor has just announced that she is making the final exam open book. What should you do? Do you tell yourself:
- “No need to study. I’ll just look everything up during the exam!”;
- “I’ll study for the exam like I would for a closed-book exam. But isn’t it great that I can look things up if I forget something?”; or
- “Let me “pre-write” my answers so I don’t have to think my answer during the exam.”
So let’s take these options one at a time. What about the first option, giving up studying since you can just look everything up? In reality, the answer to this question demonstrates why open-book exams are traps for the unwary. There are two reasons why that is the case. First, most law school exams have time limits. Every time you have to look something up during the exam, you aren’t writing. And better-prepared students continue to write. If you look things up constantly throughout the entire exam, you will write substantially less than other students. It’s hard to get the points you need to succeed on the exam if you haven’t written enough.
But there is also a second, related reason why just looking things up during the exam isn’t a good strategy. Law school exams don’t just ask us to repeat back information, but instead requires synthesis. If you haven’t synthesized the material by creating an outline or similar resource prior to the exam, then you will have to synthesize it during the exam instead. And there just isn’t enough time to do that in most law school exams. If you take this approach, you almost always set yourself up for failure.
So what about the opposite approach, option three? Is it a good idea to try to “pre-write” your essay answers? On the surface, it seems like a great idea. If you have the time, why not carefully craft your essay answers in advance, just leaving space to “plug in” the facts? Unfortunately, just like option one, this approach contains multiple pitfalls for students.
One problem with pre-writes is that they are overinclusive. You can’t anticipate the twists and turns of the fact pattern, and therefore you must include all possible scenarios. Let’s look at Torts as an example. You identify a negligence issue in your torts essay question. Of course, your pre-write would contain the basic elements for negligence: duty, breach, causation, and damages or injury. However, what would your pre-write include for negligence? You don’t know what type of defendant there is going to be in the fact pattern, so your pre-write would have to include different duty standards for adults (the reasonably prudent person standard), the standard for children, the standard for professionals like doctors, etc. You would also have to include the rules for when people have a duty to act, the rules for rescuers, etc. And we are still on just the first element of the test! If you write about aspects of the rule that are not actually being tested in the fact pattern, you don’t get any points for that information. And writing about something that gets no points means that you aren’t writing about something else that did have value.
A second problem with pre-writes is that overplanning makes you inflexible. You may not have anticipated your professor’s approach to an essay question, and the pre-write may not properly address the question as a result. In that circumstance, a student may feel paralyzed during the exam because their careful plan is not longer appropriate. It’s hard to pivot to something new if your mindset is fixed.
There’s also a third, different problem with pre-writes: a potential ethical issue. Students who pre-write essays may inadvertently plagiarize, not giving appropriate citations for information that they are using from course materials. And, if you’ve worked with a study group, your pre-writes may look similar, if not identical, to your friends’ essays. No one wants to make a professor concerned about potential cheating on exams.
So how should you prepare for that open-book exam then? In reality, some version of the second option is the best. You need to synthesize course materials as you would for a closed-book exam, creating an outline, roadmaps, or whatever form your synthesis typically takes. You need to make sure that your synthesis is organized and focused. Even though you don’t want to pre-write your answers, a well-organized outline can provide a template for how you complete your analysis in your essay. And by synthesizing the law, you will understand it. That will allow you to spend more time writing and less time processing the law in the midst of your exam.
What are the benefits to taking this approach to your open-book exams? Well, a good outline provides a safety net. If you forget an element of a rule, or otherwise lose focus for a minute in your exam, you can look up what you need. While you don’t want to do that too often, since it takes time away from writing, doing it occasionally can be a real help. And in these current times, things that reduce our stress are important indeed!
There is a second benefit for complicated legal issues – it helps to keep your analysis organized. If you’ve approached your synthesis of these issues by creating road maps (with step-by-step instructions for how to work through the issue), checklists, flowcharts, or other similar tools, you will have thought out in advance how to organize the analysis in your essay. Organization means clarity for the reader, as well as less opportunity to forget to talk about something important.
Finally, if you create a table of contents for your outline, you have a built in issue-spotting checklist. If you feel “stuck” at the beginning of the exam, or find you have time near the end, run through the issues in your table of contents. With each one, ask yourself: “Do I see any facts that trigger this issue?” This approach will help you maximize your issue-spotting on an open-book exam.
Following these strategies allow you to take advantage of the benefits of an open-book exam, while avoiding the possible pitfalls. I wish you productive studies in the upcoming weeks, and the best performance possible on your finals. Most importantly, take care of yourself, and stay well!