Exams or Papers?

April 10, 2008

J.L., 1L

After years of trying to guess whether “A” or “C” would get me to the next problem on the Scantron form, I was excited at the prospect of law school: a world without multiple choice tests and worrying about No. 2 pencils. What I didn’t expect, however, was the variety of options available for receiving a grade in my courses at law school.

Like virtually every other law school in the country, Yale’s required first-semester classes (Procedure, Torts, Contracts and Constitutional Law) conclude with exams. These are generally between two and four hours long and graded on a credit/no credit basis. The tests are generally issue spotters or essays, and students often do them electronically; there’s no need to bring a No. 2 pencil or worry about which bubbles to fill in. Some professors allow for open book exams (meaning, you can bring notes, horn books and textbooks with you), others closed (meaning, you only have your brain to answer questions). To take the exams, some professors set a particular time and room, while others give students the flexibility to take the exam at any point over three weeks from the comfort of their own homes. Most students will get a mix of these different configurations, and they apply to the classes that students are free to select after the first semester.

After first semester, at the beginning of the term, professors usually inform us whether the class requires an exam, paper, or sometimes (a usually reduced version of) both. There’s a healthy debate about the merits of the options available to students. Some find that they are masters of the testing format after conquering their first semester finals; others prefer to take the more flexible option of writing and researching at their own pace. Moreover, smaller classes and seminars are more likely to offer the paper option while larger, “blackletter” courses tend to favor exams.

For those looking at the paper option, however, one additional incentive is the possibility of converting a course paper into a larger academic work. One of Yale Law School’s requirements for the J.D. degree is that students complete a substantial paper, and an even more “substantial” assignment known as the “SAW,” or Supervised Analytical Writing. In the case of the SAW, students tend to work closely with their supervising professors on what is very much like a law school version of the undergraduate thesis. Taking classes with the paper option not only gives students a potential starting point for their substantial and SAW papers, but also the opportunity to get to know a faculty member who may be supervising them on future projects. So, there’s good reason to mix and match the options available after the first semester, and even law students who test well (or write well) will try to select a combination of papers and exams.