Exams in the Time of Coronavirus – Changes to JD Exams and Useful Advice from Arlen Duke
By Josephine Le, Facilitator of the EAGLE Program (LASC)
As a result of the COVID-19 situation, the Melbourne Law School has had to make some unprecedented adjustments to the way that teaching, learning and assessment is being implemented for the JD Program. Undoubtedly, the next big issue on everyone’s mind is the upcoming Semester 1 exam period and what that might look like. The Legal Academic Skills Centre sat down for an interview with Arlen Duke, the Associate Dean for the JD, about the changes to the JD exams and what advice he has for students on how to prepare for them.
Q1: Briefly, what are the changes to exams for the JD program this semester?
Most exams that were previously invigilated will now be conducted online as take-home exams. This means that the exam paper will be released on Canvas at the start time, students will produce an answer on a Word document and then submit that document on Canvas by the end time.
Exams will increase by half an hour in duration, and there will be no designated ‘reading time’.
“If it was a 2-hour exam (plus 30 minutes reading time), it becomes a 3-hour take-home exam (with no additional reading time). If it was a 3-hour exam (plus 30 minutes reading time), it becomes 4 hours (with no additional reading time).”
Arlen emphasises that the Law School is extending the time for the benefit of students – answering the exam questions should not take any longer than originally planned.
Students are given extra time “not because we are increasing what we expect to be done in that period of time, but to acknowledge students are dealing with something else they now have to do – to download and submit.”
Q2: What is the same about the exam process?
The style and format of the exam questions
Arlen reiterates that the exam paper itself, in respect of its style and format, will not be changed because of the shift from invigilated exams to take-home exams. This will ensure that previous years’ exams will still be an effective resource to help prepare for exams and guide student expectations.
“The way we’ve structured it is to try and make it as similar as possible to the original invigilated exams. ”
No word limit
Just like in invigilated exams, “there won’t be a word limit imposed”.
Marking and scaling
There will be no changes to the way exam responses are marked and scaled. This is to ensure consistency across subjects and years.
“(Results) for compulsory subjects get compared to historical results in the subject from previous years, and then they get compared to other compulsory subjects in that year.”
But the whole process will be done in a way that is highly considerate of the unusual circumstances that students are facing.
“This year, the Board of Examiners is very conscious that it’s going to need to be very, very rigorous in that process.”
Special consideration allowances
For students who receive ongoing special consideration, these allowances will continue to apply for this exam period in the same way.
“Special consideration allowances will work the same. If you used to get extra time, or if you used to get breaks, that will also be built into the exam as well.”
Q3: What is different about the exam process?
No designated reading time
There will not be any designated reading time – it will be up to the student to manage their time effectively. However, Arlen stresses that this does not mean reading time should be overlooked.
“You’ll have to be disciplined when it comes to reading time... I think that good exam answers are made during that 30 minutes reading time.”
Submission will now be done on Canvas. Instead of submitting answers through Examplify or handing in an exam paper like you would in an invigilated exam, students will have to manually upload their exams onto Canvas. Although it is a change, this is not an unfamiliar process to students.
“You would do it the same as an assignment – so you’ll download the question, you’ll write your answer in a word document and submit it.”
Past examiners’ reports
Some examiners’ reports may be available with past exams to help students with preparation.
“We’ve had a request from the Law Students’ Society to make available past examiners’ reports, so I will explore that will the teachers. Even if it’s something brief that goes to the issues that were raised, I think that will be quite useful for study groups.”
But this is not guaranteed and will be up to the discretion of each subject coordinator.
“That will of course be up to the teachers, I can but recommend. I’m hoping that some teachers will provide Examiners Reports or other guidance on the issues raised by previous exam questions.”
There have been significant changes to the calculation of students’ weighted average mark (WAM) for Semester 1, 2020. In general, results will not be included in the WAM calculation unless the mark is equal to or higher than the WAM the student had achieved at the start of the semester. There are various arrangements and exceptions that can be found here.
Special consideration policy
Supporting documentation options have been updated to provide more flexibility for students. More information about this can be found here.
Q4: What are some of the potential dangers you can see in the new exam format?
Copying and pasting irrelevant information
Arlen’s main concern for students is the potential for misuse of copy and paste and the inclusion of irrelevant material.
“I think the real danger is copy and paste, I really do. Such an approach is highly unlikely to be successful. If you include material that is completely irrelevant – not tangential or a particular take on it, but completely irrelevant – then it’s actually going to detract from that answer.”
He provides a useful example for students to think about:
“Imagine a maths exam asking, ‘What is 4 + 2?’ and the student writes ‘5, 6, 7 and 8’ and argues that they should have gotten the marks because ‘6’ was there.”
It just simply won’t be a good use of your time.
“I don’t want students doing themselves a disservice thinking that’s a really effective way getting it up to a certain number of words. I have found that there is no strong correlation between word count and marks.”
Jumping to start writing the answer too quickly
Without reading time, Arlen warns students about the dangers of writing without properly reading the question.
“There is going to be that overwhelming urge to start typing as quickly as possible… There is a real need to remember how important that reading time is.”
“Imagine if you’ve started writing and 20 minutes in you realised you’ve gone down the wrong track – you would have had that realisation earlier if you had the discipline to carefully plan your answer before starting to type.”
For students who might be regularly missing the issues in their practice answer, Arlen suggests allowing yourself even more reading time than usual.
“Don’t touch the keyboard for at least the first 30 minutes (perhaps even up to 45 minutes).”
This advice is universal but particularly relevant to first year students, as upper-year JD students who have had experience with Law exams may already understand the importance of reading time.
Q5: How would you suggest students prepare for the new exam format?
Prepare as you normally would
As the content and the format of the exams themselves have not changed much, Arlen suggests students prepare in the same way they would for any other semester.
“If you have access to a printer, I would prepare in exactly the same way. I personally would print them out and do things as close to how I used to as possible. If not, advice will be provided soon as to how to most effectively use Acrobat Adobe”
Plan for technology limitations
If you can’t print your notes, “think about whether the notes need to be indexed better.”
Most importantly, “if students have limitations with technology (for example they do not have access to a printer), they should start thinking now about strategies that can be put in place.”
Do practice exams under timed conditions
For first years specifically, Arlen recommends that students focus on practice exams and watch out for “the perennial pitfall of running out of time”.
“Sit down with your notes, get a practice exam and do it under time pressure. Get used to how quickly you can type things out; how useful your notes are. Emulate the exam experience so that you are not doing it for the first time.”
“Even if you have gone through a past exam question, there is something to be learned by just sitting down and trying to type that out.”
Utilise study groups
Study groups will be incredibly valuable in this time, and first-year students are “encouraged to take use of their EAGLE and LMR groups”.
Q6: Finally, do you have anything else you’d like to communicate to students?
Arlen wants to reassure students that staff are very considerate of the challenges students are now facing as a result of the circumstances. He emphasises that there will be no changes to staff expectations despite the increase in duration of exams.
“The academic staff are very conscious of the limitations when they’re setting the tasks.”
“We are not going to ratchet up the expectations just because the exam length is longer. It will be conceived as a two-hour exam even though students have got that extra bit of time”
He also highlights that staff and students are in the exact same situation together and so staff are more conscious about the student experience than ever before.
“We’re going through all of this new for the first time. The experience that academics and students are having has never been more aligned. We know it is taking us to do things by using these systems as well.”
What to expect from here?
Arlen will be releasing a video explaining in more detail the changes to exams and the Law School’s rationale behind their decisions. According to the central university website, students can expect exam timetables to be released by Monday 25th May at 5pm. Any other questions about exams should be directed to the respective subject coordinators.
Any further updates and advice during the COVID-19 outbreak can be found on the official University of Melbourne website.
Special thanks to Arlen Duke for participating in this interview with the LASC and sharing his insight and advice.
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