April is the month of exams for post-secondary students across regions and academic disciplines. As a distance student of Athabasca University (AU) I have written numerous invigilated exams, but I wrote them whenever I was ready for them”?April had no special exam-related significance to me. Further, the courses that I have taken, and continue to take, through AU are evaluated through the completion of several assignments. Many courses required no final exam at all, and very few demanded a mid-term exam in addition to a final. There are obvious benefits to the student of spreading out course credit evaluation over numerous assignments”?if you do poorly on one assignment you can still pass the course, possibly with a respectable final mark.
Distributed-weighting of course credit evaluation is not a luxury enjoyed by students of law. Many law schools require the writing of final exams weighted 100% of the course”?the mark you get on your final is the one you are stuck with for the entire course. As readers will recall, in addition to my part-time studies through AU, I am a fulltime law student at the University of Saskatchewan. I can assure you that I am looking at April in an entirely different light this year; the mere word is enough to send stress-related tremors twitching across my face.
Before law school I used to wonder what exams would be like in different disciplines”?law, medicine, master’s programs, etc. My other undergraduate studies largely entail a process of memorization and exam-time regurgitation of the recalled material. The learning and evaluation process of law is far removed from my other post-secondary experiences, or any of my prior life experiences for that matter. What follows is a condensed version of my first-year experiences learning the law over the past seven months.
From the very first day of classes, we were assigned copious amounts of readings in each of five courses. One course (Constitutional Law: Division of Powers) was a single-term 3-credit course, while the four others (Property Law, Contracts Law, Tort Law, & Criminal Law) were full-year 6-credit courses. The readings mainly consisted of hundreds of court decisions (cases); some dating from as far back as the 1600s, and arising from various English common law-based jurisdictions”?Canada, USA, Australia, etc. From these cases we were to extract certain “legal rules”. The students were given this task without any practical instruction on how this was supposed to be accomplished”?sink or swim, basically. In addition to this momentous task, additional mandatory pass/fail requirements were integrated into the program: a legal research & writing program requiring successful completion of four assignments (writing of a closed memo, an open memo and a factum, plus the delivery of an oral argument before a moot court); an alternate dispute resolution program (class-integrated components plus participation in a mock criminal sentencing circle). Our class of 110 students lost 6 during the first term.
In December we were given our first evaluations consisting of a 100% final exam in Constitutional Law: Division of Powers and 20% mid-term exams in three of the four 6-credit courses (the legal research & writing program was integrated into one of the 6-credit courses amounting to 40% of the final mark in that course). In order to write law exams, students are expected to make study-notes from the hundreds of cases that they read and take them into the exam-room. The exam consists of a fictitious fact scenario and the student must apply the legal rules from their study notes (hoping that the correct rules were extracted from the cases) to the facts given and arrive at the likely legal result if the case were to go before a judge. The exam is strictly timed and the students rush to spew forth as much law as possible in the time allotted”?many, if not most, run out of time. The answers are much like: “If this, then that. But if that, then this. So it is most likely that bla bla bla: Maybe that:”
The results of the exams largely determine ones level of success in law school and the stress they impose is immense. There are rumors of law students falling ill or fainting during exams. I can certainly imagine the stories to be true, as I have suffered stress like never before over the last seven months”?nightmares, insomnia, fatigue, panic attacks, non-clinical depression, etc. In less than two weeks my final law exams begin. Over a period of 15 days, I will write three 80% finals, one 60% final, and a 100% final in Constitutional Law: The Charter of Rights and Freedoms. It’s safe to say that April 2004 and the weeks leading up to it will be the most stressful period that I’ve ever faced in my life (and that is saying a lot). I am very much looking forward to taking a few AU courses over the summer. After this experience, I’m pretty sure they will seem a bit of a rest.
To view law exams from previous years see: http://www.usask.ca/law/files/index.php?id=160
Wayne E. Benedict has a varied career history and strong links to the Canadian labour movement. He is working part-time toward his Bachelor of Human Resources and Labour Relations at AU. He is a fulltime first-year student of the University of Saskatchewan College of Law. For a more detailed writer bio, see The Voice writers’ feature page under ‘About The Voice’. If you would like to send article-feedback to Wayne, he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org