Why Were Final Exams In Person?

In 1941, a Swiss electrical engineer named George de Mestral was walking with his dog in the Alps. As both he and his dog brushed up against the surrounding vegetation, George began to wonder why burdock seeds were sticking to his wool socks and his coat, as well as to his dog. Out of curiosity, he decided to look at the burrs under a microscope, where he discovered tiny “hooks” in their surface that stuck them to fabrics and furs. Mestral, after experimenting with a variety of textiles, found he could manufacture a material with the same tiny hooks—out of nylon, that had the ability to stick to other fibers in a similar way. This invention, known as Velcro, proved to be a new, efficient, and reliable way of fastening things together, and is one of history’s greatest serendipitous discoveries.

Since what may as well be the beginning of time, students have gone to school and had their performance and knowledge of material assessed by some form of examination. In law school, the “final exam” brings to mind timeless and harrowing images of students shut away in large wooden rooms straining over pen and paper, toggling between some existential worry over the exam itself, and a broader heartache over the neurosis of law firms’ sordid infatuation with first year grades.

Other than the advent of the Scantron, and students over time writing their exam answers on computers instead of by hand, the setting, schedule, and convocation of final exams has hardly ever changed.

(What does this have to do with Velcro, you ask? Read on.)

Of course the COVID-19 pandemic had little regard for such exam traditions, and for three semesters—at least at BC Law—the pandemic required all finals to be taken like so much else these days, at home. While people have been clamoring for a year and a half to get back to in-person sporting events and concerts and classes and functions and religious services and the like, I have not heard of anyone jonesing for a return to in-person final exams.

This semester, for classes graded by exam and not by paper, many professors still offered take-home, self-scheduled examinations, while as many, if not more, returned to in-person exams. The differences between the two are simple. Both are completed through Examplify, but in-person exams “lock down” the screen and thus necessitate printing out notes, outlines, and documents, eliminating that 21st century mainstay of any sort of actual legal work—searching, copying, pasting, and revising. Further, the in-person exams are on a set day, at a set time, and require a class to convene in person. This eliminates the ability to take the exams throughout the exam period as may be most pedagogically wise, convenient, or reasonable.

Naturally students—particularly my 2L peers who have only ever known at-home law school finals, as well as my 3L friends who have an extra semester of take-home finals on us—largely prefer take-home exams, for the important benefits mentioned. Like with many facets of our daily lives, while the pandemic certainly wreaked havoc, it did have some silver linings. For one, we all recall the early days of COVID, where our shared humanity and the terror of a new and frightening experience had the effect of bringing people together, even when apart, in light of a shared threat. It demonstrated we can work remotely as effectively, without terrible commutes, with more free time, and often for as much profit, if not more in many industries. It led to lasting changes to the way we communicate, forever sending what used to require unnecessarily criss-crossing our nation and world to Zoom, changing value judgments and longstanding behaviors.

Like with the serendipitous discovery of Velcro 80 years ago, changes from the pandemic in some ways uncovered previously unknown benefits to new methodologies that we had never before considered. It turns out, final exams can be conducted remotely and reliably, and students are able to demonstrate their understanding and ability far more precisely, using regular tools we commonly use in our daily lives and will depend upon in our career, searching documents on our non locked-down screens at home and perhaps utilizing a second monitor (like so many lawyers do in practice), versus the bizarre task of flipping through printed paper in person.

In my 1L fall, all students were sent home at Thanksgiving break until the spring semester, eliminating the awkward jaunt from Massachusetts, to home for Thanksgiving and back here for one final week of class and a week and a half of finals, before heading back home for vacation. I remember realizing how unnecessary this all was last year when we didn’t have to do it for the first time. I also remember, while the final exams were still challenging and stressful in their own right, finding it far more sane, and far more reasonable to be taking them when I was most prepared during the exam period, with my outline and resources on the screen and able to be copied and edited digitally as opposed to rummaged through and transcribed from paper.

It just all made much more sense.

So the question remains, why did so many professors return to scheduled, locked down in-person exams, while others didn’t?

From asking around the law school, it sounds like the answer is “because this is what we always did.”

Students seem to largely value the benefits of the novel remote method. Some professors further recognize these benefits or do not have a strong preference as to how the exams are administered.

Some professors, though, seem to value the old school way of doing things. Some say it has to do with preparing us for the bar exam, which of course is in person and at a set day and time and under very stringent guidelines. It’s interesting then that the July 2021 bar passage results for the most recent graduating class of BC Law (a class which had three semesters or half of their entire legal education assessed remotely) was 95.4%, nearly identical to the 95.8% in 2020.

It’s hard to think that for a field, a profession, and a community so committed to reason, and to progressive causes and approaches to the vexing problems of our time, doing things a certain way just because “this is how we always did it before,” would ever be an adequate rationale for anything we do. I know that if I ever gave that as an answer on one of these finals, I probably wouldn’t do particularly well on it.

Students I have spoken to about this were unanimous in their shared anxiety of people finishing their final exams and leaving the in-person exam room so quickly it feels like they were taking their exam at what Rick Moranis called “Ludicrous Speed” in the 1987 comedy film “Spaceballs.” A further complication is created by some students availing themselves of the benefits of their classes’ remote exams, while others cannot. Some students I talked to expressed concerns about being in these large rooms for hours on end while new COVID variants are spreading, although of course we can hope this threat will not exist during the final exam periods of semesters to come.

What will still exist, however, are the logistical challenges and cost/benefit questions of why we are still doing things the old way. While the law and law school are steeped in tradition and immortalized in memory and pop culture, it’s 2021. This isn’t The Paper Chase. While I myself am always partial to nostalgia and things that are “old school,” at this time of year I like to limit that to holiday traditions—not packing into a room for a final exam at the cost of common sense.


Tom Blakely is a second-year student at BC Law, and co-host of the BC Law Just Law Podcast. Contact him at blakelth@bc.edu.

One thought on “Why Were Final Exams In Person?

  1. Pingback: The 2021 ‘Best of BC Law Impact’ List | BC Law: Impact

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