Ultra Vires


Put Word Counts on Exams

Perspectives from exchange

When I was on exchange in Geneva this past semester, I had the opportunity to approach school in a different way. I could tell you about all the experiences I had and all that jazz, but I want to make a simpler point here. In Geneva, most exams were 15-minute oral exams, which was a much more pleasant experience than exams in Toronto. I would get 15 minutes to prepare an answer to a prompt, then 15 minutes to present the answer to a professor. This was a welcome break from Toronto, where every law exam is simply an opportunity to spend three hours typing as much as possible.

The way exams work at this school is inconsistent. When we have papers, there is a word limit. Students are forced to decide what information is important enough to include and demonstrate their understanding within that limit. The same is true of take-home exams. Yet for most standard three-hour exams, there is no word limit. Most law exam questions have no clear answer, incentivizing students to write as much as they can. There is clear incentive to cover every possibility in order to demonstrate to a professor that the student writing deserves a higher grade. An 8000-word exam therefore allows for more opportunity to demonstrate understanding and mastery of the course than a 4000-word exam. There are certainly exceptions to this but, all else equal, the exam with more content is likely going to do better. Anyone who disagrees can feel free to write less and see what happens.

Although I would prefer the 15-minute oral exam format, I am certain that U of T will not accommodate this. However, the typing contests should end. All exams should have a defined word limit in the same way that papers and take-home exams do. In the past, exams were handwritten, which I think explains the current discrepancy. However, today we have an amazing software program that usually works and can tell people what their word count is on exams. As I am writing this, I now realize there would be students at this school who purposefully handwrite to avoid a word count… Damn them.

Law school here is hard and stressful. There are some things that can’t be changed, such as the competition for marks, jobs, and whatever else people are into these days. With that competitive mindset, I always approached exams in Toronto with the goal to write as much as possible. Going away on exchange allowed me to see that there can be more to law school than competition. There should also be more to exams than simply the volume written. The content of the exam should be what matters, not the number of words on the page.

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