Aug 12, 2019

Examinations - A Law Student’s Nightmare | Fifehan Ogunde

People spending hours revising and probably praying not to fail. People trying to memorize statutes, cases, journal articles and other primary/secondary legal resources in order to get the best grades on an assessment. The question remains whether such a method is the most effective or relevant in determining a law student’s capabilities.

This post stems from an observation made in relation to the University of York Law School. As part of its curriculum, it adopts the Problem Based Learning (PBL) method of teaching where law students work on a problem as a group and come for discussions led by a tutor. There have also been suggestions that the examination systems could be abandoned in the near future depending on the willingness of the board of education to subscribe to reform proposals raised by the University. This raises certain questions as to whether the examination system is still of great relevance in the legal curriculum. I am examining this issue with respect to professional legal education and in particular, the Legal Practice Course. The law school curriculum is divided into five main courses: Civil Litigation, Criminal Litigation, Land Law, Legal skills and Legal Drafting. At the end of the course, examinations are undertaken in all courses. There are certain issues with respect to the current mode of examination that suggest the system is in need of reform:

1.      Examinations to a large extent operate as a test of memory. They test how much information is in the head of the individual. Apply this to the litigation courses for example: The litigation process entails advocacy (including witness examinations), drafting of pleadings (which includes legal research and writing) and oral submissions in the courtroom. Aside from the brief oral submissions made in court during opening and closing arguments, there is very little need to regurgitate information recorded in human memory under pressure. A great deal of the information tested in the exam hall is always available and there is little need to commit it to memory.

2.      Examinations test the ability to produce under pressure. Apply this to the reality of litigation: actions are filed, time is given to parties to respond appropriately. Time is given to prepare statements and arguments. The examination questions are not known until the day of the examinations. The pressure in the courtroom is different from the pressure faced in the exam hall.

3.      Examinations in the manner currently conducted give less opportunity for developing logical and methodical approach, considering the limited time available to consider an approach. The litigation process stretches over a period of time, giving counsel the opportunity to think, adopt strategies and review adopted strategies. This is not available in the current examination setting.

4.      Examinations do not assess the ability to communicate ideas in alternative manners. Examinations conducted under the Nigerian Law School training course are purely written. Litigation involves both written and oral communication. The focus of the Law Training Courses on the written aspect of litigation is well-known. Aside from moot courts and interactive tutorials, there is little by way of specific measures targeted at enhancing and assessing the capability of the prospective litigation lawyer to communicate ideas orally.

What are we now trying to say? Should examinations be dispensed with? Not at all. Should the examination system for postgraduate law practice qualification courses be reformed? Absolutely. The aim of the Nigerian Law School is to equip lawyers for a career in law practice/teaching. Thus, the assessment system should be developed in accordance with the requirements of law practice/teaching. A litigation examination for example should in my view have both written and oral segments which should be evaluated equally.

Furthermore, there is no reason why assessed exams should be reserved for a specific day. The entire programme should be divided into periodic assessments with measures put in place to systematically examine and develop the skills of the student in relation to those things that are relevant for litigation. Thus, the overall grade of the student is determined by the sum of the different assessments. Analytical reasoning, critical thinking, inquisitorial capacity and concise expression of ideas are skills normally required for being an excellent litigation lawyer. These skills are developed systematically over a period of time and even the most comprehensive and well-rounded legal training course is insufficient to enhance these abilities in the manner required for a successful litigation career. Where assessments are undertaken, credit and grading should be determined in the context of the student’s development over the period of the course. There are several reasons why a brilliant litigation lawyer may not be able to perform well in the final examination. However, developing a skills-centred curriculum and reforming the mode of assessment to suit the enhancement of these skills will in my view improve the quality of litigation education at the foundational level and ensure that prospective litigation lawyers are set in good stead to rebrand the system.

Fifehan Ogunde

Oluwafifehan Ogunde is an research specialist and consultant with research interests in human rights law, criminal law and constitutional law. He has a Master’s degree in Human Rights Law from the University of Nottingham and a Bachelor’s degree from the University of Sheffield. He is also a barrister and solicitor of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, having been called to the Nigerian Bar in February 2012.