Is Sydney Law School too harsh on its students?

We compared the assessment practices of different law schools around Sydney

Law School Exams

The first things I learnt about being a student at Sydney Law School were (a) ‘you’re going to cry’ (b) closed book exams (c) ‘Taste is horrible but we all pretend we like it’ and (d) ‘did you know we have more closed book exams than any other law school?’

While it didn’t take long for (a) to happen and (c) to become a self-fulfilling prophecy, (b) and its reiteration in (d) always intrigued me.

We all know the stereotypes. If law schools in Sydney were characters in Matilda, USyd would be Miss Trunchbull and UTS would be Miss Honey. Sydney Law School, particularly its assessment practice, is often seen as harsh, unforgiving, and stuck in the past, especially when compared to the newer, seemingly friendlier and innovative models offered at UTS and UNSW, or even Macquarie.

But are these stereotypes necessarily true? Is USyd law school as daunting as it sounds, or does our law school just have the whiniest students? Honi carried out an investigation.

Methodology

We collected information on the type of assessments and their weighting across all the core units comprising a Bachelor of Law at five Sydney-based law schools: the University of Sydney, University of New South Wales, University of Technology, Western Sydney University, and Macquarie University. Information about assessment policies came from publicly available sources, mainly course descriptors and unit outlines from 2017-2018.[1]

We then divided assessments into six categories:

  1. Assignment: any written assignment, excluding research essays and in-class assessments.
  2. Open or closed exam: formal, sit-down examination taking place during the mid-semester break or delegated exam period.
  3. Quiz: timed online quiz or test.
  4. Research essay: any written assessment described as an essay.
  5. Participation: tutorial attendance and engagement.
  6. In-class assessments: task to be completed during class, including essays and tests.

We first calculated the total available marks across all core units of a law degree at each university. We then calculated how many marks are awarded for each type of assessment, to assess the relative importance of each assessment format. At Sydney Law School, for example, 2.5 per cent of all available marks over your degree are awarded for research essays, signalling that research essays are valued less than other assessment formats. We have also considered how much specific tasks are weighted in a given unit of study—for example, Criminal Law at USyd allocates 40 per cent to a research essay.

The results

USyd is the worst when it comes to exams

Exams are a common component of the assessment practices of three law schools—USyd, WSU, and UNSW. But only at Sydney Law School do exams with a weighting of more than 70 per cent exist, comprising 36.4 per cent of all available marks in a law degree. This data includes two opt-in assessments, both from the Equity and Evidence units of study. If a student chooses not to undertake those assessments, then almost 40 per cent of their marks would come from exams weighted 70 per cent or over.

Further, highly weighted exams are not common among other law schools in Sydney. Besides USyd, the only university to have exams worth 50 per cent or above is WSU, where these constitute 58.7 per cent of all the available marks. In comparison, the figures are 22.1 per cent for UNSW, 3.1 per cent for UTS and 8.1 per cent for Macquarie.

Highly weighted exams have been criticised for encouraging cramming, as the absence of regular, spaced assessments means students often leave all their work till the end. This was an issue brought up at Academic Board. Student Support Services told the Assessment Working Group of Academic Board earlier this year of the existence of an assessment logjam in Week 7, 11 and 13, one which places an unprecedented demand on CAPS and Disability Services.

But students at USyd, perhaps growing used to our assessment model, do not necessarily take issue with the highly weighted exams—that is, if they are open book.

A Sydney University Law Society (SULS) survey circulated in Semester 1 this year asked students about their experience at the law school in 2017. Current SULS Vice-President (Education) Eric Gonzales said, “Many students explained that closed book examinations are more stressful than other assessment formats and are different from legal practice.”

Of all marks available in a USyd law degree, 19.1 per cent come from closed book examinations. To put this into perspective, closed book examinations only make up 3.1 per cent of the available marks in a degree at UNSW, Sydney Law School’s main competitor.

Over the years, Sydney Law School has justified its preference for closed book exams on two grounds, both formally in press releases and informally in the opinions of particular staff members.

Firstly, closed book examinations allegedly reduce the likelihood of cheating, a concern plaguing law schools after a 2016 Fairfax investigation unearthed widespread academic misconduct in the sector.

Secondly, closed examinations allegedly produce better law students and future lawyers. Barring access to material in exam conditions should, theoretically, rigorously test a student’s understanding of the law. But this does not reflect practice, where reference materials are always on hand—and it does not necessarily have the desired effect.

In the 2019 QS Law School rankings, USyd ranked 14th and UNSW 16th. Only 2.2 points separated the two when it came to Employer Reputation. This metric is based n responses to the QA Employer Survey, which asks employers to identify institutions they believe produce the most competent, effective graduates. USyd scored 95.9, UNSW closely behind with 93.7.

It seems that whether or not a law school has closed book exams makes little difference for a student’s employability. The biggest issue facing law graduates is the oversupply of lawyers and record high levels of unemployment. So if closed book exams do not make a difference to our graduate outcomes, why have them at all, especially when it creates extra stress for students?

WSU is the new USyd?

It’s perhaps fair to say WSU is the underdog of law schools in Sydney. New to the game, WSU School of Law has faced criticism for having coursework that is perceived as less intellectually demanding.

So it’s surprising given this stereotype that WSU is the second harshest law school in Sydney, according to the data.

A skeptic would say WSU’s closeness to the USyd model is like a start-up trying to be the new Apple.

But a closer look reveals some innovation in WSU’s teaching and curriculum. WSU was the only university to include mooting—something many lawyers actually do in practice—as a formal assessment. The university also included viva voces, oral exams where examiners ask students questions, to test the oral skills of future lawyers.

These are practical skills many argue USyd does not assess or teach. Except that USyd does, in a way. Our well-funded law society and our focus on extra-curricular activities encourages students to participate in activities like mooting, negotiations and public speaking competitions, which prepares them for the workforce.

But not all students can be involved, and when the onus is on students to seek out these opportunities, many graduate without ever developing or being tested on skills essential to modern legal practice.

The light after exams

Exams aren’t the only assessments at law school, as ubiquitous as they may seem. UTS and Macquarie, so far largely absent from this data analysis, use a mix of exams and other assessment formats.

At UTS, the law department primarily prefers a combination of assignments (36.4 per cent) and exams (33.24 per cent), followed by class participation (18.65 per cent). Only at UTS do we find units of study where participation marks have a weighting 30 per cent or over (with the exception of the Contracts and Torts unit of study at UNSW). These units include Australian Constitutional Law, Civil Practice, Equity, Administrative Law, Legal and Professional Skills, and Ethics Law and Justice.

The SULS survey revealed that USyd law students prefer class participation to all other assessment formats. Out of 119 respondents, 81 students found structured class participation most conducive to learning.

Assessable participation certainly has its benefits. The assessment format usually requires each student to be ‘on call’ for one or two tutorials of the semester; in those weeks, students have to be familiar with the readings and lead discussion. This system, at a minimum, ensures students will do the requisite study for their on call weeks, meaning not everything is left until the very end.

But the on call system also has the opposite effect, where students only do work for their allocated week. At UTS, though, where subjects give a huge weighting to participation, assessments often consist of more than the standard one or two on call tutorials to avoid the build-up of work for one or two weeks.

For example, in UTS Australian Constitutional Law, participation is weighed at 40 per cent. Of those marks, 10 per cent come from regular seminar participation. Another 10 per cent from a reading log, where students must display evidence of critical engagement with course readings. The last 20 per cent come from “role play”, which is likely a less structured version of a moot. In Administrative Law, providing feedback on fellow students’ assessments online and in-person comprises 20 per cent of the 40 per cent participation mark.

The focus on participation at UTS is in stark contrast to USyd, where participation marks only account for 2.8 per cent of available marks in the law degree. If UTS is the kind-hearted friend who’s always there to listen when you need them, then USyd is the cold hearted colleague who only cares about business.

***

Most law students are known ‘Type As’—ambitious, competitive and impatient people, more susceptible to stress and heart disease than their laidback ‘Type B’ companions.

Sydney Law School’s harsh assessment regime, with its focus on the frequency and weighting of examinations, only exacerbates the pressure law students place on themselves. But it would be incorrect to suggest that overhauling the assessment regime would fix the problem. If an average law student at USyd is neurotic and enterprising, then their stress levels won’t necessarily fare better if an 80 per cent closed exam is converted to two 40 per cent written assignments.

But allocating more marks to other assessment formats, like assignments or participation, at least ensures that no single skill is prioritised, and that students with skill sets beyond the traditional exam focus can thrive. And including tests of oral ability, like at WSU, would at least be more reflective of modern law practice. Other law schools are making these changes, so why not USyd?

In November, Sydney Law School’s Teaching and Curriculum Committee (T&CC) will discuss the results of the SULS survey, after which they have the choice to adapt or adjust the curriculum based on students’ responses.

“SULS hopes T&CC will respond to the results to ensure that students feel they are being heard and that the Law School’s vision for 2019 is geared towards improving their academic experience,” Gonzales said.

The bottom line in all of this is that law school is hard. And Sydney Law School, an institution steeped in tradition, from the portraits of judges in the Law Foyer to the ancient hard copy law reports hoarded by our library, should evaluate whether current assessment formats really make the best modern lawyers.

[1] If unclear whether an exam for a particular unit was open or closed, we directly emailed course coordinators or past students of the subject.