Is The Bar Exam Going Online?

Earlier this month, interviewed Judith Gundersen, President of the National Conference of Bar Examiners (NCBE). In the last paragraph President Gundersen made some news that all bar support teachers should pay attention to.

What do you think the bar exam will look like in five years?

It’s hard to predict, but I think we might be looking at a different delivery mechanism. I think we might eventually be moving away from the Scantron sheet and bubbling in answers. There aren’t that many exams now that use paper in pencil.

President Gundersen reiterated this statement that the NCBE is focusing on how the bar exam should be delivered in the President’s Page of the September 2017 edition of the Bar Examiner. As bar support teachers, many of us spend a lot of time teaching students how to actively engage with bar exam questions on paper – to circle, underline, draw diagrams and flow charts, and make notes of legal issues that pop into their heads as they read through the question.

As I’ve discussed before, people read differently on a screen and on paper. That means that we have to start rethinking how we teach our students to engage with the material in front of them. Even if they can highlight and make notes on a question on the computer, they may want to draw diagrams on paper or jot down a quick outline for themselves. Looking down a piece of paper and up at a computer screen will take time.

This announcement also raises many questions about how the exam will be delivered if the bar does move to a completely computerized format. If the essays move online as well, will applicants be able to do a split screen and see both the question and their answer simultaneously? Are applicants going to be expected to read a whole packet of MPT materials and go back and forth between the documents on the same small computer screen where they will be typing their answer?

If the bar examiners are going online in five years, that means we only have one year until the first group of part-time 1Ls who will be facing a computerized test comes through our doors. It’s time to put our heads together to figure out best practices for teaching them how to read deeply, actively, and critically on a computer screen.

I hope that if the NCBE does make a shift in delivery mechanisms, it does so with enough lead time that students can practice taking exams with the questions on the computer screen as early as their first semester.