They study hard, eagerly ask questions, sometimes dog the lecturer after class for clarification of a complicated point and worry about their final exam.

But the 28 men and women enrolled in this six-week summer school course at the University of Virginia law school are shown a deference by the faculty unknown to most who pass through these halls.

The class is composed of judges, including two from the District of Columbia, who have come back -- some for the first time since law school -- to hear professors who may be many years their junior lecture about social, economic and legal theories.

The seminars, which stretch over two summers, lead to a master's degree in the judicial process.

"You don't treat them like first-year law students," says University of Virginia law professor Robert E. Scott. Facing him when he lectures are nameplates that say "Judge" and give the name of each student.

"I didn't know it was going to be as rigorous as it has been," says one of Scott's pupils, U.S. District Judge Robert R. Merhige Jr. of Richmond, whose last law school class was in 1942.

Merhige, one of three federal judges in the program, has been keeping up with his judicial caseload by handling various legal motions by telephone in the afternoon after class. Other judges have been receiving legal briefs in pending cases by mail and are consulting with their law clerks regularly.

The program is given with the support of groups that include the U.S. Law Enforcement Assistance Administration and the American Bar Association.

The main objective is to "provide sitting judges the opportunity to engage in reflective study for a substantial period of time during which they are relived from the everyday demands of their offices," says Prof. Daniel J. Meador.

This semester, the judges are studying the balance between state and federal power, the economic implications of judicial decision-making and the nature of the judicial process.

Scott, who is one of the professors in the economic theory course, says he is quite impressed with the judges' "willingness to consider new ideas (and) their seriousness of purpose."

Obviously, he said, a law professor must adjust his or her teaching style to soom extent when teaching people who are already powerful judges. But at the same time he feels the exam should hold them to strict standards.

"It is an academic degree," he emphasized. The judges will be graded on a pass-fail basis and they are "extraordinarily concerned" about the examination scheduled to end this year's six-week program, he added.

D.C. Appeals Court Judge William C. Pryor described the sessions as "very intensive," and rushed up to a professor after class to continue talking about a hypothetical problem that the class had been discussing. He and Revercomb, the two District of Columbia judges in the program, have returned to Washington on the weekends to check on their pending caseloads.

"This is an endurance contest," said Michigan Court of Appeals Judge Michael James Kelly.He said there is a "heavy battery of studious work to do" while at the same time it is a sacrifice to live like a student again. Many of the judges are living in student housing for the term.

The program began after an advisory committee of the appellate judges conference of the American Bar Association had studied the problem of judicial education for years.

Arizona Supreme Court Judge James Duke Cameron said the committee concluded continuing education would help a judge to understand better his or her role in society.

The problem has became more serious in recent years because courts are being asked to deal with a wider range of social, legal and economic isues, added another ABA advisory committee member, New Jersey Deputy Court Administrator Florence R. Peskoe.

The 28 judges enrolled in the program come from 20 states and the District of Columbia. Cameron said some jurisdictions that are not represented did not encourage their judges to attend, apparently because of the time involved, but that he believes that willchange by the time the next class is admitted in 1982.

For now, however, the focus is on examination week. What would happen if one of these federal or state judges, already sitting in their various jurisdictions and ruling on major issues affecting the lives of thousands fails the coursework?

"I'm not sure," Scott said.