Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Study Gangs?

I recently was at the receiving end of law school gossip which, while it was hearsay, was still fairly juicy. Evidently, at an event where many law students congregated (did I mention the open bar?); a fist fight broke out between two former study group mates who are now second year students. A number of “satellite” fights also broke out around this major fight, but that information (to take this space analogy too far) was far too nebulous to report here. The student informer described it as, “study group gone bad.”

I can see how this might happen. Certainly there can be bad blood among members of a study group once the grades come in. I have had many students who are in academic distress tell me that they were the “professor” of their study group, only to have the worst performance on their exams of the entire group. “How did I do the worst when I was explaining it all for them?” they ask me. And my answer is this: exam taking and studying are skills; unfortunately, they are two different skills.

Sometimes, the person who seems to have the keenest grasp of the material is the person who struggles on the exam because while they have understood the material well enough to pass it on to others, they have not worked on mastering the skills of exam writing (or taking). About a year ago, I wrote a blog entry on the difference between legal writing and exam writing (feel free to look at it again or for the first time….). I think I need to expand these thoughts to include the idea that studying (and doing your reading for class, etc.) is different than exam taking as well.

There are, of course, many variables. The expert studier may not perform well under pressure. Or, the expert outliner may not be flexible enough (again under pressure) to recognize old issues in new clothes: that is, issues arising using slightly different language than the professor used in class or was used in the casebook. The “professor” of the study group may be unskilled at prioritizing the issues in an exam answer and give each equal weight where that treatment is clearly not merited and can lead to a major time crunch on the exam. Finally, the perfectionist study group member may become panicked on the exam because, given the time constraints, perfection is impossible.

How do we prevent” study group gone bad”? The same way we get to Carnegie Hall. (Take the A, B, C, D, or 1 trains to Columbus Circle; the N, Q, R, or W to 57St./Seventh Avenue, or the E to Seventh Avenue. Don’t even get me started on the buses…). Really, the answer is practice, practice, practice. My very esteemed colleague, Professor Ramy has a great chapter in his book on this (Succeeding in Law School, Chapter X, also note the acknowledgements, pg. xiii, lines 2-3), on why study groups may not be the best strategy for studying.

The bottom line is this: to be ready for exams you need both a substantive and procedural approach (a little Civil Procedure review here): you need to be very familiar with the substance of the course as well as the procedure for taking the exam. A study group may help with the first skill, but students need to do practice exams (or hypos), under exam conditions and alone to really be prepared. Here’s a starting hypothetical for your students, “what tort(s) did the former study mates potentially commit against each other?”  Don’t forget the defenses. (ezs)

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