Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Dealing with Law School Stress during Mid-Term Exams

My students are starting to lose their perspective on law school and life.  This week, most of the first-year students had two mid-term exams.  Legal Practice assignments are also picking up for the briefs.  Upper-division students are starting to have presentation, project and paper deadlines.  In short, everyone is a bit stressed and irritable.  My box of tissues keeps moving to the corner of my desk lately.

Here are some tips that I have been handing out regularly (and will continue to hand out as we start the downhill slide into exams).  Maybe some of them will help your students:

  • Get questions answered now by the professors.  Students often store up questions like squirrels store up nuts for winter.  The sooner the questions are answered, the sooner the student can get a deeper understanding of the material and feel more confident.
  • Use tutors or teaching fellows to advantage.  Our tutors and teaching fellows are required to have office hours each week.  Yet, many first-year students fail to use this time for additional help.
  • Evaluate whether a study buddy or study group might be advantageous at this point in the semester.  Many students go it alone at our law school.  They are often unenthusiastic about study groups because of "nightmare" group experiences in the past.  For some students, a single study buddy for each course is a better choice.  However, whether buddies or groups are used, two heads are often better than one on some topics and at some times in the semester.
  • Take one day at a time.  Do the best possible work each day.  A student can only control today's productivity and task management.  By focusing one day at a time, it is possible to stay on target and not get distracted by "what might happen when grades come out in May."  As the Chinese proverb states: "You can eat an elephant one bite at a time."
  • Do not see Spring Break as the time to do everything that one wants to avoid now.  It is tempting to see Spring Break as the catch-all for outlines, papers, back reading, and more.  However, Spring Break is too short to do everything.  Besides, some much needed guilt-free down time is possible if one does not leave everything until the break period.
  • If one gets behind on class reading because of mid-term exams or projects, do not catch up on the back reading before continuing with current class readings.  Students who try to read 50 back pages before continuing the current reading are then confused in the current classes and still behind on that reading.  Break back reading into one-case or 5-page chunks and sprinkle it through the week.  Most importantly, stay on top of the current reading. 
  • Break large tasks into smaller tasks.  For example, by dividing 50 pages of reading into 5-page chunks, it is possible to cross off small tasks and see progress on the larger task.  The sense of accomplishment makes it less onerous to move on to the next task.
  • Do the hardest or least liked task first.  Then, do the next hardest, and so forth.  Too often, the temptation is to leave unpleasant tasks to last.  However, by doing so, the task hangs there ominously all day and makes life even more dismal.  By getting the least desirable task done first, one will be more alert and get it out of the way.
  • Keep in mind that a law student is more than just a law student.  I encourage my students to remember that they are talented and special human beings who just happen to attend law school.  Law school grades do not define who they are as people.  They need to recall that they are also daughters or sons, brothers or sisters, friends, significant others, dog or cat lovers, community volunteers, and so many more roles.
  • Take time to do random acts of kindness.  By doing something nice for another, it helps one feel good.  Buy a soda for the person behind you at the vending machine.  Explain the Rule Against Perpetuities or the tax calculations for depreciation to a struggling classmate.  Compliment someone on a new hairstyle or outfit.  Smile at fellow law students.  Volunteer the answer in class when another student is stumped by the professor's question.
  • Use positive self-talk.  Optimists are more successful in academics (and life) than pessimists.  Keep inspirational quotes handy.  Count the blessings in your life.  Remember why being a lawyer is a goal and that law school is the road to that goal.
  • Get plenty of sleep.  The tendency for students at this point in the semester is to sleep less.  However, 7 - 8 hours of sleep will be more positive than staying up late to study.  Brain cells work better when they are rested.  Not only does one feel less depressed, but one is much more productive.

At times it is tough being a law student.  However, by keeping things in perspective, one can realize that it is a privilege that few people will ever have.  (alj)   

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