Monday, March 19, 2007

Mythbusters

Now that my students are back from Spring Break, they are more aware of how short the rest of the semester is.  Many of them are beginning to plan their exam studying. 

I have discovered that there are some myths out there that have been handed down through generations of law students.  Unfortunately, the myths are bad ways to study for exams.  So, I always go into "mythbuster" mode at this time of the semester.  Here are the myths that I have to confront most frequently:

  1. Slack off in Legal Practice for the rest of the semester to gain more time to study for exams. You may call the course Legal Skills or Legal Research and Writing at your law school.  The logic (or more accurately the illogic) behind this myth is that Legal Practice is not a "real" or "serious" course because it is only worth 3 instead of 4 credits.  I point out the following to my students: a) an "A" or "B" is a 3-credit course still does wonders for your GPA; b) summer employers often look at the LP grade very closely to determine whether or not they should make an offer; c) doing well in research and writing and other legal skills is essential for clerking in the summer if you do not want to look foolish.
  2. Do not do any practice questions until you reach the exam period.  I explain to students that this strategy is a great deal like riding a bull in a rodeo without practicing beforehand.  (This is Texas, so rodeos seem a better example than skiing or some other activities that I use in other regions of the country.)  I explain that the benefits of lots of practice questions over time are: a) increased ability at issue spotting; b) deeper understanding of the nuances of the law; c) increased memory of the black letter law; and d) increased skill at exam writing techniques and strategies.
  3. Spend two weeks focusing on each course during the next six weeks and you will be ready for exams.  Since we forget 80% of what we learn within 2 weeks if we do not review regularly, this seems a real recipe for failure.  (Ideally, I want them to study all semester for exams - but that is a whole other column.)  I talk about the benefits of regularly reviewing each course every week for the remainder of the semester.  I tell them that although they may focus on certain topics for those courses each week, they still want to review the entire outline for each course to keep it fresh.  Besides, many of the students who use this method ignore the six weeks of new material and then are really in trouble.  And, what do you do with this myth if you have four or five exam courses?
  4. Treat all of your exam courses alike in your studying plan for exams.  It is a rare law student who is equally competent or equally lost in all courses.  When I get them to talk about how the courses, exams, and material are different from each other, they begin to see that they need to tailor a study plan for each course separately.  I suggest that they consider: a) will the exam cover the entire semester (some students have mid-terms and that material is deleted from the final); b) how many topics and sub-topics are there for each course that will be included in each exam; c) how thoroughly have they already learned each of those topics and sub-topics; d) which courses do they need more time on to be prepared for exams because they are confused about the material or how to apply the material; e) how many practice questions have they already completed.
  5. You do not have to study as hard for an open-book exam.  Open-book exams are usually a trap.  Students who do not learn the material as they would for a closed-book exam often have to look everything up.  Only a general, surface knowledge of the material is often the result of believing this myth.  And, we all know that you rarely have spare time in an exam to look much up in your materials.
  6. You do not need to study as hard for multiple-choice exams.  The old college saying was that you just need recognition and not recall.  Students underestimate the difficulty of "best answer" multiple-choice exam and the nuances involved.  Again, general, surface knowledge of the material is encouraged by this myth.
  7. Save all of your absences and do not go to class the last week to gain more time to study for exams.  Obviously, they see the error of this advice when I explain that professors often give additional information about the exam and tie together the material in the last week.  In addition, I warn them that some professors weight the last couple of weeks of class heavily in the exam questions.
  8. Stop reading for your courses to gain more time to study for exams and just "pass" if you get called on during class.  I often ask students if the material during the next 6 weeks will be on their exams.  When they respond that it will be, then I ask how they are going to learn the material for those exams if they do not understand what is going on in class since they did not read the cases and other materials. 
  9. Stay up as late as possible during exam period to get in those extra hours of studying.  Wrong!  Being alert and well-rested will provide a far better result in the exam.  For my student skeptics, I tell them my horror story from first-semester 1L year about oversleeping for my Contracts exam.  (I was given the full time to take the exam, but my grade was docked two steps in our grading scale.  That gets their attention!)

After 5 semesters of conscientious "mythbuster" efforts, I am finding that I do not hear these myths as often as I used to when I first arrived to start an ASP program here.  However, the myths still rear their ugly heads at unexpected times.  A mythbuster's work is never done.  (Amy Jarmon)

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