Thursday, October 18, 2007

Exam Planning ... the time is now!

Thanks to Amy Jarmon for her superb suggestions about exam preparation.  (See Amy’s October 17 blog text below.) 

One of the most important recommendations she provides – and one which too many students overlook completely, is this: “Using a very structured weekly time management schedule for the remainder of the semester will allow the student to keep up with current class material while reviewing for exams which can in turn lower anxiety because all tasks are being completed.”

The “exam plan” is critical, and (I think) it needs to be made looooonnnnngggg before the final two weeks of the semester.  I have sat with many students and assisted them in constructing detailed personalized exam study plans.  This (your personalized assistance in creating this plan) could be the most important lesson students learn from you.

To supplement and underscore Amy’s suggestions, I have pulled some material from an article I wrote a while back for the ABA Student Lawyer Magazine (I believe it appeared in the March 2006 issue if you want to find the entire article in your law library).  The article dealt with anxiety reduction throughout the semester, but included a few suggestions about exams in particular.  What follows is based on that article. 

The “old hands” at academic support are familiar with all of this, of course.  I’m hoping this might be valuable to some of you who are relative newcomers to academic support … and, in turn, that it will ripple out to the students and those whom they eventually serve. 

To excel as a law student, you need to keep your cool during study time, class time, and exam time. To excel as a lawyer, you need to do the same—even though the setting is different. Three standard law school activities—studying law with a deadline approaching, being called on in front of others to address a difficult problem, and producing cogent arguments on demand—are also standard features of most lawyers' weeks.

Law school has something else in common with law practice: collywobbles—those uncomfortable feelings in the stomach caused by nervousness, anxiety, or fear.

Students study and learn best when they are at their peak performance level, and collywobbles inhibit peak performance.

[The article suggests methods of dealing with anxiety throughout the semester, then considers the subject of minimizing exam collywobbles.] After noting that, ideally, exam preparation begins on the first day of the semester, these tips follow:

  • Exam preparation should include development of a detailed written study schedule for several weeks before the examination dates.
  • If you have not kept your course outlines up to date throughout the semester, you need to complete them at least a couple of weeks before exams. You should also schedule sufficient time for review and internalization of all key definitions, elements, black-letter rules — anything that may be an essential component of an exam answer's completely predictable portions.
  • Developing topical “mastery” — the ability to efficiently resolve difficult problems within a short time frame in writing under pressure — is essential.  Achieve mastery by writing answers to short hypothetical questions covering all the topics and issues that may be the subject of test questions. Compare your answers to sample answers to measure your achievement level.  You will recognize mastery when you achieve it.
  • Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse. Answer several questions similar to those you expect to encounter on each exam, under the same time and environmental conditions you will be subjected to on exam day.
  • Ask for help if/as needed.  During this final phase of preparing for exams, visit with your professors to clear up any areas of the law that trouble you.
  • Make an appointment with your school's academic support professional if you want some fine-tuning of your style.

There is no one-size-fits-all schedule, nor is there a “rule” for how many practice questions to do.  One thing I think students ought to hear, however, is based on what the bar exam professional trainers suggest.  BarBri or PMBR, for example, recommend some very large number of practice MBE questions (is it near 3,000?) before taking what is essentially a pass/fail test where scoring considerably below the “average” score will earn the examinee a license to practice law (assuming the rest of the exam is passed as well).

The actual MBE exam consists of 200 questions.  That’s a fifteen-to-one ratio.  So, if a first-year student wants to do much better than average (earn an A, for example), maybe she ought to take a look at that ratio when planning her study for the 15 multiple choice questions her Torts professor has promised.  That works out to 225 questions as a minimum. 

How does that relate to essay practice?  Well, is it unreasonable to practice answering questions for 45 hours to prepare for a 3-hour essay exam?  Maybe yes, maybe no — however, I’ve queried many students who wind up in the nether regions of their class ranks on this very subject, and discovered that the average time spent actually answering practice questions in writing (either short ones like you’ll find in the Examples & Explanations series or standard-sized one-hour essay exams) is approximately this: 1.

If it’s true that practice makes perfect, what does this (answering 1 question) make? 

Go figure.  Literally.  Figure out how many questions will make you (student) feel really comfortable going in to the exam room.  Then include that number in your exam plan. 

Hasta luego. (djt)

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