Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Taking Stock

Most law schools are in their fifth or sixth week of classes at this point.  As I talk to students, I find that many of them are in pure survival mode.  They are hurtling through the semester without any conscious thought about what they should be doing next in their studies. 

Many are merely reading for class and doing no additional thinking about the law.  Most of the students have not looked at their class notes since taking them.  Outlines vary in completeness from non-existent to a month behind for many students.

It is critical that students take stock now because they can still retrieve the situation and gain control.  One-third of the semester is over.  However, for most students, the completed coursework can be reviewed and condensed into outlines in 10 hours or less per course (especially true for 1L students whose professors go slowly the first two weeks to get everyone into the routine).

Here are some tips that I offer students who have not yet focused beyond survival:

  • If the entire outline for a course seems too difficult of a task, then focus on the first sub-topic.  Move on to the next sub-topic and so forth.  The trick is to BEGIN.   
  • If your professor does not provide a syllabus that is structured by topics and sub-topics, the general table of contents of the casebook can provide the structure.  Do not structure the outline by case briefs.
  • Remember that your outline is your master document for exam studying and should provide the overview of the course, the inter-relationships of the material, and the essentials stressed by your professor.
  • If at all possible, condense material BEFORE it goes into your outline.  Wholesale inclusion of every brief and every word in class results in overwhelming detail and obscuring the bigger picture of the course.
  • Unless you are dealing with a major case, cases are likely to be mere illustrations of the rules, elements, factors, or policies that you need to know.
  • Where appropriate, condense material by using graphics.  For visual learners, a picture is truly worth a thousand words.
  • Avoid the shortcut of using another student's outline or a commercial outline instead of making your own.  You gain deeper understanding and greater retention by processing the material yourself.  Other outlines can be useful to suggest a format or to check completeness after you have finished your outline - but match your outline to your professor's course.         
  • Set a deadline by the end of this next weekend to have your outlines caught up in all courses if possible, but at least in 3/4 of your courses.  Complete any other outlines by the end of the following week.
  • Have a goal of outlining new material every week once your outlines are current.  You will not have to re-learn material to outline if you do it regularly and you can begin your exam review earlier.

Students often fail to understand that outlines left too late in the semester will make it impossible to learn and retain all of the information before the end of the semester.  And, the longer students wait to begin their outlines, the more likely they are to be sidetracked by papers or projects that seem more pressing.  (Amy Jarmon)

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