Law School Academic Support Blog

Editor: Amy Jarmon
Texas Tech Univ. School of Law

Thursday, May 21, 2009

The Search for Shortcuts

Research shows that doing one's own work creates deeper understanding of the material, greater retention, and better ability at applying the information.  However, one should always be encouraged to be efficient and effective in learning.  However, being efficient and effective is drastically different than taking shortcuts.

Misguided law students are always searching for shortcuts.  They think using canned briefs or someone else's class script or outline is the way to go.  However, shortcuts only short circuit real learning.

We all know that canned briefs may be wrong or take a different perspective on the case than the professor will.  In fact, I know of a law professor who has studied the canned briefs for the course and knows which ones are wrong or misleading  When a student is called on and begins to spout one of the canned briefs, the professor strings the student on and then declares at the end of the student's brilliant discourse that she used a canned brief which was incorrect. 

We would like to think that no professor's lectures would be so consistent as to be repeated word for word each year.  However, class scripts are prevalent at law schools.  No doubt there were handwritten versions before computers became vogue.  Class scripts can be wrong even though they are supposed to be absolute transcripts.  Class scripts will change when a professor chooses a new textbook, incorporates new cases or topics to reflect legal events, or decides to take a new approach.  Although students tell me they "update" the script when something new is said, I suspect they do not listen as carefully in class because they think they have it all.  Reading a script is not active learning compared to taking one's own notes.  Learning style differences may make the use of scripts even more troublesome for the student.

Students share outlines with one another as a pre-semester ritual.  Outlines from others share many of the same flaws as class scripts. Certain law school organizations are "must joins" because they have the best outline archives.  Technology has changed this ritual from dog-eared photocopies to downloads or CDs.  What amazes me is that students never ask questions to check out the product when they take an outline.  Students at every grade level in a class are generous with outlines.  After all, they do not want you to know their grades usually.  (One organization source told me they only accept outlines from "A" and "B" students.  But, last time I checked, the Registrar was not verifying those grades for anyone.  I personally know of many cases where students think that a fellow student is brilliant when the person is on probation or tell me how poorly that student did when she got a 3.0 or better.)  

However, I find it especially intriguing that there are internet databases that provide outlines to law students from every law school across the country.  First, why would you choose an outline from a database that you know nothing about?  Second, with outlines so available at every law school, why go outside your hallowed halls if you want to take a shortcut?  Third, why would you trust a database that is not even remotely connected to your school to be up to date?  I checked out the Texas Tech database for one site.  A number of outlines are for professors who have not taught at the law school for several years.  I am sorely tempted to ask my colleagues to rate the outlines for their courses and let me know the results. 

Mind you, I am not against a student comparing her brief, class notes, or outline to other sources.  I am not against students using study aids to supplement their own learning.  Where students get in trouble is when they expect others' efforts to substitute for their own in-depth processing and learning.  

Sadly, many students who use shortcuts never live up to their academic potential.  I know from my own law school career and practice that the students who have a reputation for always cutting corners in law school often have that reputation follow them into practice.  (Amy Jarmon)

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