Thursday, November 12, 2009

Battles with the grapevine

I must admit that at times I grow weary battling the misinformation about exam studying that stays alive and well on our law school grapevine.  So much of the advice throws water in the face of memory and learning theories. 

Students need to remember that they must allow time for four types of exam studying for each course each week if they want to achieve high grades:

  1. cover-to-cover review of their outlines to keep everything fresh;
  2. intense review of material that they still need to learn;
  3. memory drills of the essential black letter law; and
  4. practice questions to apply the law.

Misinformation #1:  Cramming works.

We forget 80% of what we learn if we do not review it regularly.  Thus, the law student who waits until 4-6 weeks (or less) from exams to learn everything for the semester is really re-learning material.  Not very efficient.

Also, the same student will at best be using working memory (previously called short-term memory) rather than long-term memory.  Working memory is like one's desk top.  Long-term memory is like one's filing cabinet.    Working memory means that the person will likely only retain it long enough for the exam.  Not very helpful for bar review or future client discussions. 

Misinformation #2:  Shirking on reading and briefing allows for more study time.

It is as if these students forget that the new material will also be on the exam.  If one skims cases (or worse does not read them at all) and skips briefs, one is not going to know the material deeply.  Professors do not discuss everything in class that may be valuable for the exam.  This is not undergraduate school where class is all one needs to do well.

Deep understanding of material allows students to think and write like lawyers.  By understanding the nuances of the law, students can better analyze questions and make arguments.

Misinformation #3:  Memorizing the black letter law is all you need.

The black letter law is the minimal foundation needed when someone goes into an exam.  However, the good grades go to those students who can apply the law to new fact scenarios.  The memorized law is merely the toolbox that students use to work on solving legal problems.

In the past when I have asked professors what grade a student who merely knows the black letter law will get on their exams, the answers have ranged from some kind of "C" to some kind of "D."

Misinformation #4:  Working with your study group can get you through the exams.

Study groups can be very helpful for clarifying material, getting to the big picture, seeing a practice question from different perspectives, and other purposes.  Alas, a student is not able to depend on the study group in the exam itself. 

Each student has to balance group time with enough individual hard work.  Unless the individual student understands the material deeply and is prepared to analyze the scenario and write a concise and cogent essay answer (or carefully choose among answer options in multiple-choice), the game is lost.  

Misinformation #5:  Waiting until exam period to do practice questions is best.

Ideally one wants to complete practice questions at the end of every topic (and in some cases, sub-topic) throughout the semester.  Then as one reviews for the exams, one completes more questions.  During the exam period, one is then ready for even harder questions rather than just getting started.  Also, students who complete many questions are ready to complete questions under timed conditions long before others can do so.

Practice questions for essay exams are essential because they not only help one spot issues and apply the law but also help one practice the approach to questions and strategies for exam writing.  The sooner one works on all of these skills and strategies, the greater the chance of success on exam day.  It is all good and well to know what "IRAC" means but an entirely different thing to do it well.

Practice questions for multiple-choice exams are also essential because they too allow practice of both skills and strategies.  Because multiple-choice questions are usually "best answer" format, lots of practice trains one in seeing the nuances that make one answer better than another.

Misinformation #6:  Studying each course for two or more weeks and then ignoring it until later works best.

If one focuses on one course for a long period and then moves on to another course (for example, two weeks on civil procedure, two weeks on contracts, etc.), it is a recipe for disaster.  A variation that you start with your last exam for two weeks, then your middle exam, etc. is equally wrong-headed.  These methods ignore how memory works. 

As mentioned above, we forget 80% of what we learn if we do not review it regularly.  Also, as mentioned, long-term memory works to greater advantage on exams.  By using the four types of review mentioned in the beginning of this posting for each course each week, memory will benefit.

One would think that merely 1L students would fall for these poorly conceived study misinformations on the grapevine.  Surprisingly, 2Ls and 3Ls hang on to grapevine misinformation even when it has not worked for them in the past!  When I explain the reasons why the misinformation is wrong, most students immediately choose better strategies.  (Amy Jarmon)  

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