Sunday, October 20, 2013

Why Practice Questions Are Important

Law students often put off completing practice questions until the very end of the semester.  They give me a number of reasons for delaying this important step in exam preparation: 

  • "I don't know enough yet to do practice questions."
  • "I can't do practice questions until we have had the entire course." 
  • "I know the material really well so it is not necessary to do questions." 
  • "I get discouraged when I get questions wrong and don't want to do any more." 
  • "I can't find practice questions for the course." 
  • "I don't know what type of questions the professor will ask because he has never taught before/has never taught this course before/is a visitor."
  • "I'll do practice questions with my study group later."

Successful law students complete as many practice questions as they can find time for throughout the semester.  In addition to thinking about the questions, they outline answers to many of the essays, write out completely the answers for multiple essay questions, and complete some questions under exam conditions (timed, closed book, etc.).  For multiple-choice questions, they track their mistakes so they can correct error patterns.  They also carefully read the answer explanations to learn nuances that they may have missed.

Why do successful law students spend time on practice questions?  They know that the following benefits flow from the task:

  • Practice questions help them see if they really understand the law and can apply it to new scenarios.
  • Multiple practice questions before the exam allow the student to manipulate the material through a number of different fact scenarios so that the actual exam scenarios seem less terrifying.
  • Practice questions can increase confidence when one gets them right and can allow one to focus future time on less well-known material.
  • Practice questions can pinpoint areas of confusion that need more work to master that topic long before the exam would uncover the same weakness.
  • Practice questions and their model answers (essays) or answer explanations (multiple choice) help students gain deeper understanding of the law and its proper application.
  • Practice questions allow students to practice issue spotting, careful reading of facts, charting or outlining answers before writing, stating the law precisely, analyzing for both parties, making appropriate policy arguments, and determining the best multiple-choice answer.
  • Practice questions under timed conditions help students with properly pacing their work during the actual exams.

What about the objections that I mentioned at the beginning of this posting?  Here are my responses to each one:

  • Once you intensely review a subtopic or topic, you should be prepared to complete practice questions that are available.  Intense review means learning that slice of the course as though the exam were Monday.
  • Most courses have discrete topics or a series of topics that interrelate.  Most practice question books indicate in the table of contents or index which topics are covered in the individual questions.  
  • You don't know how well you understand the material until you complete practice questions.  Memorizing material and being able to apply the material to new fact scenarios are separate skills.
  • Students should not attempt practice questions until they have studied the material in a serioius manner.  Then they should do questions in increasing levels of difficulty: start with one-issue questions, move to intermediate-level questions, and then move to full-blown exam questions only after success at the prior levels of difficulty.
  • For some courses there are fewer practice question sources.  Ask the professor if s/he can supply the class with old questions.  Go to the state bar examiners' website if old exam questions in that legal specialty are available.  Get together with several classmates in the course and write and swap your own practice questions.  Check out other law school websites for professor practice questions or old exams.
  • If you don't know the professor's exam style, then practice questions of a variety of types.  Once the professor decides the exam format, then switch to that particular style of question.  All practice questions will help you test your knowledge and understanding until you have more information on the specific exam.
  • Working on practice questions with a study group has merit - especially if each person works on the questions individually ahead of time.  However, you also need to do plenty of questions on your own - your study group won't be allowed to help you think it through in the actual exam.

Practice questions are a critical component of exam study.  If you have not started on them yet, now would be the perfect time to do so!  (Amy Jarmon)

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