May 09, 2013
Lights, Camera, Action
At most law schools, final exams are rapidly approaching. The drawn-out "practices" with course material over 14 or 15 weeks are drawing to a close. A few professors are providing last-minute dress rehearsals with practice questions or reviews of material.
The tension is mounting just as it would before opening night of a theater production. Everyone knows that this is it: the law must be at one's finger tips, the exam strategies must be in place, the last-minute tweaking is all that there is time for at this point. Those who have not "learned their lines," "blocked their places," and paid attention "to the director" will be frantic soon.
Butterflies are natural just as they are before a production. Sheer panic, however, indicates a lack of preparation. Those who are trying to learn 14-15 weeks of material at the very end of the semester are struggling at this point.
If students have been diligent throughout the semester, then they need to focus on the following points:
- Review material learned already by reading outlines through at a moderate pace to keep material fresh.
- Concentrate on newer material that needs to be understood and learned.
- Complete as many practice questions as possible - some under timed, exam conditions.
- Spend extra memory drill time on the few (hopefully) areas that are still troublesome: rules, exceptions, policy arguments.
If students are faced with an overwhelming amount of material to learn at this point, then they need to consider the following:
- Prioritize studying: what areas are most likely to be tested heavily; what areas are still the most confusing or hardest and need extra time.
- Spend time on study strategies that will get the most results: it might be too late to make flashcards, but reading one's outline may work well; attack outlines or flowcharts may be more helpful than starting a full-blown outline for some topics.
- Balance individual study time with any group study time so that personal knowledge will be there for the exam.
- Remember to do practice questions to go beyond just memorizing material and become proficient at applying the material.
- Have a list of the material one is going to complete during the day for a particular course - be realistic, but diligent enough to complete the topics over the days left before an exam.
A good night's sleep before an exam will pay off more than staying up to the wee hours cramming. Brain cells need sleep to work properly during the exam. A good breakfast or lunch before an exam is also a must to fuel one's brain cells.
Good luck to all of our student readers on your exams! (Amy Jarmon)
April 10, 2013
Do Not Jettison Your Common Sense
With the stress at the end of the semester, I am seeing more students make poor decisions because they have misplaced their common sense. Here are some things that students all know but tend to overlook when overwhelmed:
- Attend classes and prepare for them. Skipping class to gain more study time may mean that you miss important information about the exam or the wrap-up of major topics for the course. Not reading and briefing in order to save time only mean that you have the gist of the course without real understanding.
- Avoid spending lots of time organizing to study rather than actually studying. If a clean desk, organized bookshelves, and a code book with a thousand colored tabs do not increase your actual learning, you have been inefficient (used time unwisely) and ineffective (gotten minimal or no results).
- If you are sick, go to the doctor and follow the doctor's advice. Multiple negative repercussions follow from coming to school sick and refusing to get medical attention: you infect others with your illness; your illness becomes more debilitating than it should; you ultimately lose more class and study time than you would have with prompt treatment.
- Get enough sleep; do not get less sleep during the remaining weeks of the semester. Without sleep, your body and brain do not work well. You absorb less material, retain less material, zone out in class or while studying, and are generally less alert.
- Eat regular and nutritious meals; do not skip meals to save time. Your body and brain need fuel to do the studying you have to do. Dr. Pepper and Snickers bars are not a balanced diet. Neither are pizza and soda.
- If you have an emergency during the exam period, tell the academic dean or registrar. You may be eligible for delayed exams because of the circumstances (medical illness, family illness, death in the family). Most law schools have procedures/policies dealing with emergencies and will work with students who have exceptional circumstances.
Take time to use your common sense to help you make wise study and personal decisions during these last few weeks of the semester. Do not put yourself at a disadvantage by blindly taking action fueled by panic - think about the consequences of your choices. (Amy Jarmon)
April 07, 2013
So Many Tasks, So Little Time
The end of the semester is approaching at break-neck speed right now for most students. A common lament is that there is not enough time to get everything done before exams. Students are frantically working on papers and assignments while trying to find time for extra final exam studying.
Here are some ways to carve out time when you feel that you have none:
- Look for time that you waste during each day and corral that time for exam studying or writing papers: Facebook or YouTube or Twitter time; e-mail reading and writing; cell phone time; chatting with friends in the student lounge. Most people fritter away hours on these tasks.
- Become more efficient at your daily life tasks: prepare dinners in a slow cooker on the weekend to heat up single servings during the week; wear easy maintenance clothes to save ironing/dry cleaning tasks; pack your lunch/dinner to take to school instead of commuting time to eat at home; clean the house thoroughly once and then merely spot clean and pick up. You can garner ample study time if you cut down on these types of daily tasks.
- Curb excessive exercise time, but do not give up exercise time entirely. Your normal gym workout of two hours five times a week is most likely a luxuary at this point in the semester. Cut it back to two times a week or make it one hour three times a week. The guideline for exercise is 150 minutes per week. You need to focus on strengthing your brain cells rather than your abs right now.
- Consider getting up earlier each day, but do not get less than 7 hours of sleep per night. If you tend to sleep in on weekends and days when you do not have early classes, you are losing productive study time. Go to bed at the same time Sunday through Thursday nights and get up at the same time Monday through Friday mornings; do not vary the schedule more than 2 hours on the weekends. You will be more alert and better rested if you have a routine.
- Decide whether you could study an hour or two longer on a Friday or Saturday night if you currently end at 5 or 6 p.m. You want some down time, but may be able to go a bit longer than previously in order to gain more study time.
- Set up a schedule so that you delineate for each day when you will read/brief or outline for each of your courses. Then repeat the tasks at the same days/times each week. You will waste less time asking yourself what to do next.
- Break tasks down into small pieces. Small pockets of time (under an hour) can then be used effectively to complete tasks. You may be able to study a subtopic for a course in 20 minutes but would take 3 hours for the whole topic. Any forward movement is progress!
- Use windfall time when you gain unexpected time: a class is cancelled, your friend is late picking you up, a meeting ends early.
Instead of getting overwhelmed by everything you have to do, take control of your time. Conquer each course one task at a time. (Amy Jarmon)
February 24, 2013
Leave Your Point of View at the Fact Pattern Door: Part 2 of 2 (Guest post by Seth Aiken, UMass Law)
In the first installment of this post, I suggested that for some law students, life experience and a strongly held point of view can get in the way of law school success. “Older” students, having lived and worked and experienced a little more than most of their peers can tend to let their own point of view and perceptions about the world interfere with legal reasoning. Rather than seeing the legally significant issues in a fact pattern, they focus on the implausibility of the facts and how unlikely or unfair a scenario seems in the context of their own experience or personal values.
With these students, my strategy is to have them start by adding a phrase to the beginning of the first sentence of every essay question, “On an island that you’ve never been to and where no visitors ever go…(essay question begins). I want them to remember that a fact pattern is a closed universe and that adding facts or injecting personal insights into it will only derail their best efforts.
Then I give my students five steps for looking at a fact pattern and drawing out the legally important issues:
- Call of the Question – Start at the end of the exam and read the call of the question so you understand what you are being asked to do.
- Acts – Rather than trying to spot and analyze whole issues, start instead by reading the fact pattern sentence-by-sentence and highlighting any act or failure to act by a party – anything someone in your fact pattern says, does, or chooses not to do.
- Resist Judgment – You do not have enough information yet to know whether any of these acts give rise to a legally significant issue. Resist making any judgment about whether the act is relevant, worthwhile, good, bad or otherwise because all you know right now, is that somebody said or did something.
- Elements – Assuming you studied and know all the elements of every issue you might be tested on, go to each act and consider if it could be one element of an issue. Remember, don’t skip or overlook an act just because it seems like a little thing. The seriousness or severity of the action doesn’t matter. Whether you think the action would lead to a legal action in real life doesn’t matter. What matters is whether that act in the fact pattern, taken at face value could satisfy one element of something you are being tested on. On the other hand, you don’t want to force an issue that simply isn’t relevant. Some facts ARE there to tempt you into a time-wasting, grade-crushing wild goose chase. In order to stay on target, ask:
a) Is the issue you’re thinking about within the testable universe? (i.e. DO NOT analyze a Criminal Law issue in a Torts exam.)
b) Is this issue relevant to the call of the question? (i.e. DO NOT discuss the rights of B vs. C when the question is asking only about the rights of A vs. B.)
c) Are there other facts that satisfy each of the other necessary elements to make out this issue? DO NOT speculate about other elements based on your common sense or some past experience.
Success vs. Relevance – This is the fifth and final step I ask my students to think about because I want the word “success” to trigger a few different cautionary flags.
The success of the issue: Just because a complaining party has a weak case (weak elements) and is likely to lose doesn’t mean the issue isn’t worth raising. If you can make a good faith, “straight-faced” argument that each of your elements is supported by some fact or facts, it is probably a relevant issue, win or lose. In fact if you can make a good faith argument that MOST of your elements are supported by facts, you should raise the issue. Weak facts or a missing element bear on the success of an issue, but are never a reason to not raise it. Being able to explain to your professor why an issue fails is just as important as being able to show why an issue succeeds.
The successes a student brings into the exam: You are walking into the exam with a point of view based in your life experience. Your successes and accomplishments have equipped you to identify and solve many challenging problems, to relate to people and empathize with their circumstances. HOWEVER – here in this exam, you must leave those successes and accomplishments behind. Relating to the people in your fact pattern and empathizing with their circumstances will distract you from seeing what is relevant and keep you from engaging in effective legal analysis.
Seth-Thomas Aitken, UMass School of Law - Dartmouth
November 24, 2012
The Last Week of Classes Is Like Leftovers
I did not cook for Thanksgiving this year. My best friend and I decided to go out to dinner instead. I realized in the days after Thanksgiving that I basically was content not to have leftovers crowded in my refrigerator. Except maybe the from-scratch cranberry sauce. And the stuffing. But the turkey, green beans, succotash, gravy, potato au gratin, sweet potato casserole, crescent rolls, pumpkin pie, pecan pie - well you get the picture - were not missed.
I realized for many of my students, the last week of classes (at our law school immediately after the holiday break) is a lot like leftovers. More reading, briefing, and new class material up to the last minute are now no longer appealing. One is already sated with those items and ready for something else. The professors who wrap up or review material are like the favorite leftovers that one is happy to have servings of for the next 5 days after the holiday.
Like all of us who ate too much and sat overstuffed on the couch after the holiday meal, our students are lethargic when it comes to more class sessions. They are focused on exams and want the leftover classes to be over. Wrap-up and reviews make sense because they go along with the exam purposefulness that students have. (Amy Jarmon)
November 20, 2012
The Paper Chase
I have watched this classic law school film multiple times over the years and vividly remember seeing it in the cinema when it first came out (long before I ever ventured across a law school threshold as a 1L student). Recently I decided to watch it once more because it had been several years since my last viewing.
The film has always seemed to me to be the perfect commentary on how not to have a study group. I was reminded of those points once again. Here are some of the things we learn from the movie:
- A study group needs to have members with the same goals and purposes to avoid logistical and group dynamic problems.
- A study group needs to have some ground rules so that each member knows the responsibilities and etiquette of the group.
- A study group will falter if each person is assigned one course to specialize in because only that one person learns the course well and the others suffer if the expert drops out of the group.
- A study group will have conflict if its members become overly competitive, are argumentative, refuse to negotiate on tasks, or hold others hostage by refusing to share information.
- A study group does not belong to the person who invites others to join; it belongs to everyone and should be cooperative.
- A study group will be disrupted by members who become overwhelmed and are unable to pull their weight in the group.
- If one does not study outlines all semester long and distribute learning the material, it may require holing up for days with no sleep at the end in order to cram.
- Learning styles within a group vary; one person will consider an 800-page outline a treasure while the others will view it as a curse.
- Always have a back up copy of your outline in case your computer crashes (or your outline is accidentally tossed out a window).
My wish for all law students would be to have supportive, cooperative, hard-working study groups without drama and negativity. (Amy Jarmon)
October 20, 2012
The Three Little Questions for Exam Studying
Students who are just now realizing how close exams are and how much they have to do are looking for ways to be more efficient and effective. The trick is to continue the daily work for classes but still find time for exam review. A good time management schedule can help a student see where everything can be completed. (See my Thursday, September 6th post "When will I have time for . . . " for advice on time management.)
When looking specifically at exam study tasks, a student should ask the following questions:
- What is the payoff for exams of this exam study task?
- Is this exam study task the most efficient use of time?
- Is this exam study task the most effective way of doing the task?
Question One: This question is focusing on whether the exam study task is really going to help one do well on exams. If not, then the task should be dropped (or modified) for a task that will have more payoff.
- Example 1: Re-reading cases to study for exams rarely has much payoff because the exam will not ask you questions about the specific cases and instead will want you to use what you learned from the cases to solve new legal problems.
- Example 2: Reading sections in a study aid that do not correspond to topics covered by your professor in the course will have little payoff on your exam. If your professor did not cover defamation, reading about it in a study aid "just because it is there" in the book is a waste of time.
In example 1, you would get more payoff by spending time on learning your outline and doing practice questions. In example 2, you would get more payoff by reading only those sections of the study aid that are covered by your professor's course and about which you are confused.
Question Two: This question focuses on whether the task that you have determined has payoff is a wise use of your time. If you do a task with payoff inefficiently, you can still be making a study mistake.
- Example 1: You have not bothered reviewing and learning a particular topic for the exam yet. You decide to complete a set of 15 multiple-choice questions on the topic. You get 8 of them wrong and guessed at 3 of the ones you got right.
- Example 2: After outlining, you have lots of questions about the first three topics that your professor has covered in the course. You decide to worry about them later and continue on through the course with more questions surfacing each day.
In example 1, practice questions have payoff, but you wasted time because the questions would have more accurately gauged your depth of understanding and preparedness for the exam if you had done them after review. In example 2, listing the questions you have on material has payoff, but you wasted time by not getting all questions for the first three topics answered while you had the context before moving on with new material.
Question Three: This question focuses on whether the task that you determined has payoff is getting you the maximum results. If you do a task that has payoff ineffectively, you can also be making a study mistake.
- Example 1: You are reviewing your outline which is a high-payoff task. However, you choose to review your outline in the student lounge while talking to friends and watching the news on the television.
- Example 2: You join a study group which meets every week and has an agenda of topics and practice questions that will be covered. You attend regularly but never go over the material or practice questions before the meetings.
In example 1, your outline review was ineffective because you were not focused fully on that exam study task. You may say you spent two hours reviewing, but your results will be far less than the time you pretend to have spent. In example 2, your exan study was ineffective because you got minimal results compared to what would have been possible if you had prepared before the meeting.
Spending time on exam studying must have payoff, be efficient, and be effective to deserve being called exam study. Otherwise, you only fool yourself. (Amy Jarmon)
July 20, 2012
Don’t “Choke” on the Bar Exam
Recently I had the opportunity to attend a lecture given by Sian Beilock, Associate Professor of Psychology at The University of Chicago and author of Choke: What The Secrets of the Brain Reveals About Getting It Right When You Have To. The lecture focused on the science of why individuals choke under pressure and how to best avoid performance anxiety. While the lecture did not focus on the stress applicants feel taking the bar exam, it was wholly applicable.
When pressure and anxiety to perform is high (like the bar exam), the brain’s prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for our working memory, focuses on the anxiety instead of recollecting essential information for successful performance. When a student is filled with too much anxiety, regardless of their aptitude, the anxiety interferes with their thought process and almost turns off their working memory to anything other than the stress of the event. This is why we often see highly intelligent and capable students perform below expectations in testing situations.
There are several ways to help students avoid this prefrontal cortex reaction. One, which is often employed by commercial bar reviews, is taking practice tests under timed conditions. These simulations help the brain overcome stress and will likely prevent students from “choking” during their actual test because they have established coping mechanisms to deal with their stress. Therefore, during the real test, they can practically operate on autopilot without stress interfering with their working memory.
Additionally, positive self-talk is an important aspect of testing success. Professor Beilock suggests that writing about your stress for ten minutes before an exam will free working memory. This cognitive function can instead be applied to performing well on the exam.
The simple act of acknowledging fear and stress prior to taking the bar exam could make the difference between passing and failing. I have told each of my students, especially those struggling with intense testing anxiety, to try the writing exercise each morning of the bar exam. I am hopeful that it will calm their fears and help them reach their highest potential next week.
May 10, 2012
Mind Over Matter
Many law students are now in exams. It is sometimes hard to keep one's perspective in the midst of hard exams. Here are some pointers you can give students to help them stay focused and not be thrown by an exam that seemed too difficult:
- Help students realize that the grade in a course is just one grade on one set of questions on one day.
- A student has 90 credit hours (more or less at different law schools) in the degree, and one course is just a small part of that degree.
- It is not uncommon to know more information than a set of questions on an exam could ask in a limited time period.
- Lots of attorneys today are practicing in areas that were not their strong courses in law school – students can have another chance.
- Remind students that other students also thought a particular exam was hard.
- Students need to realize that they are like their fellow classmates in regard to an exam.
- A student needs to resist the temptation of feeling that s/he was the only one who found the exam difficult.
- Encourage students to forget about the exams they just had.
- The exam is over and done with, and the student cannot change anything about it.
- Have the student re-focus on the next exam because s/he can make decisions that will impact studying for that exam.
- Students can just do their best on each exam under their own particular circumstances. That is all they can ask of themselves.
- Remind them to avoid talking with others about an exam when it is over.
- They will only get more stressed about the exam.
- They will keep thinking about that exam instead of moving on to the next one.
- They should smile at the person who wants to talk and diplomatically say that they don’t talk about exams. Then they should walk away.
A student who is upset by an exam needs to take several hours off and do something unrelated to law school. If the student's exam schedule allows it, the student will probably benefit from taking the rest of the day off and getting a good night's sleep. A fresh start in the morning will be more beneficial than studies that are unproductive because of a lack of focus. (Amy Jarmon)
May 01, 2012
Ten Quick Tips for Exam Takers
Here are ten things that can improve your performance as an exam taker. Each of these tips can boost your focus, organization, or time management:
- About a week before the exam, condense your outline for a course to 5 or 10 pages of the most important material. Learn that shorter version very well.
- Several days before the exam, condense that shorter version of your outline to a skeleton outline of headings and sub-headings (no more than the front and back of a sheet of paper for the entire course). Memorize that version. When the exam proctor says you may begin, write that checklist down on scrap paper and use it as a guide as you answer the exam questions.
- For essay exams: Once the proctor says that you may begin the exam, make a time chart for yourself on scrap paper so that you can stay on track within the exam time allowed. For each essay question, allot yourself 1/3 of the question time for reading, analyzing and organizing your answer. Allot yourself 2/3 of the question time for writing the answer. Thus, for a one-hour exam question, you will use 20 minutes for the first steps and 40 minutes for writing. If you begin the question at 1:00 p.m., you will finish your first steps at 1:20 p.m. and begin writing; you will end writing at 2:00 p.m.
- For multiple-choice or true-false exams: Once the proctor says that you may begin the exam, make a time chart for yourself on scrap paper so that you can stay on track within the exam time allowed. Allot yourself checkpoint times for the number of questions that you should have completed. For example, if I must complete 60 questions in two hours, I might set up six checkpoints. If the exam starts at 1:00 p.m., I should have completed 10 questions at 1:20 p.m., 20 questions by 1:40 p.m., 30 questions by 2:00 p.m., 40 questions by 2:20 p.m., 50 questions by 2:40 p.m., and all 60 questions by 3:00 p.m.
- If you want review time in your time chart to go back over the exam, you will need to reserve review time out of the total exam time. You will then distribute the remaining time in the exam accordingly within the essay or multiple-choice chart for the exam. If you have a three-hour exam and want to reserve 30 minutes to go back over your answers, you will distribute 2 1/2 hours among the actual time to work on the exam questions as indicated in the last two bullet points.
- You will be better prepared for your exams if you do as many practice questions as possible during your studying. Choose practice questions of the type that your professor will have on the exam. Increase the difficulty in the questions as you approach the exam day.
- When you do practice questions for essay exams during the time leading up to the exam, complete at least some of the questions under timed conditions. Treat them just like the real exam questions. Read, analyze, and organize; then write. Practice your timing formula.
- When you do practice questions for multiple-choice or true-false exams during the time leading up to the exam, complete under timed conditions at one sitting at least half the number of questions you expect on the exam. Practice your timing checkpoints and pace during the questions.
- Open-book exams are a trap. You will not have time to look everything up. You need to study for the exam basically as if it were a closed-book exam so that you are confident with the material. Any items that your professor will allow you to have during the exam should be strategically used within the guidelines that you were given. Know exactly what your professor defines as accessible during an open-book exam; you do not want to make a mistake under the honor code for your law school.
- Get a good night's sleep for several inghts before an exam. You want to be awake and alert during the exam. Staying up for extra long hours the night before will not help. And you might oversleep! Eat a nutritious meal before the exam to give your brain cells fuel. If possible with your exam schedule, take two or three hours off after an exam to relax before going back to studying.
All the best wishes to law students getting ready for their exams. Take one day at a time and do the best you can each day. Then just move on to the next study day and next exam. You cannot fix what has already passed, but you can control what is ahead of you. (Amy Jarmon)
April 11, 2012
Are you looking for ways to use time wisely and be more productive?
Exams are rapidly approaching. How are you doing with all of your daily tasks, papers, and exam studying? If you are looking for ways to use your time more wisely and be more productive in that time, here are some suggestions:
Choose your study locations carefully. If studying at the law school stresses you out and you get too distracted at home, here are some possible alternatives to consider: Other academic classroom buildings on campus. The main university library. The Student Union Building. Local coffee shops or fast food restaurants. The business center/function rooms at your apartment complex. A little-used office or conference room at the law firm where you work part-time.
Complete the hardest or least liked task on your daily “to do” list at the first chance you have in the morning. You will get it out of the way and not have it hanging over you all day.
Break every project or study topic into smaller tasks. You can often get a small task done in 15 – 45 minutes instead of looking for multiple hours to finish a larger task or study topic.
Take small breaks roughly every 90 minutes. Get up and walk around for 10 or 15 minutes rather than just stay seated. You will feel more refreshed and be able to focus better after your break.
If you tend to turn small breaks into longer than you wanted to take, use the alarm function on your smartphone to bring you back on time.
Ask a classmate or family member to be your “study conscience” for the remainder of the semester. Give that person permission to point out when you are procrastinating.
Every 3 to 4 hours of studying, take a longer break of at least 30 – 60 minutes so that you can relax before the next intense study session.
Some people need to take a 2-hour break that combines exercise and a meal at the end of the class day before they can re-focus for the evening. By combining exercise with a nutritious meal, you keep two healthy options in your routine.
Pull together the questions you have about course material to this point and get them answered soon by your professors. You will be more likely to learn the material correctly. You also will avoid the last-minute rush during the end of classes and exams. Some professors will only be available by e-mail once classes are over.
Consider condensing sections of your outlines that you have already learned well to half of the current length. Have the condensed version become your master document for exam study for those sections. As you learn additional sections in your longer outline, condense them also. (Begin your condensed outline as a new file and keep the longer version as a separate file in case you need to refer back to it.)
Complete as many practice questions as possible each week. Set aside blocks of time specifically designated to complete questions for each course. Otherwise you are likely to put off doing them.
Be on the lookout for when you are wasting time: between classes, checking e-mail and texts constantly, chatting with friends in the lounge, napping.
Have a series of study tasks that you can do in small amounts of time: using your flashcards, completing a couple of multiple-choice questions, writing out your “to do” list for the next day, going to ask a professor a question, editing a few paper citations.
Balance study group time with individual study. You cannot depend on your group members in the exam. Make sure you know the material and are not lulled into a false sense of security just because the group knows it.
Avoid people who stress you out, tempt you to avoid work, or make you feel inferior. Surround yourself instead with people who remain calm, are focused on their studies, and encourage you.
Get 7-8 hours of sleep every night. Your brain cells need the rest so that you can be more alert and productive. You will get more done in less time if you are well-rested.
Avoid junk food, caffeine, and excessive sugar. Healthy, nutritious meals three times a day will give your brain cells the nutrients they need to perform well.
By being more intentional in your use of time, you can boost your productivity a great deal. Everyone needs to find better ways to use the time available during this crunch time period. (Amy Jarmon)
March 29, 2012
Course Outlines as Master Documents
Making course outlines is a tradition at law schools. However, not all students get the most benefit from their outlines because they do not understand why they are making outlines and how to use them most efficiently and effectively for exam study. Here are some thoughts on outlining:
- If an outline is constructed properly, it will include all of the essential information from one's briefs, casebook, and class notes. In short, one should not have to go back to those materials again. The outline is truly the master document for exam study.
- The outline should be formatted to give the student a 360-degree view of the course: what is the big picture of the course; what are the main concepts and interrelationships among concepts as well as any relevant policy; what are the steps/rules/tests/questions to ask for analysis; and what are the details/fact examples/case names to flesh out the outline.
- The outline should flip the student's thinking from individual cases and minutia to synthesis of the material and the solving of new legal scenarios with the law that is learned through the cases. Except for major cases, cases should become illustrations rather than the focus of the outline.
- The outline is building a toolkit to solve new legal scenarios that will show up on the exam. Include the essential tools (each course may have different types of tools): rules, exceptions to rules, variations on rules, definitions, steps of analysis, questions to ask, bright line tests, policy arguments, etc.
- Additional information from supplements may also go into an outline. However, remember that students want to learn their professor's version of a course and not a supplement's version. If a student understands a topic fully, s/he may never look at a study supplement.
- The student wants to set aside time each week to review a section of an outline intensely - this is the review to learn the material as though the exam were next week. This intense review should be the time to gain full understanding and grapple with the material. Any questions that remain should be answered as quickly as possible by visiting the professor on office hours.
- In addition, a student wants to read the entire outline for a course through at least once a week - this is the review to keep all of the topics fresh (long after the intense review of early topics and before one has intensely reviewed some topics that are newly added to the outline).
- After one has intensely reviewed a section of the outline, it makes sense to do some practice questions to see if the material is really understood and can be applied to a new legal scenario. However, wait several days before doing practice questions. Otherwise, getting them right will happen because the material was just reviewed.
- After a topic in the outline is intensely reviewed and practice questions on the topic have shown that the material is truly understood, condense that portion of the outline by at least half. Start a second document that is the condensed outline so that the longer version is never lost.
- Approximately one - two weeks before the exam, condense the entire outline to 5-10 pages of essentials for the material so far. The essentials will bring back the more detailed information if the material has been studied properly. Use the condensed outline to recall the information.
- Condense the shorter outline again to the front and back of a sheet of paper. This condensed version can be memorized as a checklist. When the proctor in the exam tells you to begin, quickly write your checklist on scrap paper and use it as a guide throughout the exam.
Remember that the goal is to learn the material for an exam that is limited in time and will test students' knowledge solving new legal problems based on the semester's emphases. Students are not learning the material to go out and practice in that legal specialty the next day. If students tend to get bogged down in minutia, they need to remember that studying outlines has a specific goal in mind. (Amy Jarmon)
December 06, 2011
Some Tips for a Less Stressful and More Productive Exam Experience
During final exams, there are several things you can do to make this time period less stressful and more productive. Here are some suggestions:
Promote a positive attitude. You were admitted to law school because your law school thinks you can succeed at this endeavor. Law school is demanding, but you can do this – keep the faith about your abilities. If you are having trouble staying positive, try the following:
- Post inspirational quotes or scriptures around your apartment so you see them in every room.
- Give yourself pep talks during the day – emphasize that you can succeed.
- Visualize yourself sitting in your exams and knowing the answers to every question.
- Avoid other students who are negative and instead spend time with students who are upbeat.
- Remember that you are still the same talented, successful, outstanding person you were when you walked into your law school for the first time.
Keep grades in perspective. You do not need 100% for an A in law school. Students receive A grades in some courses with only 70% of the possible points on the exam. You have approximately 90 credits in your law degree (more or less depending on your school). One course is a very small percentage of those grades. Remember that C and C+ grades are respectable in law school – you are not a failure if you receive these grades. After this semester, you can evaluate your study skills and improve your grades. The academic support/success office at your law school can help you become a better student.
Lower your stress by taking care of yourself. Do not succumb to the temptation to pull all-nighters, survive on caffeine and junk food, or ignore any illness.
- Lack of sleep is one of the main reasons why students perform poorly on exams that they studied for diligently. You cannot focus and get on paper what you know if you are not well-rested and alert. An extra hour of sleep will do you more good than an extra hour of studying.
- Eat nutritious meals. Your body and brain need energy for the “heavy lifting” they need to do. Sit down and eat a full meal rather than standing at the sink and gulping down your food. Eat real food rather than junk food or highly processed meals.
- Get exercise during the exam period. Spend at least 30 minutes at some activity several times during the week. Walking, sit-ups, yoga, running, or whatever will help you expend the stress built up in your body. It doesn’t have to be grueling, it just has to be active.
- If you are ill, get medical attention. Do not let your illness worsen because you don’t want to take the time to see a doctor. You will not perform at your best in an exam if you are sick.
Take some breaks so your brain can rest and continue filing what you have learned. You need breaks to renew your focus and ability to learn. Every 90 minutes take at least a 10 minute break. Every 3-4 hours take at least 30 minutes – 1 hour for a break. As you do more and more studying, you may well need breaks more frequently as your brain gets overloaded and tired. If you cannot absorb anything more, take off at least 2-3 hours before trying to study any additional time.
Eat breakfast or lunch before your exams. Do not go to a morning exam without eating any breakfast. Do not go to an afternoon exam without eating any lunch. Your body and brain need fuel. Eat lightly and cautiously if you tend to get nervous, but still eat.
Do light review the night before a morning exam or the morning before an afternoon exam. Heavy-duty studying during these times will likely increase your stress rather than your learning. Pace yourself in studying so that you can just read through your outline again and do some relatively easy practice questions in these time periods. Think of these times as “warm up” exercises before the big match.
If at all possible, take time off after an exam. If your exam schedule allows it, take the rest of the day off and start up again the next morning. At minimum take off 2-3 hours after an exam before you go back to studying. You will be more productive with a break after the stress of an exam.
Good luck on exams to all law students out there ! (Amy Jarmon)
November 29, 2011
Free Trials for Graphic Organizer Software
Students and ASP professionals are always looking for ways to turn information into visuals. There are several products that provide free trials of their software. With the one exception noted, you will lose your work after the 30-day period unless you purchase the software. So, print out what you make before your trial period ends if you are not going to purchase the software.
SmartDraw: www.smartdraw.com; free download (doesn't say how long the trial lasts)
NovaMind5: www.novamind.com; 30-day free trial
Inspiration: www.inspiration.com; 30-day free trial
The Brain: www.thebrain.com; 30-day free trial; will be able to access Personal Brain software after 30 days, but cannot edit or make new graphic organizers - the features in the purchased product are amazing, but this one is probably not within most student budgets.
Have fun making your graphic organizers for exam study and workshop presentations. (Amy Jarmon)
November 19, 2011
Pretty Please with Sugar on Top
It is time to call in the reinforcements. For most law schools, exams are approximately 2 or 3 weeks away. That means that law students need to focus on studying and ask for help from family and friends on life's more mundane issues.
You may want to consider the following:
- Relay to friends and family that you are going into hibernation mode and will not be available until semester break to paint the living room, clean out the attic, plan your sister's June wedding, or shop 'til you drop. Tell them you love them, and promise a celebration after exams.
- Warn friends and family that you will be returning phone calls and replying to e-mail less regularly and to be patient if you do not get back to them right away for non-emergencies. (If you are really gutsy, ask them not to send you funny e-mails, chain poems, and You Tube video clips so that you can spend less time sorting e-mails.)
- Alert those who are fashionistas in your life that you are swapping high style for comfort, low-maintenance duds until the end of exams - less laundry, less ironing, less dry cleaning - unless they want to provide you with "wardrobe mistress" assistance.
- If you live with someone who is not a law student, see if you can negotiate that your (roommate, spouse, partner) take on extra chores until exams are over in return for your doing more chores throughout the semester break.
- If you live with a law student, negotiate swapping off days for chores so that each of you can have some uninterrupted study time without dishes, vacuuming, dusting, and more. Alternatively, do a "whirling dervish" cleaning together now and then settle for the bare minimum of picking up clutter and washing dishes.
- If you own a dog, ask your parents if you can bring their "grand-dog" with you at Thanksgiving for an "autumn camp" experience until your exams are over. You love Fluffy or Fido, but now is not the time to be rushing home constantly for walks, feedings, and play-time.
- If Auntie Em loves to cook and lives nearby (or you will see her at Thanksgiving), ask if she would be willing to let you pay her for the ingredients and her time in order to make you several large casseroles for your freezer - law students need nourishment during studying.
- Consider paying the neighbor's teenager to rake leaves, shovel snow, or do other outside work that can be time-consuming.
- Ask friends who are already running errands in that part of town if they would mind picking up a few groceries, a prescription, or other items for you if you give them the money and a list.
- If you have children, ask friends and family to babysit, set up play dates, have sleep overs, and generally provide some face time with your children so you can get some blocks of uninterrupted study time. Offer to reciprocate over the semester break.
If there are other areas of your life that you need help with during your study crunch, speak up. In fact, beg, plead, cajole, and get on your knees if you have to do so. You can and will make it up to them over the semester break. (Amy Jarmon)
November 17, 2011
Students are really tired at this point in the semester. If they have stayed on top of things, they will be able to have more down time during the Thanksgiving holidays. That should help to recharge their batteries. If they are behind, they should still get some rest during the break; but they will need to study as well.
Here are some things to consider to keep yourself motivated during the remainder of the semester and through exams:
- If your law school reading and exam periods begin after only one week of classes post-Thanksgiving, consider doing all of your reading for the last week over the Thanksgiving break. Then review before class for 30 - 45 minutes to refresh your memory. Not having to read the last week of classes will give you lots of exam review time - a motivator in itself.
- Set realistic goals for each week for exam study. What subtopics or topics can you intensely review for each exam course? How many practice questions can you complete? If you set unrealistic goals, you will de-motivate yourself; you will become discouraged when it becomes obvious that you will not meet the goals.
- For each exam course, make a list of topics and subtopics that you must learn before the final exam. By focusing on subtopics, it will make the list very long. However, it is easier to find time to study one or two subtopics than to find time for an entire topic. You will feel less overwhelmed because you can make progress in small increments. Also, you will be able to cross off subtopics more quickly than entire topics. Thus, you will see your progress more easily and stay motivated.
- Read each of your outlines through from cover to cover each week for each exam course. This reading is not to learn everything - that is what you will do in intense review of the topics or subtopics. Instead this additional outline reading is to keep all of the information fresh no matter how long it has been since you intensely reviewed a topic or will be before you will get to intense review for some topics. You will feel better about your exam review as you catch yourself saying "I know this mataerial" or "I remember all of this information" about prior topics that you studied. You will motivate yourself for future topics waiting for intense review by realizing "I'll be able to learn this" or "I remember some of this already even though I haven't studied it carefully."
- Take your breaks strategically. Sprinkle short 5-minute breaks into longer 3- or 4-hour study blocks. Get up and walk arouond or stretch on those breaks rather than sitting still. After a large block of study time, take a longer break to exercise or eat a meal. Use the breaks as rewards for sticking to your task until you have completed what you planned to finish.
- Surround yourself with encouragers. Avoid classmates who are all doom and gloom. Have phone conversations with family and friends who will cheer you on and support you. Find classmates who are willing to work together to keep all of you in the support group motivated and on track.
- Plan several fun things that you want to do over the semester break: taking a day trip with friends, going to the cinema several times, attending a concert, playing basketball with a younger sibling, shopping for new clothes. By having things to look forward to, you can tell yourself "I just need to keep up the hard work for a few more weeks and then I get to do (fill in the blank) as a reward."
Think about individual strategies that work for you to stay motivated but might not apply to a classmate. Examples of motivators for getting your work done might be: time with your spouse, time with your child, time with your pet, spiritual devotion time, time for a longer run on the weekend. (Amy Jarmon)
November 12, 2011
The Fallacy of Mere Memorization
Law students try at times to substitute memorization of the black letter law for actual understanding of their course material. They are then surprised that they receive grades in the "C" range in return for their efforts.
The focus on memorization is a leftover from many undergraduate courses where the professor just wanted students to regurgitate information on a page for an "A" grade. The difference in law school is that students have to go beyond mere memorization. Memorizing the rules, exceptions to rules, methodologies, policy arguments, and so forth is essential to a good grade in law school; but memorization is just the beginning of the learning process rather than the end goal.
Lawyers in essence are problem solvers. They are confronted with client problems that they must solve either by prior knowledge or through research. The easy questions are dealt with fairly quickly. The hard questions are the ones that consume their days and our court system. To problem solve, lawyers must understand the law and how to apply it to legal scenarios.
Law students must also be able to problem solve. On their exams, they are faced with new legal scenarios that they must analyze. To do so effectively, they need to understand the law that applies to the situation and explain their analysis in detail. Yes, they need to have memorized the law so that they can state it accurately. But without understanding they will be able to apply it only superficially.
Memorization is the start. Understanding is the key. Application is the reward. (Amy Jarmon)
November 09, 2011
Some Common Errors in Exam Study
Students often study for exams in ways that are counter-productive. They may adopt old undergraduate methods for exam study because they do not understand how law school exams are different. Well-meaning advice from upper-division law students may lead them into methods that go against memory and learning theory. Here are some common techniques that do not work and why they are not wise:
Re-reading cases is rarely an effective strategy. The professor is not going to ask a student to tell him everything the student knows about a case. Instead the professor is going to ask the student to apply the essentials from all the cases on a topic to a new fact scenario. Time is better spent on pulling together the topics and subtopics with the law for each. The cases become illustrations in that bigger picture.
Reading an entire study aid right before the exam. There is too much information to absorb at the end of the semester when reading an entire study aid. The study aid may not match the specific professor's version of the course which will lead a student to learn the material in a way that actually makes it harder for the professor to find points on the exam. Study aids tend to include multiple topics or subtopics that the professor never touched on in class.
Choosing to complete very few practice questions. Exams in law school are all about applying the law to new fact scenarios. Practice questions allow a student to check understanding of the material and ability to spot issues. Practice also allows one to get really good at organizing answers and writing them out - especially if some questions are done under timed conditions.
Treating all exam courses equally may lead to trouble. It is the rare student who has a truly equal situation in all courses. The amount of time spent for exam study in each course should consider: the amount of material covered in the course, the difficulty of the course for the student, the amount of black letter law to memorize, the number of practice questions to be completed, the format of the exam, and any other variables specific to a course and professor. Time should be divided among the courses to reflect these variables.
Studying X course for a week, then Y course for a week, then Z course for a week, and so forth. By focusing on one course to the exclusion of other courses for exam study, the student merely provides time to forget the material for the courses not studied. By the time the first course is cycled back to, even more material will be forgotten in that course. It is better to complete exam study in each course each week if at all possible.
Not preparing for classes in order to study for exams more. This strategy can be counter-productive because one is limiting deep understanding of the new material that will be on the final exam. By depending just on the highlights covered in class, the student loses the context as to why the law works the way it does.
Taking all of one's remaining absences at the end of the semester in order to study for exams more. Professors often give information about the exam during the last classes. Many professors will pull the course together at the end. Some professors will test heavily on the end material in the course. For all of these reasons, missing class is not a good idea.
Smart exam studying is the key to success. By using time and techniques to be efficient and effective, students can get higher grades on their exams. (Amy Jarmon)
November 04, 2011
Use Study Groups Wisely
Many law students are forming study groups for the first time at this point in the semester. Instead of using a group throughout the semester to consolidate material and compare outlines, they are narrowing their focus to problem areas in understanding and practice questions.
Study groups can be very effective. Students may benefit greatly from the practice question discussions when they realize they would have missed certain nuances in the law or confused steps in the analysis. In addition, working through problems together helps one monitor preparedness on a topic in comparison to classmates. Finally, study groups can serve an accountability function - if you promise the group you will do something before the next meeting, you have the motivation to stay on task.
However, students need to make sure that they do not overuse or depend on a study group to the detriment of their individual learning. It has to be a balance. After all, one's study group cannot answer the questions for you in the actual exam.
Consider these points to monitor the balance between study group and individual time:
- Make a list for each course of all topics with subtopics that you must learn before the final exam. Use monthly calendars for November and December. Mark your last day of classes. Fill in your exam schedule.
- Lay out on the calendar for each day through the end of classes which subtopics for which courses you will personally learn during the remaining time. This method helps you front-load learning so that you leave only a realistic amount for the exam period itself.
- Consider how much time you need for the grunt memory work on rules, exceptions to rules, methodologies, and other information. Determine how you will do your memory drills: flashcards, writing the rules ten timex, reciting the rules aloud, mind maps for each rule. Distribute that time throughout the calendars.
- Decide when you will do practice questions with your study group to get group input. You will get more from these sessions if all of the members think about the questions ahead of time and come with outlined answers.
- Leave time for practice questions that you will complete on your own. You should outline every one and write out as many as possible. Take some of the questions under exam conditions. (See Dennis Tonsing's November 2nd posting for more information on scheduling your exam study and practice questions.)
- If you find that group time is taking away from your ability to learn the material in time for the exam, moderate your group time. For example, if the group wants to meet for four hours, perhaps you will go for the portion that focuses on the course you find most difficult but not stay for discussion on other courses. Or you might go for the practice question discussion but not the more general discussion of course material. Explain to the group why you are not attending the full meetings so there will not be hard feelings.
- If the study group becomes non-productive because of personalities, too much socializing, or other negative dynamics, diplomatically resign from the group. You may be able to find one study partner who will be more compatible than trying to stay with the group.
Consider the efficiency of being in a group (wise use of time) and the effectiveness from being in a group ("oomph" out of the time). (Amy Jarmon)
November 02, 2011
Fall Finals Study Plan
Thanksgiving approaches. Time for students to commit their study plans to writing! Here are my recommendations for students who want to prepare for exams AND enjoy their families and friends during a (partially) relaxed Thanksgiving break.
For each course, set target dates for completion of your outline (course summary), early completion of your briefing for class, and the number of practice exam questions you intend to answer. Thanksgiving Day is Thursday, November 24, 2011. Usually, law schools have no classes on the day before, Wednesday, November 23. Reading week and exams follow shortly after the semester resumes.
For many students, time with family and friends is too important to neglect at this time of year. Plan to relax! Writing out your detailed study schedule before November (then sticking to it) will allow you to relax, because you will see the relaxation as PART of the study plan instead of interference with it.
Example for Contracts class:
A. Outline completed by November 14.
B. All cases briefed for class by November 16.
C. 50 MBE questions answered by November 22.
D. 50 single-issue essay questions answered in writing by November 24.
E. 20 one-hour essay questions answered in outline form before reading week.
F. 15 one-hour essay questions answered under exam conditions by 3 days before exam date.
The next step is to break each of those (A through F) down into components. How many hours per week/day do you realistically estimate it will take you to complete your outline, and to brief the cases ahead of the class schedule? Spread those hours out on your daily calendar.
Do the same for the questions you intend to answer, including notes as to the source of the questions. You can start gathering questions today. Here's an idea: exchange questions with your study group, to share the burden of finding questions that address the issues you need to focus on.
Do this for each class, and you'll see that you have enough time between now and the date of each exam to prepare fully, so that you can enter the exam room with well-deserved confidence!
Look in your law library for an old issue of Student Lawyer Magazine, an American Bar Association publication ... Volume 33, Number 7, dated March 2005, includes an article I wrote entitled, "A Plan for Your Exams." The article provides a more detailed explanation of this exam study plan! (djt)