October 21, 2011
Practice Exams Given by 1L Professors
We are entering the time period at our law school when many of our first-year professors in the doctrinal courses give their students practice exams. The exam feedback varies by professor: some give students "grades" (check-plus, check, check-minus, for example). Some professors review the exams in class and hand out an answer key. Exams are usually one fact pattern if essay; they are 10-15 questions if multiple-choice. Some professors will write combination exams.
It always surprises me how many of our first-year students do not take full advantage of these opportunities. Some students choose not to take the practice exams. Those students will go into the final exam without any experience of a law school exam. Some students who take the exams do not study for them at all. Those students often excuse their poor performance with "If I had studied, I would have gotten a good grade." However, that statement may not be true at all - they will never know.
Practice exams allow students to monitor several things for fact-pattern essay exams:
- Do they understand the material as well as they thought?
- Are they able to spot the issues?
- Can they precisely state the rules?
- Are they able to write an organized answer applying the law to the facts with arguments for both parties?
- Can they perform well under timed conditions?
Practice exams allow students to monitor several things for multiple-choice exams:
- Do they understand the material as well as they thought?
- Can they recognize the nuances in the law when choosing a "best" answer?
- Can they perform well under timed conditions?
Students often talk about wanting feedback so that they know how they are doing. Hopefully more students will realize that practice exams allow them to gain feedback - even if it is not of the graded variety (Amy Jarmon)
October 08, 2011
New Exam Skills Book
I just received a review copy of Barry Friedman and John CP Goldberg's Open Book, Succeeding on Exams from the First Day of Law School. While I have not had the chance to read the book closely, my first impression is that this is a book we will be seeing a lot in ASP. It is relatively short (180 pages) and uses cartoons and humor throughout. The structure of the book is clear; I can flip to the table of contents to find chapters on specific topics (IRACing, outlining, etc) without having to search. It starts with an introduction on how to use the book, which is especially useful, since most students do not know how to use exam skills books.
There are many good ASP books out there, but I think this one will get added to the pile I use and recommend to students. (RCF)
May 04, 2011
Keeping grades in perspective
It is exam time. Angst is in the air. So many students are seeing their grades as life and death matters.
Losing perspective is easy In the middle of all the stress, studying, and single-minded focus on exams. The competitive atmosphere is not helping matters. It all seems so incredibly important in the fish bowl of law school.
Here are some things to keep in mind about grades on exams:
- An exam measures knowledge on one set of questions, on one day, at one point in time. No exam is able to measure everything that was in the course. No exam is able to measure everything that a student may have learned from a course.
- A grade reflects an assessment in just X credits out of Y credits required for graduation. If the course is 3 credits out of 90 credits for graduation, then there are 87 other credits that can reflect ability when one course exam proves disappointing.
- Employers look for upward trends in grades. A weak semester can be overcome by future strong semesters.
- There are jobs for people who are not in the top 10% - 25% - 30% - 50% of the class. There are also plenty of attorneys working who were in the bottom half of the class in law school. All of those attorneys have jobs at law firms, government agencies, and non-profits with competent professionals committed to serving clients well.
- Plenty of attorneys who were not the "cream" at their law schools prove themselves in practice. Law firms unwilling to consider them right out of law school based on grades will later woo them based on reputation.
- Focus on taking one day at a time. Perseverance and hard work will improve the chance of good grades. Fretting over grades merely steals energy from more important tasks.
- Avoid talking about exams after they are over. The issues that others say they spotted may have been rabbit trails. Some students will purposely pretend there were issues on an exam to upset others in their studying. You cannot change anything about a completed exam. It is more valuable to turn your attention to the next exam.
- Do not focus on your feelings about an exam. I can recount many stories of students certain they did poorly who end up with very good grades - they focus on how they feel about the exam and do not know the big picture of overall performance for the entire class.
Ten years from now, no one hiring you for a new opportunity in practice will likely ask about your specific grades. They will want to know how well you perform in the practice of law. They will want to know whether you are ethical, hard-working, committed to clients, and a good fit with their current attorneys and staff.
April 20, 2011
Unusual fonts may aid in learning
Helpful tips for students:
1) We learn better from re-working the material.
This piece of gold is hidden on the second page of the article. It's saying what we have said in ASP for ages; reading a canned outline, or memorizing the outline of a 2L who booked the course, will not increase learning. Re-working your own notes into an outline will help you learn the material.
2) Try one of the unusual font types for your outline.
"Think of it this way, you can’t skim material in a hard to read font, so putting text in a hard-to-read font will force you to read more carefully"
3) We overestimate our own ability.
One of the great lessons from law school exams: if you feel like you nailed it, you probably didn't. The material you are being asked to learn and apply on a law school exam is difficult and complicated. The majority of exams you will encounter as a law student have more complications and nuanced issues than you have time to answer. You should feel as if you didn't hit everything. If you feel like you knew everything on the exam, you probably oversimplified the issues.
4) We all take shortcuts. We all forget we take shortcuts.
Students should always take practice exams before finals. Actually taking the exam is important. Many students will read the fact pattern, "answer it in their head" or take a couple of notes, and then read the model answer. This is more harmful than helpful. Students will unconsciously overestimate what they understood if they have not taken the test and written a complete answer. This gives them a false sense of confidence. Students need to take a cold, hard look at what they understood and what they missed. the best strategy is to take the practice test under timed conditions with a study group, and correct answers as a group. This gives students a chance to discuss what they did not understand. It's easy to lie to ourselves, it's harder to lie to a group.
Summary of the article:
"Concentrating harder. Making outlines from scratch. Working through problem sets without glancing at the answers. And studying with classmates who test one another." These are the keys to learning more efficiently and effectively. (RCF)
April 07, 2011
Making time when there seems to be none
A common theme in my discussion with students this week is that there are not enough hours in the day. Many of them are starting to get stressed over the amount of work to fit into the amount of time left in the semester.
Part of the problem is that they are trying to juggled end-of-the-semester assignments and papers with ongoing daily tasks and review for final exams. It can seem overwhelming if one does not use good time management skills.
Here are some tips:
- Realize that you control your time. With intentional behavior, a student can take control of the remainder of the semester rather than feeling as though it is a roller coaster ride. Make time for what really matters.
- Work for progress in every course. If one focuses on one course to the detriment of the other courses, it creates a cycle of catch-up and stress. A brief might be due in legal writing, but that should not mean dropping everything else for one or two weeks. Space out work on a major assignment over the days available and continue with daily work in all other courses.
- Use small pockets of time for small tasks. Even 15 minutes can be used effectively! Small amounts of time are useful for memory drills with flashcards or through rule recitation out loud. 20 minutes can be used to review class notes and begin to condense the material for an outline. 30 minutes can be used for a few multiple-choice practice questions or to review a sub-topic for a course.
- Capture wasted time and consolidate it. Students often waste up to an hour at a time chatting with friends, playing computer games, watching You Tube, answering unimportant e-mails, and more. Look for time that can be used more productively. If several wasted blocks of time during a day can be re-captured and consolidated into a longer block, a great deal can be accomplished! For example, reading for class can often be shifted in the day to capture several separate, wasted 30-minute slots and consolidate them into another block of perhaps 1 1/2 hours.
- Use windfall time well. It is not unusual in a day to benefit from unexpected blocks of time that could be used. A ride is late. A professor lets the class out early. A study group meets for less time than expected. An appointment with a professor is shorter than scheduled. Rather than consider the time as free time, use it for a study task.
- Realize the power of salvaged blocks of time. If a student captures 1/2 hour of study time a day, that is 3 1/2 extra hours per week. An hour per day adds up to 7 hours per week. Time suddenly is there that seemed to be unavailable.
- Break down exam review into sub-topics. You may not be able to find time to review the entire topic of adverse possession intensely, but you can likely find time to review its first element intensely. By avoiding the "all or nothing mentality" in exam review, progress is made in smaller increments. It still gets the job done!
- Evaluate your priorities and use of time three times a day. Every morning look at your tasks for the day and evaluate the most effective and efficient ways to accomplish everything. Schedule when you will get things done during the day. Do the same thing at lunch time and make any necessary changes. Repeat the exercise at dinner time.
- Cut out the non-essentials in life. Save shopping for shoes for that August wedding (unless perhaps you are the bride) until after exams. Stock up on non-perishable food staples now rather than shop for them every week. Run errands in a group now and get it over with to allow concentrating on studies for the rest of the semester.
- Exercise in appropriate amounts. If you are an exercise fanatic spending more than 7 hours a week on workouts, it is time to re-prioritize. You may have the best abs among law students at your school, but you need to workout your brain cells at this point in the semester.
- Boost your brain power in the time you have. Sleep at least 7 hours a night. Eat nutritional meals. Your brain cells will be able to do the academic heavy lifting in less time if you do these simple things.
So, take a deep breath. Take control of your time. And good luck with the remainder of the semester. (Amy Jarmon)
April 02, 2011
Use common sense when preparing for exams
In the stress of studying for exams, some students lose their common sense. They exhibit behaviors (either acts or failures to act) that seem illogical after the fact. They say things they will regret later. They make judgment calls that are inadequate.
To help students avoid a lack of common sense, the following list includes some observations and suggestions:
- Study the things you do not know and not just the things you are comfortable with already. Students often avoid the topics or courses that they see as confusing or difficult.
- Big blocks of time are usually unattainable at this point in the semester. A whole Saturday to outline Y course is elusive. Break large tasks down into small tasks and complete parts in smaller time slots so that there is progress on the task.
- Spend time studying rather than merely organizing to study. Students often waste time getting ready to study rather than just getting down to it.
- Unless a professor has indicated that something is not on the exam, study it. Everything is considered fair game by most professors if it was assigned.
- Attend all of the remaining classes for a course - even if allowed absences will be unused for the semester. Professors provide information about the exam and pull together material in the last weeks of class.
- Learn the professor's version of the course. Commercial study supplements are written for a national (or state) audience. They can be helpful in clarifying points. However, they may use different rule versions, different steps of analysis, or different emphases. The professor will find the points more quickly in an exam answer if it is formatted and explained to match what was taught in class.
- Complete as many practice questions as possible. Just knowing the law is not enough. Students need to apply the law to new fact scenarios on the exam. Students also need to practice any test-taking techniques so they will be on auto-pilot.
- Complete practice questions that are as similar as possible to the format the professor will have on the exam: essay for essay exams; multiple choice for multiple-choice exams; short answer for short-answer exams. First choice should be questions written by your professor if those are available. Second choice should be questions with similar format and complexity.
- Complete at least some practice questions under test conditions (on a timed basis, closed book, or other appropriate conditions). By practicing under similar conditions, one gets used to working within those constraints.
- One has to study thoroughly for open-book exams. There is never time to look up much material during an exam. Do not be fooled into lazy studying because of an open-book format.
- Individual study must take place even when one has a good study group. The study group cannot confer about the answers during the exam. It will not be helpful that everyone else in the study group was knowledgeable about X topic if the student writing the answer on the topic is not.
- Shortcuts are not the same as efficient and effective studying. Shortcuts usually focus on someone else's understanding (example, other students' outlines) rather than individual processing for understanding.
- Get help from professors, teaching assistants, tutors, or other academic support resources now. Student positions often end on the last day of classes because those students need to prepare for their own exams. Professors are often at home grading during exam periods. Some professors have cut-off dates for questions.
- Remember that others are listening and watching. Overly competitive actions, rude behavior, mean remarks, or other inappropriate behaviors and comments will be remembered. It is easier to think twice before speaking or acting than to apologize later.
- Stay away from the law school for studying if it is too stressful. Study in another environment if it will be helpful: other academic buildings, the university library, a coffee shop.
- Stay away from law students who are procrastinating, whining, belittling others, or exhibiting other negative behaviors. Seek out those law students who are focused on productive work and will support your efforts.
- Sleep is critical to exam performance. A minimum of 7 hours is needed. Students often skimp on sleep and then realize in an exam that they are too tired to think.
- Nutrition is critical to exam performance. Brain cells need fuel. Caffeine, sugar, and carbohydrates do not equal a balanced diet. Students often turn to sodas, energy drinks, pizza, other fast food, and candy instead of keeping the real food groups on their plates.
- Exercise is a wonderful stress buster. Now that the weather for some of us has gotten nice (sorry about the latest snow for those of you in Massachusetts or elsewhere), it is a good idea for students to walk around outside for 15-30 minutes for a study break. 30-60 minutes of exercise three times a week can make a big difference.
Evaluating study choices carefully during this time period can have big benefits. Taking care of oneself also has a big payoff. (Amy Jarmon)
April 01, 2011
Do students know what is good for them? Do they care?
The ABA Journal and the National Law Journal reported on an law review article that studied laptop use among law students. The students self-reported their laptop use in class, including their feelings on whether laptops aid their learning. Students overwhelmingly reported using laptops, and overwhelmingly reported that they used thier laptops to "goof off" during class. I am going to bypass the issues that have been argued in other blogs (should laptops be banned in class, are professors failing to teach their students). Without a study that tracks laptop use in class and student grades, I am left to wonder, do students actually know what is good for them? If something feels good and it is satisfying, people will report that the activity helps them. Here, students reported laptops aided their learning, but that really means they find laptop use satisfying. What I want to see is an empirical study of the grades and attitudes of students who use laptops, comparing students who hand-write their class notes, students who use a laptop but do not goof off, and students who use a laptop and admit to goofing off in class. I would like to see their grade trajectory throughout law school, as well as their attitudes about goofing off, if it does have an impact on their grades. This study has yet to be performed (to my knowledge).
There are so many things we could learn from a study that tracks laptops and grades. It would be a wonderful diagnostic tool in ASP; having this information to share with students would help when students come to our offices to discuss lackluster performance. Assuming the data demonstrated a correlation between goofing off on a laptop in class and poor grades, I would have a better idea of what is behind less-than-stellar performance. I would approach a student who does not "goof off" in class, yet struggles, quite differently from a student who uses a laptop and plays during class while telling me that the laptop helps them learn. Right now, I don't make that assumption because I don't know if laptop use in class has a correlation with grades. I know playing on a laptop is rude and disrespectful, to me and to peers, but unless I have hard data showing a correlation between laptop use and grades, students are less likely to give up the laptop because of poor law school performance.
There is another issue hidden in laptop use that extends beyond exam performance; if students knew it had an impact on grades, would they care? I think this brings up issues about how we teach and student engagement in class. It also implies issues with motivation and depression. I know most of the pre-law students I work with are excited about law school, and motivated to do their best. If those same students become apathetic about their own performance, choosing to use a laptop even if it hurts their grades, we need a more serious examination of student mental and emotional health during their 1L year. Thanks to the amazing work of Larry Kriegar and Ken Sheldon, we know law school has a deleterious effect on law student mental health. But does depression extend to self-defeating behaviors, or is the effect limited to personal and professional outlook?
I wish we had more people doing empirical work on the behavior, motivation, and learning occuring in law schools. Larry and Ken are prolific, but we need more people doing more of this work. I think this is a problem resulting, in part, from the lack of research time and funds that go to law school professionals that work in legal writing and academic services. The people with the most time in the trenches with students, who would be best able to perform a large-scale empirical study, are the same people who are non-tenure track, and have least access to research funding. I am hoping some intrepid souls take on this challenge and produce more scholarship that relates directly to student academic success and health.
November 23, 2010
Did you hear what I heard?
Professors are winding down their classes. Statements are being dropped left and right about what will or will not be on the exam. Details about the exam format, number of questions, time limits, and other matters are being given out in class. Tips for exam study are being voiced. Review sessions are pulling together the course material.
I could talk to eight students in the same class and get totally different answers if I asked about the upcoming exam. Four of the students might tell me all about the exam - though the specificity may vary. Two students might tell me contradictory information to what the other four heard the professor say. And two students might tell me that the professor has not said anything about the exam. (I am not making up this scenario - it happens every week. The numbers within the eight might vary, but the reality is the same.)
It amazes me that as all of the professors' comments to help students succeed on exams occur, so many students miss the content entirely or at least the details. Some students miss out because they decided now is the time to take any leftover class absences they are allotted - they are not present. Some students miss out because they are tired of classes and do not focus most class periods - they are comatose. Some students miss out because they are too busy surfing the net, answering e-mails, or playing Spider Solitaire during class - they are irresponsible.
Now, more than ever, is the time to become an active listener! Zoning out is a risky choice. So, go to every class and pay very close attention. There is gold in them there hills. (Amy Jarmon)
November 17, 2010
Keeping a positive attitude
Over the 9 years that I have been doing academic support with law students, I have become more and more convinced that a positive attitude is a must for this period in the semester. When law students begin to focus on the negative and lose their self-esteem, they handicap themselves in their studying.
Consequently, I give a lot of pep talks. But, I cannot be with them 24 hours a day to keep that positive attitude going. So, here are some of the things that I suggest they can do to stay focused on the positive:
- Post positive messages around the apartment. For one student, these messages might be famous quotes. For another student, they may be scriptures. For another, inspirational pictures rather than words may be more helpful. (Personally, I watch Susan Boyle's first appearance on Britain's Got Talent on You-Tube whenever I want inspiration for beating the odds - talk about a positive attitude when everyone is snickering before you open your mouth to sing!)
- Ask an encourager to phone or e-mail every day. A family member or friend whose job is to keep you focused on the positive can be a valuable asset. Having someone who cares enough to believe in your abilities is priceless.
- Visualize your own success. Athletes often visualize themselves succeeding in whatever they are trying to accomplish: a new height for a pole vaulter, a difficult jump for a figure skater, a faster flip turn for a swimmer. Law students can use visualization to picture themselves walking into an exam, being confident in every question's answer, and completing the exam on time.
- Remember that people learn differently. You are the same intelligent, successful person as when you arrived at your law school. You may learn at a different pace than others. You may have different learning styles. Determine how you need to learn and work for understanding rather than measure yourself against what others do. If they have a technique that will work for you, adopt it. But do not try to become someone that you are not.
- Forget about grades. Grades will not come out until January, and there is no way of knowing now what your grades will be. Focus on today. Finish today what needs to be done. It is the daily accumulation of knowledge that gets the grades. Focusing now on January grades takes one's eye off the ball.
- Avoid people who are toxic. There are always a few law students who want to make others feel stupid and who play games to panic those who are less confident. You do not have to agree to be the victim. Walk away. Do not listen to their ploys.
- Study somewhere different than the law school. Law students often tell me that they feel they have to study non-stop at the law school during the last weeks. Then they tell me how stressed the law school makes them feel. My response? Go somewhere else to study: the main university library, another academic building, the student union meeting rooms, a coffeehouse.
- Keep your perspective about law school in the scheme of life. As bad as your day may seem, it is really a blessing. Lots of people would love to have the opportunity you have. Each day millions of people in our world are without food, water, health care, shelter, and education. Law school is not so difficult in comparison.
- Up your number of hours of sleep. If you are well-rested, you will be more likely to stay positive. Things look much brighter when you have enough sleep. And you absorb more, retain more, and are more productive. Get a minimum of 7 hours and try for 8 hours.
- Add exercise as a break from studying. Exercise is a valuable stress-buster. Whether you just walk around your apartment complex, run a mile, or do 25 sit-ups it will help you expend stress. Instead of skipping exercise, add in at least 1/2 hour three times a week.
- List three nice things you did during the day. Before you go to bed, think of three things you did that were acts of kindness. It may be holding a door, giving change for the vending machine, or lending your notes to a classmate. No matter how small, the acts of kindness will make you feel good about yourself. And before you know it, you will be able to count more times than three when you were a blessing to someone else.
When you are in the thick of law school, it is hard to realize that there are simple ways to get your perspective back. Practicing even just one or two of these methods can make a difference in your attitude. And the more of these steps you follow, the more positive you will feel. (Amy Jarmon)
April 22, 2010
It's triage time again
We have seven class days left. I am meeting lots of students who are brand new to my ASP services. These students are usually panicky. For the most part, they are extremely behind. We are talking no outlines or, best case, last outlined in Week 4 of the semester. If I am lucky, they have at least been reading for class (though usually not briefing).
Welcome to ASP triage work. I want to ask "What were you thinking?" I don't. First of all, we do not have the time right now for that discussion. Second, I do not want to risk sending them "over the edge" and flat-lining any chances we have of fixing the situation to some extent.
Here are a few of the emergency measures that I suggest to them:
- Make every minute count. Do not waste time. Only undertake studying that gets results. Always consider what the payback will be for the exam (or paper or project) when starting a task.
- Keep up with current class reading. Many students are tempted to stop reading for class to find more study time. This strategy is a bad idea because then they are then lost on the current material which will also be on the exam.
- Continue going to all classes. Many students are also tempted to skip class to find more study time. This strategy does not work because the professor will now be pulling the course material together, will give out information about the exam, and will test on the new material.
- Develop a structured time management schedule. Block out times for the week when reading for class, writing any papers, and reviewing for exams will occur. Label each block with the course related to the task. Spread the time for exam review among all exam courses so that progress can be made on every one of them. Few people can work more than a few hours on a paper at one time. Use breaks from a paper for reading or reviewing for exams.
- Prioritize your courses and topics within courses. Some of the things to consider are:
- Determine the level of understanding in each course.
- Determine the amount of material to learn for the first time in each course.
- Determine the amount of material already reviewed for each course.
- Evaluate which topics are most likely to be heavily tested, moderately tested, and slightly tested for each exam.
- Determine whether course topics need to be studied chronologically as presented (because they build on one another) or can be isolated for study in any order.
- Check to see the order of your exams within the exam period.
After we avert this crisis as much as possible, we have the "next semester" conversation about using sound study habits from the first day of the semester. (Amy Jarmon)
April 21, 2010
Do teachers grade more harshly when they use red pens?
Some interesting science to report...at least one presenter at every ASP conference mentions that students feel that red pen makes it look as if the paper is "bleeding" negative comments. A new spin: teachers actually grade more harshly when using red pen. Another reason why green, pink, purple might be better bets when giving student feedback.
(I realize this link doesn't look like it fits with my post...it does.)
And a link to the full study is here:
The pen is mightier than the word: Object priming of evaluative standards
by Rutchick, Slepian, and Ferris
April 19, 2010
Policy and the law - the big "huh?"
When I discuss exam writing with students, I have noticed that mentioning the possibility of "policy points" usually elicits some concern. I often get a glazed stare, a deer-in-the-headlights look, or a furrowed brow in response. Over the years, I have decided that these responses come from several sources.
What does "policy" mean? For some students, the responses are based on the peculiar fact that faculty members talk about policy readily without ever actually explaining the term. As lawyers, we all know what it means, but do not connect with the fact that students (especially 1L's) do not. Once students realize that "policy" is the purpose behind a law, a light bulb goes on for them.
They relax once they understand that courts may use policy discussion to reason through (some would say justify) law in new areas or changes to the existing common law. It will make sense to them that attorneys may argue policy to convince a court to alter the existing law to a small degree. It suddenly becomes obvious that legislatures may use policy reasons for enacting a law that impacts society in a new way.
Why should I care about it? Professors often enjoy the discussions of policy that accompany their courses. If they are "idea" people, they may even get a "buzz" from discoursing on policy implications. Some courses (or at least topics within courses) are traditionally taught with lots of policy discussion.
Students who are intuitive learners tend to understand innately policy's important place in legal thinking. They like dealing with concepts, abstractions, and theories. They see the inter-relationships among various policies and how to use those policies to further their arguments.
However, students who are sensing learners do not always understand why policy should be important. These learners are very practical people who hone in on facts and details and direct applications to problems. They may only pay attention to policy if they see how policy impacts the law. If a professor merely discusses policy on a very theoretical basis without actual examples of its use, these students may miss the point entirely. They need more information: How can the plaintiff's or defendant's attorney argue this policy? Would the parties choose different arguments based on competing policy choices? How have policy changes actually altered the law over time?
Will my professor care about policy? It depends. Some courses are so codified that policy has become relatively unimportant; there may be little or no policy discussed by the professor. Some professors will relate the historical policy discussions as background, but see them as unimportant for exams. Some professors will ask pure policy questions on their exams.
I can think of two professors who taught the same topics from the same case book, but had totally different expectations for final exam answers. One professor expected policy discussion on every question while the other was uninterested in policy discussion unless it was the only argument a party could make. "Know thy professor" is the best tack to take for determining the potential for policy points on exam answers.
When I get one of the looks of concern, I explore the student's reaction to see if one of these aspects is the reason. We then discuss further whether or not policy points are an appropriate strategy. (Amy Jarmon)
March 09, 2010
Thinking about the review process
Some law students have been studying for exams all semester by staying on top of their course reading, adding to their outlines each week, and conscientiously learning new material while reviewing past material. In truth, this ongoing process is the key to the highest grades because deeper understanding and long-term memory result.
However, most students are only now beginning to think about exam study. Depending on the school, they are 6 - 8 weeks out from exams. For many, they will be on the "downward slope" when they return from Spring Break.
There are four kinds of review that students need to accomplish as they study for exams. If all four kinds are included in their study plans, they are more likely to master their courses and garner better grades.
First, one needs to learn intensely each topic. This type of study has deep understanding as its goal. It is the "could walk into the exam on Friday" kind of learning. It may take several study sessions to reach this level of learning for a long topic that was covered over multiple class sessions. Intense learning may need to include additional reading in study aids or time asking the professor questions in order to clear up all confusion and master the material. In addition to learning this one part of the course, the student should consider how it relates to the course as a whole.
Second, one needs to keep fresh everything in the course. This type of study is focused on reading one's outline cover to cover at least once a week. It makes sure that the law student never gets so far away from a topic that it gets "foggy." Students forget 80% of what they learn within two weeks if they do not review regularly. After intensely learning a topic, it would be a shame to forget it. Constant review reinforces long-term memory and provides for quicker recall when the material is needed.
Third, one needs to spend time on basic memory drills. This type of study helps a student remember the precise rule, the definition of an element, or the steps of analysis. For most students, these drills will be done with homemade flashcards. Some students will write out rules multiple times. Other students will develop mnemonics. Still others may have visual reminders. The "grunt work" of memory can be tedious. However, if one does not know the law well, one will not do well on the exam.
Fourth, one needs to complete as many practice questions as possible. This step has several advantages. It monitors whether one has really understood the law. It tests whether one can apply the law to new fact scenarios. It allows one to practice test-taking strategies. And it monitors whether one needs to repeat intense learning on a topic or sub-topic because errors on the questions indicate that it was obviously not learned to the level needed.
Ideally students need to set aside blocks of study time to accomplish each of these reviews every week for every course. The proportion of time for each course will depend on the amount of material covered, the difficulty of the course for the student, and the type of exam. (Amy Jarmon)
December 11, 2009
A Tribute to Movies
You may be wondering why a posting under the category "Exams - Studying" would be about movies. No, I am not going to suggest that students watch Paper Chase or Presumed Innocent. Instead, I am strongly encouraging them all to purchase a ticket to the local cinema.
During law school, I saw more movies than any other time in my life. Why did I watch so many movies? Here are my reasons:
- It is impossible to sit in a movie theater and worry about law school. The plot catches up every thought and catapults the viewer into another world and other lives.
- Unlike a DVD or Movie on Demand at home, there is no pile of books on a desk in one's line of vision to beckon one back to studying. The guilt factor disappears because one is out of the study milieu.
- Movies reminded me that law school was not the "real world" for most people. Movies allowed me to retreat from the fish bowl of law school and be an ordinary citizen again.
- Although my favorites were comedies (because they made me laugh) and children's films (because they depended on imagination and not critical thinking), other genres can equally allow healthy escapism. I would not recommend a law-related plot, however, because it defeats the purpose of going to the movies.
Most movies allow for approximately 2 hours of total diversion when one relaxes completely instead of stressing about memos, papers, or exams. Enough time to relax, but not so much time as to waste an entire day.
So, here is to the matinee ticket - cheap and cheerful! Give your brain cells a break. Relax completely, and then go back to the books refreshed. (Amy Jarmon)
November 24, 2009
Thanksgiving for law students
Most of my law students realize that the carefree days of undergraduate Thanksgiving breaks from class are no longer possible. Unless law students have been diligent in reviewing for exams all semester (fortunately, more of my students are seeing the benefits of this strategy), they will not be able to afford 5 days away from the books. Even my diligent students often want the extra review time.
Students who have a study plan before the break begins tend to get more accomplished than those students who "take it day by day." By planning, they waste less time trying to decide what to study and getting started on their studying. They are also less susceptible to the temptations of TV, shopping, non-law-school family members' relaxing, and frittering away time.
Each day basically has three potential study chunks within it: 8-12, 1-5, 6-10. For many students, thinking about the day in thirds helps them plan their studying realistically. It is easier to estimate what can be done in 4 hours than what can be done "today." Even if a student decides to not use all three potential chunks every day, it allows conscious decisions about each part rather than drifting through the day.
For each chunk, a student has to determine how to use the time most effectively for her study habits and learning styles. One student may want to spend all of the day's time (a potential 12 hours) on one subject for review. Another student may need to switch off courses to stay focused. Within each of the three chunks, one student may "mix it up": read through an entire outline, flashcards, intense studying of one topic, practice problems, reading a supplement, making graphic organizers for the material. Another student may focus better by completing one type of task the entire time.
Students will maintain their focus best, gain greater understanding, and retain more information if they are active in their studying. Some may read out loud. Some may recite rules out loud. Some may ask lots of questions while reviewing the material. Some may even pace while doing flashcards. Being actively involved is more effective than merely "doing time" over the books.
Within the longer chunks, students should take short breaks roughly every 90 minutes. A quick trip to the refrigerator for a drink, a snack, or a brief chat with family will allow one's brain to file the recently completed information.
Family circumstances vary. Some students can hole up in their rooms without causing a problem with their family. Other students will find that it is best to go to the public library, coffeehouse, or some other location to study because their family members interrupt them too much or resent "tip-toeing" around the house so the law student can study.
However, I always encourage my students whether they are here in town to study or at home with family and friends to take most, if not all, of the actual holiday itself off. Why? Because otherwise they are miserable. They feel sorry for themselves and resent not having the holiday. So, better to have some time off and enjoy it than to not focus on what they are trying to study because of their emotional response. If they are staying in town, I encourage them to join with other law students or folks they know in the community for a dinner. At minimum they should go out to a restaurant and have a nice meal. Peanut butter and jelly or turkey sandwiches are not the same as a good holiday meal.
And, I think it is helpful if the students have a reward planned for studying each day. Being able to look forward to the reward is a motivator. Claiming the reward at the end of the day is satisfaction for a job well done. Whether it is watching TV with family, going to a movie, playing Spider Solitaire, or a bubble bath, the reward will make the day a success.
Happy Thanksgiving to all ASPers and to all our law students. (Amy Jarmon)
November 19, 2009
Non-traditional students and exam study
All law students are into exam study mode right now. However, I want to address non-traditional students and specific study issues that they bring to the "crunch time" of the semester.
Unlike many of their colleagues, they are often juggling partners and/or children in the law school mix. If they are attending part-time/evening programs, they are further juggling work deadlines and boss expectations as well. Some of them also add community or family obligations such as care of elderly or ill parents.
Here are some tips to help "non-trads" get more study time:
- Discuss with your family why this period in the semester is so important. Your family may not understand since law school is so foreign to everyone who has not attended - especially if you never disappeared like this during other degree programs.
- Ask for help in trying to find blocks of time when you can have uninterrupted study time.
- Agree on family time that you will participate in to stay connected with "real life": a regular dinner hour or story time before bed might be examples.
- Agree on what chores and other responsibilities will be kept by you and what ones your family can pick up (or what chores can be temporarily jettisoned).
- Go to the law school or some other location to study so that family knows that when you are home you are available.
- One family had a red light-green light system for the study/office door. If the law student could not be interrupted, the red light signaled that status. The green light meant short interruptions were okay.
- Post your study schedule on the refrigerator to let everyone know when you will be studying and when there will be down time.
- Consider what chores can be jettisoned or trimmed (example, an extreme clean may not happen each week).
- Consider whether separate home-cooked meals every night can be replaced with crock-pot-cooked meals on the weekend that are frozen and recycled over several weeks.
- Consider whether some activities can be trimmed down a bit in time so that extra half-hour slots can be accumulated into a larger study block during the day (example, meal time, bath time, story time).
- Decide whether you are using time between classes during the day to greatest advantage so that you can shift some studying prior to when your children arrive home.
- Decide whether set meal, nap, bath, and bed times would help both you and your children have a better routine.
- Can you take vacation or personal days to gain more study time?
- Can you work on flex-time so that you shift your hours for several weeks to allow more study time?
- Will your boss agree to your studying at the office if your job duties are slow?
- Can you swap duties/deadlines for the next several weeks with other co-workers in return for repaying the favor later?
- Are there projects or tasks that can be delayed until after exams?
Non-trads have some special responsibilities that can be managed within the exigencies of law school with some extra planning. Fortunately, most of them have fairly good time and work management skills from their jobs and family duties. However, communication with loved ones and work colleagues goes a long way in making the transition to law school studying a smooth one. (Amy Jarmon)
November 17, 2009
Time savers for home and school
Now that we are approaching the final crunch before exams, I try to help my law students find ways that they can save time on some of their tasks at school and at home.
Here are some hints that seem to ease the stress because of greater efficiency and effectiveness on school tasks:
- Read actively now for learning rather than highlighting material to learn later.
- Review regularly so that you do not need to relearn as much.
- Review your readings/briefs before you go into class.
- Review your class notes within 24 hours for better understanding. Condense them in anticipation of outlining later.
- Review your outline cover to cover regularly in addition to any specific topics you are learning.
- Should you study at school, another academic building, a coffeehouse, or at home to avoid distractions?
- Should you study one subject for a longer period (2-4 hours) or switch among subjects to keep focused?
- Should you cut back on hours at your job to make studying a priority?
- Should you lessen the time you spend on e-mailing, instant messaging, texting, and talking on the phone?
Here are some hints that seem to ease the stress because of greater efficiency and effectiveness on home tasks:
- Minimize your time spent on cleaning by scheduling a major cleaning session now and then picking up and spot cleaning only through the end of exams.
- Plan your errands so that you have scheduled blocks of time twice a week; place errands in the same part of town in the same time block.
- Run your errands in "off peak" times whenever possible to avoid lines. Since many stores stay open late or 24 hours, you do not have to shop at the same time as most people.
- Stock up on food supplies that have a long shelf life to avoid multiple grocery trips later.
- Buy "family size" portions of prepared foods even if you live alone so that you will have multiple meals taken care of at once. Freeze unused portions for later if you desire more variety within a week's menu.
- Complete as much food prep as possible on the weekend for the entire week. Cut up fresh fruit or vegetables to be portioned out over the week. Cook multiple servings of a recipe in the crock-pot to use during the week without extra food prep (or to freeze and thaw for greater variety later). Make sandwiches ahead for several days.
- Trade off child care with other law students so that each law school student can have blocks of uninterrupted time for study.
- Talk to family and friends about how important this period in the semester is to your success. Ask for them to help you have concentrated periods of study until exams are over.
By taking control over daily tasks that are not high priority, law students can minimize their stress and focus more on their study priorities. Saving even 1/2 hour per day means 3 1/2 extra hours per week to study for exams. (Amy Jarmon)
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:
- cover-to-cover review of their outlines to keep everything fresh;
- intense review of material that they still need to learn;
- memory drills of the essential black letter law; and
- 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)
April 08, 2009
Rewards as Motivators
Law students may find that providing themselves rewards for task completion during final assignments and exam studying will keep them motivated. Students should match the reward to the accomplishment: large rewards for large tasks completed; medium rewards for medium tasks completed; and small rewards for small tasks completed.
Students can determine their own definitions of large, medium and small tasks depending on difficulty of course material, type of assignment, and length of the paper. In addition, students will differ as to the content of the motivators depending on their own tastes and lifestyles.
Here are some ideas to help students generate their own rewards lists:
- Ice cream for dessert
- Chai latte on the way to school
- Popcorn snack mid-afternoon
- Chat in the student lounge for 10 minutes
- Sit outside and work on one's tan for 10 minutes
- Check e-mail for 10 minutes
- Walk around campus for 10 minutes
- Watching a 1/2 hour sitcom.
- Phoning a friend for 30 minutes.
- Lunch with a friend in the student lounge
- Video games for 30 minutes
- Free cell for 30 minutes
- Playing Frisbee with the family dog
- Reading a story to a child
- Lunch or dinner at a restaurant
- Going to the cinema
- Reading the Sunday paper cover to cover
- Reading a novel for several hours
- Taking a drive in the countryside
- Buying a new cookbook
- Taking one's children to the park
The rewards are only limited by the law student's imagination and finances. By having something to look forward to, it is easier to persevere and finish a task. (Amy Jarmon)
April 07, 2009
Exams start here in 21 days, so the stress level is increasing by the minute. Many of my students are handling their stress well, but some have become so stressed that they are not able to get a perspective on how to help themselves.
Students sometimes think their stress comes only from studying itself, but stress can also come from friends, family, and personal responsibilities. By dealing with both the law and non-law stress, students can cope more effectively.
The following list of stress busters should help students who are looking for quick and easy solutions for decreasing their stress:
- Tackle your most onerous task for the day as early as possible in your schedule. That way, it won't "hang over" you all day long and add to your stress.
- Tackle your hardest study tasks when you are most alert. Your brain will absorb material more easily for greater understanding and retention. Consequently, you will feel better about your study session and lower your stress.
- Decide whether you study better for exams by focusing on one subject or several subjects per day. Some students need the variety to stay focused. By working with your own style, you will be less stressed than trying to study the way your friends study.
- Read through your outlines cover to cover each week in addition to any specific topics you are studying. By keeping all of the material fresh, you will feel less anxious about forgetting things.
- Take short breaks (5-10 minutes) every 90 minutes and longer breaks every 4 hours (45 minutes). Your brain will keep filing information while you relax. You will stay more focused by allowing some down time to de-stress.
- Explain to your family and non-law friends why you need to focus on preparing for exams. Schedule some fun activities for after exams so they know you will make it up to them after this last push. If you do not feel guilty about family and friends, you will be less stressed.
- Exercise for 30 minutes at least 2-3 times per week. You may not have time for your usual long workout at the gym. However, taking time to go for a walk or jog will help defuse stress.
- Eat three balanced meals a day. Resorting to junk food deprives your brain of much needed fuel and contributes to stress. Cook large quantities over the weekend or in a crock pot so that you have meals for the week.
- Avoid caffeine overloads, including energy drinks. High doses of caffeine can have serious health side effects: increased blood pressure, panic attacks, increased anxiety, insomnia, and more. Drink ice water instead.
- Avoid sugar highs and crashes from too many candy bars and sodas. Too much sugar will add to irritability which will cause you to feel stressed.
- Get a minimum of 7 hours of sleep per night. Shirking on sleep means your brain cells do not work as well, your productivity goes down, and your ability to cope with stress decreases.
- Stock up on all of your exam essentials now: pens, pencils, ink cartridges, healthy snacks, healthy beverages, foods with long shelf life. Fewer errands to run as exams approach will lower your stress.
- Complete a "whirling dervish" clean of your apartment now. Then just pick up and spot clean for the remaining weeks. Finding time for major chores every week can be very stressful.
- Switch to low-maintenance clothing so that you have less ironing to do and fewer dry cleaning trips to fit in to your schedule. Again, one less chore to worry about will lower your stress.
By adding even one or two stress busters, students can increase their coping skills as the semester winds down and the stress winds up. (Amy Jarmon)