Sunday, April 20, 2014
Some law students have ill-conceived notions about their priorities for studying and how those priorities interface with basic life needs. They decide that the way to get better grades is to either skimp on/skip or go overboard on meals, exercise, and sleep. Unfortunately, any of these choices is a sure way to jeopardize their grades.
I had a law school friend who survived mainly on Dr. Pepper and Snickers. He lost lots of weight since that diet was his staple one. He also spent little food prep time (the vending machines just wanted a few minutes for their coins to be dropped in). However, he also had little sustained energy because of sugar high and crash cycles; he was sick every time a bug circulated; he was lethargic most of the time.
Several law students I know have decided over the last few years to imbibe energy drinks at high levels to stay awake and have ended up in the emergency room with heart palpitations or panic attacks. They lost more time (not to mention the stress and anxiety they had) than they gained.
My first semester in law school I foolishly stayed up until the wee hours of the morning studying and then overslept an exam. My law school allowed me to take the exam and have the full time, but my grade was automatically dropped two levels as the penalty.
I know a bar studier who spent hours each day exercising only to fail the bar - but his abs were in great shape. One law student spent so much time each day training for marathons that he flunked out of law school his third year. I know lots of law students who spend 2-3 hours in the gym per day because "exercise is important to me."
Both the skimpers/skippers and the overdoers have the wrong idea. Nutritious meals, 7-8 hours of sleep, and 150 minutes of exercise per week are all essential to a balanced and healthy life - and to better grades. Your brain and body need fuel: meals and sleep. They also need stress release and proper sleep inducement: exercise does both.
Meals with a healthy balance of the food groups are essential to your body and brain. Eat lean meat (or other protein foods) and lots of fruit and vegetables. Add whole grains and dairy (or substitutes if you are gluten or lactose intolerant). Drink lots of water to stay hydrated. Have regular meal times so that you do not starve your body and then overeat. Avoid excessive amounts of sugar and caffeine.
Sleep allows your brain and body to work at optimal levels. Your brain absorbs more information quickly and retains it better. You get more done in less time because you are focused. You are alert in the exams rather than foggy.
The medical research shows you need 7 - 8 hours every night to avoid becoming chronically sleep depraved. A regular bedtime and wake up time mean even more benefits for you. And do not vary your sleep schedule more than 2 hours on the weekend; you will lose the benefits of your weekly routine if you do so.
Get some exercise. You will feel more energized. Your stress level will be lower. You will sleep better. Thirty minutes five times a week works! It can be a walk - you don't have to be a super athlete to get the benefits.
Here are some tips to work these healthy habits into your life even during this crunch time of the semester:
- Adjust your sleep schedule in increments if it is totally off schedule. For example, you decide that 11 p.m. bedtime and 7 a.m. wake up are your goals. Adjust your bedtime over several nights by 15 minutes to get closer to your goal. Then spend several nights getting to bed 15 minutes earlier than that. Continue the adjustments until you get to 11 p.m. Stay on your bedtime goal for 2-3 weeks consistently - your eyes will pop open 5 minutes before the alarm goes off once your body has its new routine.
- Make time for healthy meals in your schedule. You will relax more and help your digestion if you sit down for your meal and eat slowly - no standing at the kitchen counter and gulping it down please. To shorten your food preparation each day, make large quantities of food on the weekend that can be portioned out over the week. Buy healthy prepared foods at the grocery store to use all week rather than depend on fast food or the vending machines.
- Combine an exercise and meal break for perhaps 2 hours at dinner time. First get your exercise and then take time for your meal. A longer break at this time of day generally helps to re-energize students for evening study.
- Be on the alert for when you are using sleep, meals, or exercise as avoidance behavior rather than healthy behavior. If you get a regular sleep schedule, naps should become unnecessary. Watch out for sleeping until noon on the weekends. Remind yourself that gym time 7 days a week for 2 hours is not supported by the research. Encourage yourself to complete meal planning for the week ahead of time to avoid having to cook for an hour every night.
Use your sleep, meals, and exercise to promote your study. You can still get lots of studying in while taking care of yourself. (Amy Jarmon)
Saturday, April 12, 2014
Law students tell me repeatedly that they have two huge fears when they start an exam. First, they fear drawing a total blank during the exam and not being able to remember even the basics. Second, they fear messing up their time managment and not being able to finish the exam or rushing at the end.
To combat these fears, you can complete two steps as soon as the exam proctor tells you to begin. First, write down a checklist of the material on a piece of scrap paper (our law school provides scrap paper in every exam room) or on the back of the exam paper. Second, make a time chart to manage your time during the exam.
The checklist is typically a skeleton outline of the topic and subtopic headings for the course. By writing this information down before you begin the exam, you provide yourself with a security blanket. Putting it down before you start answering any questions, lets you memorialize the information before you start stressing out. You can refer to it for each essay answer to see if you forgot to discuss anything. You can use it to jog your memory if you draw a blank during the exam.
Your checklist may look somewhat different depending on the course. It may include rules with elements, steps of analysis for problem-based topics, policy arguments for another course, etc. You can tailor the information to memorize for your checklist to match the course content.
You can also vary the structure of your checklist. A visual learner may use a series of spider maps for the course. A verbal learner may use an acronym or silly sentences to remember the topics and subtopics in the list. An aural/oral learner may recite a sing-song of the checklist silently in her head as she writes it down.
For a closed-book exam, you memorize the checklist so you can quickly write it down. For an open-book exam, the checklist is the first page of the outline that is allowed in the exam.
The second step is formulating a time chart for the exam. You will want to look quickly at the instructions for the exam to check whether you complete all questions or have options (for example, complete 3 of the 5 questions). For most exams you will be required to complete all questions.
The time chart will vary in format for essay exams and multiple-choice exams. If an exam is mixed, there will be a time chart for each part of the exam. The time chart will help you to work through all of the questions at a steady pace so that you complete the entire exam.
For essay questions, your chart will have 3 columns (question number and its allotted time; time for reading, analysis, and organization; time for writing). You should spend 1/3 of your time on a question for reading, analysis, and organization. You should spend 2/3 of your time on writing the answer. Each exam question will have a row in the time chart with 3 columns in that row.
As an example, assume the exam begins at 1:00 p.m. and has multiple questions:
- Question 1 is a 1-hour question (spend 20 minutes for reading, analysis, and organization; spend 40 minutes for writing).
- Column 1 will show "Question 1: 1 hour."
- Your second column for Question 1 would show "1:00 - 1:20 p.m."
- Your third column for Question 1 would show "1:20 - 2:00 p.m."
- Question 2 is a 45-minute question (spend 15 minutes for reading, analysis, and organization; spend 30 minutes for writing).
- Column 1 for Question 2 will show "Question 2: 45 minutes."
- Column 2 for Question 2 will show "2:00 - 2:15 p.m."
- Column 3 for Question 2 will show "2:15 - 2:45 p.m."
- And so forth through the questions for the full exam time.
If you wish to reserve time to review your written answers before the exam ends, then you will reserve review time and decrease the time you allow for each question. Many students would rather use the full time for each question rather than allot review time.
If your professor indicates points rather than time for each question, then determine the time to spend proportionately for the number of points. Practicing this method ahead of time will make it more natural when converting from points to time.
For multiple-choice questions, your chart will have 2 columns (a time checkpoint; the number of questions to be completed by that time). Each checkpoint time will be in a row with the number of questions completed column for that row. It is usually a good idea to include 4-6 checkpoints.
As an example, assume the exam begins at 1:00 and lasts 3 hours with 90 questions:
- 1:30 p.m. 15 questions completed
- 2:00 p.m. 30 questions completed
- 2:30 p.m. 45 questions completed
- 3:00 p.m. 60 questions completed
- 3:30 p.m. 75 questions completed
- 4:00 p.m. 90 questions completed
If you wish to reserve time to review question answers before the exam ends, then you will reserve review time and decrease the time you allow for the checkpoints accordingly. Again, many students would rather use the full time for the questions rather than allot review time.
You want to make sure that you devise your checklist early enough in the class or exam period to allow you time to commit it to long-term memory so that you will know it by heart. You also want to practice making time charts so that the method is on auto-pilot. Both of these strategies should help lessen your anxiety during the actual exam. (Amy Jarmon)
Wednesday, April 9, 2014
Completing practice questions in courses is essential for the best grades on final exams. Although students know they need to do practice questions, they sometimes make choices that do not reap the most benefit from practice question time.
Here are some tips for making practice question time more effective:
- Spend most of your time on practice questions that will match your professor's testing format if you know what that will be. If fact-pattern essay, then complete fact-pattern essay questions. If multiple-choice, then complete multiple-choice questions. If short answer, then complete short-answer questions. If a mix, then complete a mix of questions. If you do not know the formats, then complete a variety of questions.
- Complete as many questions as possible and more than you think you need to do. That means lots and lots. Completing more practice questions means that you are less likely to confront a scenario on the exam that is a surprise and also means that your exam-taking strategies are on auto-pilot.
- Keep a log of your practice question performance. Across practice question sessions, you will see repeated errors that you can self-correct long before the exams. Why did you get answers wrong? Missed issues? Read too fast? Did not know specific content? Skipped steps in analysis? Knew the law but not how to apply it?
- Read the answer explanations for multiple-choice questions and the model answers for other questions. Valuable information can be gleaned from this material. Did you get an answer correct but missed a nuance in the law? Did you miss sub-issues? Did you structure an essay answer in the most organized manner? Did you miss an argument for one of the parties?
- Always complete practice questions that your professor provides in class, on the course website, through the teaching assistant, on the law school's exam database, etc. These are outright gifts! You learn your professor's testing style. If you have problems with these questions, talk with your professor on office hours to see how you could improve your answers.
- Realize that practice questions come in levels of difficulty. Some questions are testing your initial understanding: boxed flashcards, Examples & Explanations, Crunch Time short answer, CALI. Some questions move to intermediate difficulty: multiple-choice practice question books, commercial outline questions, Siegel's. Some questions are true exam style: exam database questions at your and other law schools. Move through the levels of difficulty to prepare for the exams; do not hang out on the easy questions and expect to get your best grades.
- If you are taking a course that does not have ready-made practice questions available, get with several classmates and write questions that you swap and discuss. It is harder than you think to write questions; you will have to think carefully about the material. Your classmates may see things in answering your questions that you missed entirely.
- Write out fact-pattern essay answers as you would have to do on the exam. Just completing a bullet-pointed list of what you would say does not prepare you for writing concise sentences that connect all of the dots in your analysis when you are under time pressure.
- Wait to do practice questions until you have intensely reviewed a topic. Doing practice questions instead of reviewing the material first is an inefficient way to study. If you do not know the material yet, the practice questions will only tell you that you do not know it. You will not get much out of the time.
- Wait several days after intensely reviewing a topic before completing practice questions on it. If you do practice questions too close to your review, you will get them right because you just reviewed the topic. You want to see if you have retained material and can still apply it to the questions.
- Start doing practice questions now if you have not already done so. You do not want to wait until exam period to do practice questions for the first time. You will not have enough time to hone your exam-taking skills. You also will not have enough time to do lots of questions.
- Always do practice questions on your own before discussing them with study partners. You want to know that you can independently complete questions. Discussion can be helpful to find points that you missed. You will not have your study partners to do the thinking for you in the exam, so make sure you practice doing it on your own before the exams.
- Complete some of your practice questions under exam conditions. If your professor has a word count or page limit, practice to meet it. If a question would be approximately one-hour on the exam, complete it in one hour. If you will have one hour to complete 40 multiple choice on the exam, complete that number in that time span in practice.
By using practice questions effectively ahead of time, you can increase your chances of doing well in the actual exam situations. Practice questions can be your best friends if you cultivate your skills while doing them. (Amy Jarmon)
Saturday, April 5, 2014
Students are realizing that the semester is speeding along and rapidly coming to a close. Many students have done a good job of completing outlines regularly, reviewing outlines already, and completing practice questions on material they have already learned. Other students are just now contemplating efforts beyond daily class preparation. Those students with paper courses are either well into their research and writing stages or have suddenly realized they need to get underway.
Why do some students postpone exam study or papers until the last few weeks? There can be several things at work that influence a student's decision to delay.
The delay in exam review and on paper tasks is often a habit left over from undergraduate education. When there were multiple tests and no cumulative final exam, it was easy to get A grades by studying a few days before the test. The amount of material on the test was minimal. And without a cumulative test later, there was no reason to remember the material beyond the test date. When a paper was only a few pages long, it was easy to pull it together rapidly and still have an excellent grade.
Another aspect of delay is the well-meaning but erroneous advice of upper-division law students. The mantra around our law school is that you do not have to study for exams until "six weeks out." To most upper-division law students who experienced those multiple/non-cumulative exams, this mantra seems to make sense since the suggested time period is so long compared to past study periods (You want me to study for 6 whole weeks!).
Some students delay because they are chronic procrastinators. Like Scarlett O'Hara they will think about it tomorrow. But then they do not think about it - or just put it off again. Rather than go away, however, the delayed tasks become more and more urgent. As they become more urgent, they also may become more paralyzing. And then the delay just continues.
These students who now realize how much they need to accomplish can help themselves by implementing the following techniques:
- Evaluate their time managment. Honestly determine where they waste time (long lunches, e-mail/Twitter/Facebook, long exercise regimens, food preparation, sleeping late on the weekends, etc.) and commit those "found" hours for study.
- Commit on paper to the hours that will be used for review for exams or for paper completion every week: Monday 2-4 review Wills; Tuesday 1-2 review Copyright and 6-7:30 review Tax; Wednesday 2-5 Natural Resources paper; Thursday 9-10 review Tax and 6-7 review Copyright; Friday 1-2:30 Wills practice questions and 4-6 Tax practice questions; and so forth for each day.
- Break down the large tasks into smaller steps. Use a monthly calendar to distribute tasks into the designated times committed each day to those tasks. Put into review slots the subtopics to review. Put into paper slots the research, writing, or editing tasks to complete. Put into the practice question slots the questions to be completed from the professor's course site, a study aid, or other source.
- Find an accountability partner to help stay on track. Agree to meet and study in the same room so studying cannot be skipped. Agree to discuss certain subtopics or practice questions on a particular day so that the work must be done. Tell the person at the end of each day what was or was not accomplished from the monthly schedule.
- Ask for help if they need it. The academic success professional at the law school can assist with prioritizing work, formulating study schedules, and discussing additional strategies that match the student's situation.
- Minimize life tasks to find more study time. Food preparation can be done on the weekends. A major apartment cleaning now and then minimal spot cleaning and pick up until exams are over. Stock up on food staples and other supplies now to avoid extra shopping trips. Switch to an easy care wardrobe instead of high maintenance fashion.
It is time to take control over the remainder of the semester. The downward slope is here, but there is still time to correct any delaying tactics that have become detrimental. (Amy Jarmon)
Tuesday, December 10, 2013
Once exams are over students may feel a sense of elation. Some may feel a let-down. After expending so much time and energy on preparing for and taking exams, the next hurdle is waiting for grades. Law school grades are a tricky subject. Students who receive “good” grades in law school, have opportunities for jobs and clerkships that others may not enjoy. Law students compare themselves to each other which leads to self-doubt and even to the destruction of relationships. However, grades are not destiny. Avoid dwelling on grades, and instead, focus on getting as much feedback on exams as possible. If you are able to review an exam, do so early in the semester before you get too busy. If there are comments on the exam, note what they are. What did you do well? What do you need to improve? Talk with your professor in person about your exam. Then, with this feedback, reach out to your academic support professional to work on improving performance on exams. Most importantly, evaluate whether you are learning. Most students will see a steady increase in their grade point average. Staying mindful of the learning process will aid you in haveing a more meaningful and fulfilling law school career. (Bonnie Stepleton)
Friday, December 6, 2013
When we are in the thick of things, it is sometimes easy to lose our common sense and work off of emotion and stress alone. So here are some practical tips for exam takers:
- When you lose focus, become more active in your studying: read aloud, ask yourself questions about what you are reading, switch study tasks, or discuss the material with another student.
- If you focus does not improve by being more active in your study approach, take a break from studying and come back to it fresh. 10 - 15 minutes every couple of hours works for most students. If you have been studying for a longer period of time, take a longer break.
- If you hit a wall and cannot absorb anything else no matter what you do, then it is definitely time to walk away for some time. Perhaps go run and then have a meal. Or go to the cinema and lose yourself in a good movie. Or window shop to take your mind off things.
- If even one of these diversionary breaks does not help you re-focus, then your brain and body may be telling you to stop and go to bed early. Get up the next day and start over.
- Stop listening to the exaggerations, outlandish claims, and scare tactics disseminated by other students. Do the best you can do each day and ignore all the stress-mongers.
- After an exam is over, do not talk about it with others. You are likely to stress over what you think you missed; others are often wrong about issues on the exam. Put the exam behind you and mentally focus on any exams still ahead. You cannot change what is already done, so put your efforts on the exams that you can impact.
- If you get sick, go to the doctor. Putting off medical attention has negative consequences: you infect others, you get even more ill, you delay your serious illness until the middle of exams.
- If you have a meltdown, go to the counseling center. Do not just sit around and be miserable. You need to talk with someone who can help you handle your stress and be more objective.
- Come up with an appropriate reward system for small, medium, and large tasks. Enjoy a cup of green tea for completing a small task. Take a 30-minute walk for finishing a medium task. Go out to dinner with friends for completing a large task. Set the rewards that will have meaning for you.
- Eat balanced, nutritious meals so that your brain has the fuel necessary for exam heavy-lifting. Avoid junk food, sugary treats, and overdoses on caffeine. Get those fruits, vegetables, lean meat, and whole grains!
- Keep a regular sleep schedule with 7-8 hours of sleep each night during the exam period. Minimal sleep and all-nighters are a sure way to arrive at an exam too tired to think. If your exams are early morning ones and you are a night owl, begin the change over in your body clock now so that you are able to wake up and be alert for that early exam. If you tend to sleep poorly the night before an exam, then go to bed even earlier for the week prior to your exam and stockpile some ZZZZZs.
Good luck on exams to everyone. (Amy Jarmon)
Thursday, December 5, 2013
Working with others to prepare for exams can be an uplifting and productive experience. However, it can also cause frustration and waste valuable study time. Therefore, as you begin to prepare for your final exams, reflect on whether a study group could be a beneficial or whether you should steer clear of them. If you decide to move forward with a study group keep these considerations in mind:
- Think about your study goals and your expectations for the study group before agreeing to work with others.
- Be thoughtful about the group size, meeting times, and purpose. Explicitly agree to all of these parameters. A larger study group that meets at night may not be the most effective for you if you are not a night owl and prefer small groups.
- Have each group member identify their learning style. If 3 out of 4 are read/write learners and you are aural, it may not be the right group for you.
- Establish a start time and an end time for your study group sessions. Time is of the essence and you do not want your study group to take over all of your free time.
- Try to keep open lines of communication. End each session with a recap and reflection to discuss whether the session was productive. Or, follow up via email with suggestions for the next group meeting.
- Create an agenda that will help each member of the study group come to the meeting prepared. Knowing what to expect will help retain the focus of the group meeting and help everyone stay on task.
- Give everyone in the study group a chance to take on a leadership role like: drafting the agenda, leading the discussion, providing handouts or examples, or scheduling the sessions. When everyone plays a part in the process, a more cohesive group will develop.
- When you leave you study group sessions, how do you feel? If you feel positive, that is a good sign. But, go one step further. List the top five things you learned during the session. You want more than a warm and fuzzy feeling after meeting with your study group. Revisit your personal goals for the group session and make sure that you assess whether you are consistently meeting those goals.
Ultimately, a study group can be a great way for you to grasp difficult legal concepts and to review for final exams. Additionally, a study group can provide a great support network and can help you avoid procrastination. Good luck on your finals!
Thursday, November 21, 2013
Sometimes, timing is everything. Law students need to learn to use their time wisely to effectively manage the demands of law school while balancing jobs, families, and self-care. Being at the right place at the right time makes a significant difference for law students who are networking for job opportunities and seeking support systems. Also, timing and pacing during a final exam (or the bar exam) can mean the difference between a passing grade and a failing one. In this post, I have referenced song lyrics that incorporate the theme of time while relating them to the law school experience.
“If I could save time in a bottle…” I know I may be dating myself with this one, but I had to begin with this classic line from Jim Croce’s hit love song “Time in a Bottle”. Ask your students what they would do if they could save time in a bottle. Are they making the most of each moment? Are they being intentional with how they plan their schedules, spend their time, and balance their commitments? We all want more time (especially law students), but instead of focusing on the lack of time we have, highlight ways to use time more efficiently and encourage your students to be present when free moments avail themselves.
“I’ve got too much time on my hands…” This classic rock song by Styx was written as a reflection on the unemployment crisis in the 70’s. The underlying theme in the lyrics rings true in many respects for today’s law students. They are worried about their careers, finding a job, and performing well on exams. They may not be able to tighten their focus when they actually do find that they have “time on their hands." Time management does not always come naturally. Providing students with tools and resources to help them manage their time will help them prioritize, use their free time wisely, and establish effective routines.
Similar to the melancholy quality of Styx’s lyrics, Otis Redding hits a few low notes when he croons about… “sitting on the dock of the bay…wasting time….” Students sometimes sit and feel like they cannot catch a break. Redding’s hit resonates with students who are feeling like they have left the life they knew only to find that law school is challenging, competitive, and sometimes disappointing. When they feel like “nothing's gonna change”, we step in to give them hope. Providing the tools for success to law students empowers them to make necessary changes to ensure their success. Especially at the close of the semester, we need to recognize that law students are exhausted, overloaded, and feeling lost. As Cyndi Lauper so aptly sings in “Time After Time”, when law students "are lost, they turn and they will find [us]", Academic Support Professionals. We catch them and lift them back up.
After exams or a when facing a rough patch during the semester, students may need to turn to ASP for this lift or for help with creating a new plan for their upcoming semester. If their study strategies or exam performance are subpar, they begin humming, “If I could turn back time” (with Cher’s iconic diva-ness echoing in their minds). Reflecting on study habits, legal analysis skills, and exam performance are key components to succeeding in law school. Everyone has moments in their past that they wish they could replay (or delete). Using these moments as opportunities for growth instead of moments of failure, helps students see beyond their initial shock, shame, or disappointment.
Like the Stones, we want our students to sing (and feel) that "time is on my side, yes it is...." While this may not always be realistic, there are many ways to get closer to that dream. Here are a few ideas:
- Create sample study schedules for your students
- Give them calendars and checklists to help them plan their time
- Ask them to keep a journal that tracks how they use their time during a typical day or week and then ask them to reflect on their time management
- Provide a time management workshop or webinar
- Have them draft a to do list at the start of each day and evaluate their progress at the end of each day
- Pair 1L students up with a 2L or 3L mentor to discuss how to effectively schedule their time
- Challenge students to unplug for a block of time each day (This is a good one for all of us!)
- Teach students the art of delegation
- Encourage students to take time each day to recharge.
By establishing routine time management practices, students will feel more balanced and be more productive. Because as Pete Seeger so aptly wrote, there is "a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance." We should all spend more time dancing.
Saturday, November 16, 2013
We get them every year--the students who, two to three weeks before the exam, realize that they need help. It is always difficult. It is in our nature to try to save every student. Some students will get it together, and make it through first-semester exams. Other students have just missed too much, and cannot pack enough into the last few weeks. When I meet with students in crisis, I discuss a number of factors that affect their outcomes:
1) Have you kept up with the reading?
If the students has blown off the reading all semester, it is near-impossible to catch up at the end of the semester.
2) Have you discussed your challenges with your professor?
If a student is struggling to understand the substantive material, their first stop should be their professor. I find that may students are intimidated by their professors, and resist seeking the assistance they need in order to understand the material. With support and encouragement, I can usually help these students craft questions to ask their professors that help them gain a better understanding of course material.
3) Are you synthesizing the material (outlining/course summaries)?
Many students wait for some magic moment when their courses come together. They do not understand that they create that magic moment for themselves when they synthesize the course material. Synthesizing the course material can come in the form of a tradition outline, or it can be graphs, flow charts, are some amalgamation of all of these things. While waiting until the last 2-3 weeks of class is not a good idea, if a student has not started synthesizing the material into one document, getting them started will help them before finals.
4) If you had a major life issue that disrupted your study plans, is that issue resolved?
If a student has an ongoing, disruptive life issue that consumes a large amount of time and energy, they may be better off taking a leave of absence before finals. Yes, they lose a semester of tuition (not good), withdrawing before finals gives them the opportunity to come back after they have their life in order.
5) Do you feel like you can succeed?
The student has to find it within themselves to succeed; I cannot help them if they are unwilling to help themselves. If a student is too distraught, they cannot focus on the tough work they need to do to catch up. Students need to self-evaluate.
Monday, November 11, 2013
The law school grapevine is working overtime right now. All sorts of ill-advised exam study advice is out there. Here are some of the recent grapevine ideas that are bad advice:
- Stop preparing for classes so you have more time to study for exams. This advice is bad because preparing for class leads to deeper understanding of the material. Without preparation, one is merely taking class notes and hoping that the kernels of information are in there somewhere. Unlike undergraduate courses where students were spoon fed what would appear on the exam, law professors expect preparation for class to provide a springboard for deeper discussion and hypothetical analysis. Without a basic understanding from class preparation, the student will not connect the dots in class and will walk away without deeper knowledge and the ability to apply the material.
- Use all of your stored up class absences and skip the maximum number of classes you can so you have more time to study for exams. This suggestion is bad advice because many professors use the last days of classes to pull material together and to discuss the exam details. Other professors cover course material which by its very nature will weigh more heavily on the exam than earlier material. Either way means missing critical information and hoping other classmates will tell you everything that was covered.
- Use your class absences to leave early for Thanksgiving Break. This variation of the prior advice is bad for the same reasons - especially at schools where the classes before the break are the last classes for the semester.
- Focus on your doctrinal courses and slack off in your legal skills/research and writing class. This bad advice is usually based on the fact that these courses often carry fewer credit hours than the doctrinal courses (at our school, 3 credits versus 4 credits in the fall semester). These non-doctrinal courses are critical to employment decisions during law school and later and to the performance level during those jobs. It also never seems to occur to students that an A or B grade in a 3-credit course of this type comes attached to substantial quality points to determine one's grade point average.
- Study only for your first exam until it is over, then switch to the second exam, then the third exam, etc. First-year students who have nicely spaced exams are especially vulnerable to this bad advice. But second- and third-year students also fall prey. By focusing exclusively on one exam at a time, students are not considering which courses are most difficult for them, which courses covered the most material, which courses they have understood/kept up with the most, which courses have exam formats that are most difficult for them, and many other individual study characteristics. One-size-fits-all exam study can lead to bad decisions about how to divide one's time. Each study decision should be carefully weighed for that course in relation to the other courses.
- You just have to memorize the black letter law to do well. This bad advice stems from the undergraduate cram and regurgitate mentality. Law school exams require students to apply the law to new legal scenarios. A student definitely needs to memorize the law. However, that alone is not enough to do well on final exams. Understanding the law is important. Completing practice questions is a critical step to exam analysis - for both fact-pattern essays and for multiple-choice questions.
My advice to students is to take everything heard on the grapevine with a salt shaker's worth of salt. Use your common sense to determine the soundness of the advice. If in doubt, ask the academic success professional at your school for feedback on the study ideas that you have heard. (Amy Jarmon)
Friday, November 8, 2013
For the past several years, every student that found themselves in academic jeopardy told me that they hadn't done any practice questions. Consequently, this year I have been hammering them with constant exhortations to "Do practice questions! Do them early, do them often!" Of course, questions from their profs are the best, but if those are not available, they should look at commercial outlines, other profs, or bar materials.
But what to do with the questions? Besides valuable practice and insight into how a question may be asked (because, in the grand scheme of things, there are only so many scenario variations an exam can have -- for example, a Contracts exam would have to have someone offer someone something, a Torts exam would have to have someone behave negligently in some way), perhaps one of the most helpful things practice questions can do is to help create a "Monster List."
When I was in law school and taking the bar exam, I used to do practice questions for a course and then go over my answers, both right and wrong, and write out on a legal pad all the points of law I didn't know -- something like, "1. Person called 'Evil person' -- circumstantial evidence, does not assert person committed crime, 2. Reputation can be hearsay, 3. Dying declaration applies in civil case or homicide prosecution and statement must concern the cause or circumstances of impending death." I would continue to add to and study this list as I went along, and it would be the last thing I looked at before I sat for the exam.
I had a lot of success with this, and I have seen many students do so as well. In fact, for some students, it becomes the "Attack Outline" that they go into exams with. (Alex Ruskell)
Thursday, October 31, 2013
Along with decorative gourds and tiny sociopaths demanding candy, the end of October brings an uptick in study group formation as we get closer to finals (I saw what looked like three new ones in the lobby on my way into work).
Several years ago, this annual rite resulted in some major kerfluffles, ados, and foofaraws -- so-and-so is cheating on one group with another, so-and-so doesn't do any work, s0-and-so always brings an enormous bag of potato chips, so-and-so's non-lawyer biker boyfriend enjoys attending -- and everyone ended up in my office for advice on how to work things out.
In response, I found an earlier posting from Amy Jarmon about the things study groups need to keep in mind, and I turned it into an actual contract, which I printed out and passed around to the First Year class.
A few days later, I saw several completed and signed contracts sticking out of bookbags, books, and binders, and all the complaining stopped. Since that time, I have mentioned the contract (repeatedly) and the concerns and complaints disappeared.
Many, many thanks to Amy, and below is the contract (Alex Ruskell) --
non in legendo sed in intelligendo legis consistent
STUDY GROUP CONTRACT
1. New members will be added only if _____ members agree.
2. New members will not be added after _________ (a certain point in the semester).
3. A member may/may not belong to more than one study group as long as all members are informed of the decision to do so.
4. A member will not be “fired” unless:
A. The group has talked with the person about problem behaviors (eg. argumentativeness, slacking on commitments, lateness, dominating the group discussions, etc.).
B. The person has had ____ chances to improve on the problem behavior after discussion.
C. The group unanimously agrees that the member will be told to leave and as group discusses the decision with the member.
5. A member who decides to leave the study group must tell the other members that he or she intends to do so and not just “disappear.”
6. The study group will have a rotating facilitator who is responsible for setting the agenda and keeping the group on track each week. The order will be: _________________, ___________________________, ______________________.
7. The study group will meet ________ times per week at _______________________.
8. Study group members may/may not bring food -- certain types of food are banned: ________________________.
9. Each member is to show respect for other members and their opinions.
10. All materials developed by the study group together are not to be shared outside the group unless __________________of the members agree.
11. All matters discussed in the study group are to be confidential and are not to be used for “gossip.” (The exception would be if the group is concerned about the physical or mental well-being of a member so that the appropriate action would be to talk to a dean, counselor, etc.)
12. Study aids purchased jointly should be equally available for use as a matter of courtesy. If the group agrees to share study aids purchased by individuals, then rules may be needed.
Wednesday, October 30, 2013
Most of our law schools have only 5 or 6 weeks of class left in the semester. Students are starting to get overwhelmed at how much they have left to study before they will be ready for finals. They are also horrified at how many steps need to be completed before their paper deadlines.
I find that some students are so overwhelmed that they make very poor decisions about managing their studies. Because much of what I advise students is based on common sense and tried and true techniques, they are often surprised at fairly simple solutions and ask "Why didn't I think of that?"
They did not think of the solutions because they are in the midst of the situation and cannot view things objectively! If you are panicky over the quicksand all around you that is sucking you under, you may indeed overlook the jungle vine immediately above your head.
You cannot control how much more material your professor will cover. You cannot control the questions on the exam. You cannot control usually when your exams are scheduled.
But there is a great deal that you can control. You can control how you distribute your study time among courses. You can control the study strategies that you use. You can control your daily use of time.
Have a plan for the remaining weeks.
- Make a list for each course of all of the topics and subtopics that must be learned for the final exam. This list gives you the skeleton outline for the review needed for the exam.
- The lists will be long because they focus on subtopics. It takes far less time, however, to learn a subtopic than an entire topic. Progress can be made more quickly by focusing on subtopics in the list than trying to complete an entire topic at one time.
- Draw a line below the subtopic most recently completed in the class. Above this line is the material that has already been covered; below this line is the material that will be presented in the coming days.
- Estimate the amount of time that each subtopic will take to learn intensely so that you will be ready to walk into the exam (the learning time only and not the practice question time that one might also do on the subtopic later - you have to learn it first).
- Total the subtopic estimates for each separate course. This total gives you an approximate idea of the time needed to learn the material thus far for the course.
- Compare totals among the courses to understand how you should proportion study time. Perhaps Course A and Course C need equal time while Course B needs twice as much time and Course D needs three times as much time.
- Decide when in the class week you can find time for exam study each week for the remainder of the semester. Label the found times by course in proportion to the totals.
- Number the subtopics on each list. Distribute the subtopics over the next three or four weeks to finish your review of the material that has already been covered.
- Save the remaining two or three weeks before the end of classes to distribute the new material as you estimate the time for intense study that is needed for each subtopic.
- If possible, leave only two weeks of new material to learn during the reading/exam period.
Make sensible decisions so you stay in control of your time and focus:
- Prioritize what you need to get done each day. Start with the most important tasks and move down the list to end with the least important tasks.
- Within these prioritized categories, consider doing disliked or harder tasks earlier in the day when you are fresh and alert. Then complete the liked or easier tasks in a category.
- Break every large task or project into small pieces. You will not get as overwhelmed when you focus on a small task (reading one case, writing one paragraph, studying one subtopic) instead of the enormous task (a 30-page paper, an entire course).
- Take small breaks throughout the day - 10 minutes every 90 minutes of studying. Get up and walk around or stretch to get some movement into your routine. Then refocus for the next task.
- Use self-discipline. Do not turn a 10-minute break into an hour break. Do not waste time on Facebook, Twitter, television sitcoms, and other distractions.
- Decline invitations to spend time on things that will mean you do not finish your daily task list. Be diplomatic, but say no. Avoid excessive meal breaks, shopping excursions, socializing instead of scheduled studying, and more distractions.
- After you have learned a particular topic well, move on to the next topic. Do not just keep reviewing what you already know to avoid getting to the hard stuff.
- Get questions that you have about course subtopics answered as you do your review. Do not store up hundreds of questions for the last week of the professor's office hours.
Law school is to a great extent about organization and time management. So is legal practice. Take control of what you can. Move forward - any progress is still progress. (Amy Jarmon)
Sunday, October 20, 2013
Law students often put off completing practice questions until the very end of the semester. They give me a number of reasons for delaying this important step in exam preparation:
- "I don't know enough yet to do practice questions."
- "I can't do practice questions until we have had the entire course."
- "I know the material really well so it is not necessary to do questions."
- "I get discouraged when I get questions wrong and don't want to do any more."
- "I can't find practice questions for the course."
- "I don't know what type of questions the professor will ask because he has never taught before/has never taught this course before/is a visitor."
- "I'll do practice questions with my study group later."
Successful law students complete as many practice questions as they can find time for throughout the semester. In addition to thinking about the questions, they outline answers to many of the essays, write out completely the answers for multiple essay questions, and complete some questions under exam conditions (timed, closed book, etc.). For multiple-choice questions, they track their mistakes so they can correct error patterns. They also carefully read the answer explanations to learn nuances that they may have missed.
Why do successful law students spend time on practice questions? They know that the following benefits flow from the task:
- Practice questions help them see if they really understand the law and can apply it to new scenarios.
- Multiple practice questions before the exam allow the student to manipulate the material through a number of different fact scenarios so that the actual exam scenarios seem less terrifying.
- Practice questions can increase confidence when one gets them right and can allow one to focus future time on less well-known material.
- Practice questions can pinpoint areas of confusion that need more work to master that topic long before the exam would uncover the same weakness.
- Practice questions and their model answers (essays) or answer explanations (multiple choice) help students gain deeper understanding of the law and its proper application.
- Practice questions allow students to practice issue spotting, careful reading of facts, charting or outlining answers before writing, stating the law precisely, analyzing for both parties, making appropriate policy arguments, and determining the best multiple-choice answer.
- Practice questions under timed conditions help students with properly pacing their work during the actual exams.
What about the objections that I mentioned at the beginning of this posting? Here are my responses to each one:
- Once you intensely review a subtopic or topic, you should be prepared to complete practice questions that are available. Intense review means learning that slice of the course as though the exam were Monday.
- Most courses have discrete topics or a series of topics that interrelate. Most practice question books indicate in the table of contents or index which topics are covered in the individual questions.
- You don't know how well you understand the material until you complete practice questions. Memorizing material and being able to apply the material to new fact scenarios are separate skills.
- Students should not attempt practice questions until they have studied the material in a serioius manner. Then they should do questions in increasing levels of difficulty: start with one-issue questions, move to intermediate-level questions, and then move to full-blown exam questions only after success at the prior levels of difficulty.
- For some courses there are fewer practice question sources. Ask the professor if s/he can supply the class with old questions. Go to the state bar examiners' website if old exam questions in that legal specialty are available. Get together with several classmates in the course and write and swap your own practice questions. Check out other law school websites for professor practice questions or old exams.
- If you don't know the professor's exam style, then practice questions of a variety of types. Once the professor decides the exam format, then switch to that particular style of question. All practice questions will help you test your knowledge and understanding until you have more information on the specific exam.
- Working on practice questions with a study group has merit - especially if each person works on the questions individually ahead of time. However, you also need to do plenty of questions on your own - your study group won't be allowed to help you think it through in the actual exam.
Practice questions are a critical component of exam study. If you have not started on them yet, now would be the perfect time to do so! (Amy Jarmon)
Tuesday, July 23, 2013
During the final week of bar prep, memorization is paramount. Overlearning the law is the best way to conquer the bar exam. MBE success requires quick recollection and MEE success requires depth of knowledge- both of which rely on memorization.
When studying this week, above all, try to understand your learning preference(s). Listening to your inner voice and sticking with what works best for you is the best way to be successful with your memorization. However, if you are still looking for other ways to memorize, here are a few ideas:
- Find creative ways to interact with the material and keep it fresh.
- Use a study partner or significant other to test you on your knowledge with flashcards or just talk out a subject together.
- Create tables, flowcharts, or diagrams to illustrate difficult rules or concepts. Even drawing pictures can help you create a memorable visual.
- Use other memory devices such as: flash cards, sticky notes, white boards, or a tape recorder.
- Create mnemonics that have meaning to you or use ones that have been created by your bar prep.
- Explain the main points of a subject or essay to someone else (a family member, friend, or roommate). Or, talk to yourself- it's ok, you are studying for the bar!
- Color code, use different fonts, or hand-write rules over and over in order to individualize the material and make it more memorable.
- Read your lecture notes or outline/study-aid aloud, record it, play it back and listen to it.
- Study while you move- walk, ride a bike, bounce on an exercise ball, or use an elliptical.
Good luck on your memorization this week!
Thursday, May 9, 2013
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)
Wednesday, April 10, 2013
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)
Sunday, April 7, 2013
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)
Sunday, 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
Saturday, November 24, 2012
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)