Friday, July 20, 2012
Recently I had the opportunity to attend a lecture given by Sian Beilock, Associate Professor of Psychology at The University of Chicago and author of Choke: What The Secrets of the Brain Reveals About Getting It Right When You Have To. The lecture focused on the science of why individuals choke under pressure and how to best avoid performance anxiety. While the lecture did not focus on the stress applicants feel taking the bar exam, it was wholly applicable.
When pressure and anxiety to perform is high (like the bar exam), the brain’s prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for our working memory, focuses on the anxiety instead of recollecting essential information for successful performance. When a student is filled with too much anxiety, regardless of their aptitude, the anxiety interferes with their thought process and almost turns off their working memory to anything other than the stress of the event. This is why we often see highly intelligent and capable students perform below expectations in testing situations.
There are several ways to help students avoid this prefrontal cortex reaction. One, which is often employed by commercial bar reviews, is taking practice tests under timed conditions. These simulations help the brain overcome stress and will likely prevent students from “choking” during their actual test because they have established coping mechanisms to deal with their stress. Therefore, during the real test, they can practically operate on autopilot without stress interfering with their working memory.
Additionally, positive self-talk is an important aspect of testing success. Professor Beilock suggests that writing about your stress for ten minutes before an exam will free working memory. This cognitive function can instead be applied to performing well on the exam.
The simple act of acknowledging fear and stress prior to taking the bar exam could make the difference between passing and failing. I have told each of my students, especially those struggling with intense testing anxiety, to try the writing exercise each morning of the bar exam. I am hopeful that it will calm their fears and help them reach their highest potential next week.
Thursday, May 10, 2012
Many law students are now in exams. It is sometimes hard to keep one's perspective in the midst of hard exams. Here are some pointers you can give students to help them stay focused and not be thrown by an exam that seemed too difficult:
- Help students realize that the grade in a course is just one grade on one set of questions on one day.
- A student has 90 credit hours (more or less at different law schools) in the degree, and one course is just a small part of that degree.
- It is not uncommon to know more information than a set of questions on an exam could ask in a limited time period.
- Lots of attorneys today are practicing in areas that were not their strong courses in law school – students can have another chance.
- Remind students that other students also thought a particular exam was hard.
- Students need to realize that they are like their fellow classmates in regard to an exam.
- A student needs to resist the temptation of feeling that s/he was the only one who found the exam difficult.
- Encourage students to forget about the exams they just had.
- The exam is over and done with, and the student cannot change anything about it.
- Have the student re-focus on the next exam because s/he can make decisions that will impact studying for that exam.
- Students can just do their best on each exam under their own particular circumstances. That is all they can ask of themselves.
- Remind them to avoid talking with others about an exam when it is over.
- They will only get more stressed about the exam.
- They will keep thinking about that exam instead of moving on to the next one.
- They should smile at the person who wants to talk and diplomatically say that they don’t talk about exams. Then they should walk away.
A student who is upset by an exam needs to take several hours off and do something unrelated to law school. If the student's exam schedule allows it, the student will probably benefit from taking the rest of the day off and getting a good night's sleep. A fresh start in the morning will be more beneficial than studies that are unproductive because of a lack of focus. (Amy Jarmon)
Tuesday, May 1, 2012
Here are ten things that can improve your performance as an exam taker. Each of these tips can boost your focus, organization, or time management:
- About a week before the exam, condense your outline for a course to 5 or 10 pages of the most important material. Learn that shorter version very well.
- Several days before the exam, condense that shorter version of your outline to a skeleton outline of headings and sub-headings (no more than the front and back of a sheet of paper for the entire course). Memorize that version. When the exam proctor says you may begin, write that checklist down on scrap paper and use it as a guide as you answer the exam questions.
- For essay exams: Once the proctor says that you may begin the exam, make a time chart for yourself on scrap paper so that you can stay on track within the exam time allowed. For each essay question, allot yourself 1/3 of the question time for reading, analyzing and organizing your answer. Allot yourself 2/3 of the question time for writing the answer. Thus, for a one-hour exam question, you will use 20 minutes for the first steps and 40 minutes for writing. If you begin the question at 1:00 p.m., you will finish your first steps at 1:20 p.m. and begin writing; you will end writing at 2:00 p.m.
- For multiple-choice or true-false exams: Once the proctor says that you may begin the exam, make a time chart for yourself on scrap paper so that you can stay on track within the exam time allowed. Allot yourself checkpoint times for the number of questions that you should have completed. For example, if I must complete 60 questions in two hours, I might set up six checkpoints. If the exam starts at 1:00 p.m., I should have completed 10 questions at 1:20 p.m., 20 questions by 1:40 p.m., 30 questions by 2:00 p.m., 40 questions by 2:20 p.m., 50 questions by 2:40 p.m., and all 60 questions by 3:00 p.m.
- If you want review time in your time chart to go back over the exam, you will need to reserve review time out of the total exam time. You will then distribute the remaining time in the exam accordingly within the essay or multiple-choice chart for the exam. If you have a three-hour exam and want to reserve 30 minutes to go back over your answers, you will distribute 2 1/2 hours among the actual time to work on the exam questions as indicated in the last two bullet points.
- You will be better prepared for your exams if you do as many practice questions as possible during your studying. Choose practice questions of the type that your professor will have on the exam. Increase the difficulty in the questions as you approach the exam day.
- When you do practice questions for essay exams during the time leading up to the exam, complete at least some of the questions under timed conditions. Treat them just like the real exam questions. Read, analyze, and organize; then write. Practice your timing formula.
- When you do practice questions for multiple-choice or true-false exams during the time leading up to the exam, complete under timed conditions at one sitting at least half the number of questions you expect on the exam. Practice your timing checkpoints and pace during the questions.
- Open-book exams are a trap. You will not have time to look everything up. You need to study for the exam basically as if it were a closed-book exam so that you are confident with the material. Any items that your professor will allow you to have during the exam should be strategically used within the guidelines that you were given. Know exactly what your professor defines as accessible during an open-book exam; you do not want to make a mistake under the honor code for your law school.
- Get a good night's sleep for several inghts before an exam. You want to be awake and alert during the exam. Staying up for extra long hours the night before will not help. And you might oversleep! Eat a nutritious meal before the exam to give your brain cells fuel. If possible with your exam schedule, take two or three hours off after an exam to relax before going back to studying.
All the best wishes to law students getting ready for their exams. Take one day at a time and do the best you can each day. Then just move on to the next study day and next exam. You cannot fix what has already passed, but you can control what is ahead of you. (Amy Jarmon)
Wednesday, April 11, 2012
Exams are rapidly approaching. How are you doing with all of your daily tasks, papers, and exam studying? If you are looking for ways to use your time more wisely and be more productive in that time, here are some suggestions:
Choose your study locations carefully. If studying at the law school stresses you out and you get too distracted at home, here are some possible alternatives to consider: Other academic classroom buildings on campus. The main university library. The Student Union Building. Local coffee shops or fast food restaurants. The business center/function rooms at your apartment complex. A little-used office or conference room at the law firm where you work part-time.
Complete the hardest or least liked task on your daily “to do” list at the first chance you have in the morning. You will get it out of the way and not have it hanging over you all day.
Break every project or study topic into smaller tasks. You can often get a small task done in 15 – 45 minutes instead of looking for multiple hours to finish a larger task or study topic.
Take small breaks roughly every 90 minutes. Get up and walk around for 10 or 15 minutes rather than just stay seated. You will feel more refreshed and be able to focus better after your break.
If you tend to turn small breaks into longer than you wanted to take, use the alarm function on your smartphone to bring you back on time.
Ask a classmate or family member to be your “study conscience” for the remainder of the semester. Give that person permission to point out when you are procrastinating.
Every 3 to 4 hours of studying, take a longer break of at least 30 – 60 minutes so that you can relax before the next intense study session.
Some people need to take a 2-hour break that combines exercise and a meal at the end of the class day before they can re-focus for the evening. By combining exercise with a nutritious meal, you keep two healthy options in your routine.
Pull together the questions you have about course material to this point and get them answered soon by your professors. You will be more likely to learn the material correctly. You also will avoid the last-minute rush during the end of classes and exams. Some professors will only be available by e-mail once classes are over.
Consider condensing sections of your outlines that you have already learned well to half of the current length. Have the condensed version become your master document for exam study for those sections. As you learn additional sections in your longer outline, condense them also. (Begin your condensed outline as a new file and keep the longer version as a separate file in case you need to refer back to it.)
Complete as many practice questions as possible each week. Set aside blocks of time specifically designated to complete questions for each course. Otherwise you are likely to put off doing them.
Be on the lookout for when you are wasting time: between classes, checking e-mail and texts constantly, chatting with friends in the lounge, napping.
Have a series of study tasks that you can do in small amounts of time: using your flashcards, completing a couple of multiple-choice questions, writing out your “to do” list for the next day, going to ask a professor a question, editing a few paper citations.
Balance study group time with individual study. You cannot depend on your group members in the exam. Make sure you know the material and are not lulled into a false sense of security just because the group knows it.
Avoid people who stress you out, tempt you to avoid work, or make you feel inferior. Surround yourself instead with people who remain calm, are focused on their studies, and encourage you.
Get 7-8 hours of sleep every night. Your brain cells need the rest so that you can be more alert and productive. You will get more done in less time if you are well-rested.
Avoid junk food, caffeine, and excessive sugar. Healthy, nutritious meals three times a day will give your brain cells the nutrients they need to perform well.
By being more intentional in your use of time, you can boost your productivity a great deal. Everyone needs to find better ways to use the time available during this crunch time period. (Amy Jarmon)
Thursday, March 29, 2012
Making course outlines is a tradition at law schools. However, not all students get the most benefit from their outlines because they do not understand why they are making outlines and how to use them most efficiently and effectively for exam study. Here are some thoughts on outlining:
- If an outline is constructed properly, it will include all of the essential information from one's briefs, casebook, and class notes. In short, one should not have to go back to those materials again. The outline is truly the master document for exam study.
- The outline should be formatted to give the student a 360-degree view of the course: what is the big picture of the course; what are the main concepts and interrelationships among concepts as well as any relevant policy; what are the steps/rules/tests/questions to ask for analysis; and what are the details/fact examples/case names to flesh out the outline.
- The outline should flip the student's thinking from individual cases and minutia to synthesis of the material and the solving of new legal scenarios with the law that is learned through the cases. Except for major cases, cases should become illustrations rather than the focus of the outline.
- The outline is building a toolkit to solve new legal scenarios that will show up on the exam. Include the essential tools (each course may have different types of tools): rules, exceptions to rules, variations on rules, definitions, steps of analysis, questions to ask, bright line tests, policy arguments, etc.
- Additional information from supplements may also go into an outline. However, remember that students want to learn their professor's version of a course and not a supplement's version. If a student understands a topic fully, s/he may never look at a study supplement.
- The student wants to set aside time each week to review a section of an outline intensely - this is the review to learn the material as though the exam were next week. This intense review should be the time to gain full understanding and grapple with the material. Any questions that remain should be answered as quickly as possible by visiting the professor on office hours.
- In addition, a student wants to read the entire outline for a course through at least once a week - this is the review to keep all of the topics fresh (long after the intense review of early topics and before one has intensely reviewed some topics that are newly added to the outline).
- After one has intensely reviewed a section of the outline, it makes sense to do some practice questions to see if the material is really understood and can be applied to a new legal scenario. However, wait several days before doing practice questions. Otherwise, getting them right will happen because the material was just reviewed.
- After a topic in the outline is intensely reviewed and practice questions on the topic have shown that the material is truly understood, condense that portion of the outline by at least half. Start a second document that is the condensed outline so that the longer version is never lost.
- Approximately one - two weeks before the exam, condense the entire outline to 5-10 pages of essentials for the material so far. The essentials will bring back the more detailed information if the material has been studied properly. Use the condensed outline to recall the information.
- Condense the shorter outline again to the front and back of a sheet of paper. This condensed version can be memorized as a checklist. When the proctor in the exam tells you to begin, quickly write your checklist on scrap paper and use it as a guide throughout the exam.
Remember that the goal is to learn the material for an exam that is limited in time and will test students' knowledge solving new legal problems based on the semester's emphases. Students are not learning the material to go out and practice in that legal specialty the next day. If students tend to get bogged down in minutia, they need to remember that studying outlines has a specific goal in mind. (Amy Jarmon)
Tuesday, December 6, 2011
During final exams, there are several things you can do to make this time period less stressful and more productive. Here are some suggestions:
Promote a positive attitude. You were admitted to law school because your law school thinks you can succeed at this endeavor. Law school is demanding, but you can do this – keep the faith about your abilities. If you are having trouble staying positive, try the following:
- Post inspirational quotes or scriptures around your apartment so you see them in every room.
- Give yourself pep talks during the day – emphasize that you can succeed.
- Visualize yourself sitting in your exams and knowing the answers to every question.
- Avoid other students who are negative and instead spend time with students who are upbeat.
- Remember that you are still the same talented, successful, outstanding person you were when you walked into your law school for the first time.
Keep grades in perspective. You do not need 100% for an A in law school. Students receive A grades in some courses with only 70% of the possible points on the exam. You have approximately 90 credits in your law degree (more or less depending on your school). One course is a very small percentage of those grades. Remember that C and C+ grades are respectable in law school – you are not a failure if you receive these grades. After this semester, you can evaluate your study skills and improve your grades. The academic support/success office at your law school can help you become a better student.
Lower your stress by taking care of yourself. Do not succumb to the temptation to pull all-nighters, survive on caffeine and junk food, or ignore any illness.
- Lack of sleep is one of the main reasons why students perform poorly on exams that they studied for diligently. You cannot focus and get on paper what you know if you are not well-rested and alert. An extra hour of sleep will do you more good than an extra hour of studying.
- Eat nutritious meals. Your body and brain need energy for the “heavy lifting” they need to do. Sit down and eat a full meal rather than standing at the sink and gulping down your food. Eat real food rather than junk food or highly processed meals.
- Get exercise during the exam period. Spend at least 30 minutes at some activity several times during the week. Walking, sit-ups, yoga, running, or whatever will help you expend the stress built up in your body. It doesn’t have to be grueling, it just has to be active.
- If you are ill, get medical attention. Do not let your illness worsen because you don’t want to take the time to see a doctor. You will not perform at your best in an exam if you are sick.
Take some breaks so your brain can rest and continue filing what you have learned. You need breaks to renew your focus and ability to learn. Every 90 minutes take at least a 10 minute break. Every 3-4 hours take at least 30 minutes – 1 hour for a break. As you do more and more studying, you may well need breaks more frequently as your brain gets overloaded and tired. If you cannot absorb anything more, take off at least 2-3 hours before trying to study any additional time.
Eat breakfast or lunch before your exams. Do not go to a morning exam without eating any breakfast. Do not go to an afternoon exam without eating any lunch. Your body and brain need fuel. Eat lightly and cautiously if you tend to get nervous, but still eat.
Do light review the night before a morning exam or the morning before an afternoon exam. Heavy-duty studying during these times will likely increase your stress rather than your learning. Pace yourself in studying so that you can just read through your outline again and do some relatively easy practice questions in these time periods. Think of these times as “warm up” exercises before the big match.
If at all possible, take time off after an exam. If your exam schedule allows it, take the rest of the day off and start up again the next morning. At minimum take off 2-3 hours after an exam before you go back to studying. You will be more productive with a break after the stress of an exam.
Good luck on exams to all law students out there ! (Amy Jarmon)
Tuesday, November 29, 2011
Students and ASP professionals are always looking for ways to turn information into visuals. There are several products that provide free trials of their software. With the one exception noted, you will lose your work after the 30-day period unless you purchase the software. So, print out what you make before your trial period ends if you are not going to purchase the software.
SmartDraw: www.smartdraw.com; free download (doesn't say how long the trial lasts)
NovaMind5: www.novamind.com; 30-day free trial
Inspiration: www.inspiration.com; 30-day free trial
The Brain: www.thebrain.com; 30-day free trial; will be able to access Personal Brain software after 30 days, but cannot edit or make new graphic organizers - the features in the purchased product are amazing, but this one is probably not within most student budgets.
Have fun making your graphic organizers for exam study and workshop presentations. (Amy Jarmon)
Saturday, November 19, 2011
It is time to call in the reinforcements. For most law schools, exams are approximately 2 or 3 weeks away. That means that law students need to focus on studying and ask for help from family and friends on life's more mundane issues.
You may want to consider the following:
- Relay to friends and family that you are going into hibernation mode and will not be available until semester break to paint the living room, clean out the attic, plan your sister's June wedding, or shop 'til you drop. Tell them you love them, and promise a celebration after exams.
- Warn friends and family that you will be returning phone calls and replying to e-mail less regularly and to be patient if you do not get back to them right away for non-emergencies. (If you are really gutsy, ask them not to send you funny e-mails, chain poems, and You Tube video clips so that you can spend less time sorting e-mails.)
- Alert those who are fashionistas in your life that you are swapping high style for comfort, low-maintenance duds until the end of exams - less laundry, less ironing, less dry cleaning - unless they want to provide you with "wardrobe mistress" assistance.
- If you live with someone who is not a law student, see if you can negotiate that your (roommate, spouse, partner) take on extra chores until exams are over in return for your doing more chores throughout the semester break.
- If you live with a law student, negotiate swapping off days for chores so that each of you can have some uninterrupted study time without dishes, vacuuming, dusting, and more. Alternatively, do a "whirling dervish" cleaning together now and then settle for the bare minimum of picking up clutter and washing dishes.
- If you own a dog, ask your parents if you can bring their "grand-dog" with you at Thanksgiving for an "autumn camp" experience until your exams are over. You love Fluffy or Fido, but now is not the time to be rushing home constantly for walks, feedings, and play-time.
- If Auntie Em loves to cook and lives nearby (or you will see her at Thanksgiving), ask if she would be willing to let you pay her for the ingredients and her time in order to make you several large casseroles for your freezer - law students need nourishment during studying.
- Consider paying the neighbor's teenager to rake leaves, shovel snow, or do other outside work that can be time-consuming.
- Ask friends who are already running errands in that part of town if they would mind picking up a few groceries, a prescription, or other items for you if you give them the money and a list.
- If you have children, ask friends and family to babysit, set up play dates, have sleep overs, and generally provide some face time with your children so you can get some blocks of uninterrupted study time. Offer to reciprocate over the semester break.
If there are other areas of your life that you need help with during your study crunch, speak up. In fact, beg, plead, cajole, and get on your knees if you have to do so. You can and will make it up to them over the semester break. (Amy Jarmon)
Thursday, November 17, 2011
Students are really tired at this point in the semester. If they have stayed on top of things, they will be able to have more down time during the Thanksgiving holidays. That should help to recharge their batteries. If they are behind, they should still get some rest during the break; but they will need to study as well.
Here are some things to consider to keep yourself motivated during the remainder of the semester and through exams:
- If your law school reading and exam periods begin after only one week of classes post-Thanksgiving, consider doing all of your reading for the last week over the Thanksgiving break. Then review before class for 30 - 45 minutes to refresh your memory. Not having to read the last week of classes will give you lots of exam review time - a motivator in itself.
- Set realistic goals for each week for exam study. What subtopics or topics can you intensely review for each exam course? How many practice questions can you complete? If you set unrealistic goals, you will de-motivate yourself; you will become discouraged when it becomes obvious that you will not meet the goals.
- For each exam course, make a list of topics and subtopics that you must learn before the final exam. By focusing on subtopics, it will make the list very long. However, it is easier to find time to study one or two subtopics than to find time for an entire topic. You will feel less overwhelmed because you can make progress in small increments. Also, you will be able to cross off subtopics more quickly than entire topics. Thus, you will see your progress more easily and stay motivated.
- Read each of your outlines through from cover to cover each week for each exam course. This reading is not to learn everything - that is what you will do in intense review of the topics or subtopics. Instead this additional outline reading is to keep all of the information fresh no matter how long it has been since you intensely reviewed a topic or will be before you will get to intense review for some topics. You will feel better about your exam review as you catch yourself saying "I know this mataerial" or "I remember all of this information" about prior topics that you studied. You will motivate yourself for future topics waiting for intense review by realizing "I'll be able to learn this" or "I remember some of this already even though I haven't studied it carefully."
- Take your breaks strategically. Sprinkle short 5-minute breaks into longer 3- or 4-hour study blocks. Get up and walk arouond or stretch on those breaks rather than sitting still. After a large block of study time, take a longer break to exercise or eat a meal. Use the breaks as rewards for sticking to your task until you have completed what you planned to finish.
- Surround yourself with encouragers. Avoid classmates who are all doom and gloom. Have phone conversations with family and friends who will cheer you on and support you. Find classmates who are willing to work together to keep all of you in the support group motivated and on track.
- Plan several fun things that you want to do over the semester break: taking a day trip with friends, going to the cinema several times, attending a concert, playing basketball with a younger sibling, shopping for new clothes. By having things to look forward to, you can tell yourself "I just need to keep up the hard work for a few more weeks and then I get to do (fill in the blank) as a reward."
Think about individual strategies that work for you to stay motivated but might not apply to a classmate. Examples of motivators for getting your work done might be: time with your spouse, time with your child, time with your pet, spiritual devotion time, time for a longer run on the weekend. (Amy Jarmon)
Saturday, November 12, 2011
Law students try at times to substitute memorization of the black letter law for actual understanding of their course material. They are then surprised that they receive grades in the "C" range in return for their efforts.
The focus on memorization is a leftover from many undergraduate courses where the professor just wanted students to regurgitate information on a page for an "A" grade. The difference in law school is that students have to go beyond mere memorization. Memorizing the rules, exceptions to rules, methodologies, policy arguments, and so forth is essential to a good grade in law school; but memorization is just the beginning of the learning process rather than the end goal.
Lawyers in essence are problem solvers. They are confronted with client problems that they must solve either by prior knowledge or through research. The easy questions are dealt with fairly quickly. The hard questions are the ones that consume their days and our court system. To problem solve, lawyers must understand the law and how to apply it to legal scenarios.
Law students must also be able to problem solve. On their exams, they are faced with new legal scenarios that they must analyze. To do so effectively, they need to understand the law that applies to the situation and explain their analysis in detail. Yes, they need to have memorized the law so that they can state it accurately. But without understanding they will be able to apply it only superficially.
Memorization is the start. Understanding is the key. Application is the reward. (Amy Jarmon)
Wednesday, November 9, 2011
Students often study for exams in ways that are counter-productive. They may adopt old undergraduate methods for exam study because they do not understand how law school exams are different. Well-meaning advice from upper-division law students may lead them into methods that go against memory and learning theory. Here are some common techniques that do not work and why they are not wise:
Re-reading cases is rarely an effective strategy. The professor is not going to ask a student to tell him everything the student knows about a case. Instead the professor is going to ask the student to apply the essentials from all the cases on a topic to a new fact scenario. Time is better spent on pulling together the topics and subtopics with the law for each. The cases become illustrations in that bigger picture.
Reading an entire study aid right before the exam. There is too much information to absorb at the end of the semester when reading an entire study aid. The study aid may not match the specific professor's version of the course which will lead a student to learn the material in a way that actually makes it harder for the professor to find points on the exam. Study aids tend to include multiple topics or subtopics that the professor never touched on in class.
Choosing to complete very few practice questions. Exams in law school are all about applying the law to new fact scenarios. Practice questions allow a student to check understanding of the material and ability to spot issues. Practice also allows one to get really good at organizing answers and writing them out - especially if some questions are done under timed conditions.
Treating all exam courses equally may lead to trouble. It is the rare student who has a truly equal situation in all courses. The amount of time spent for exam study in each course should consider: the amount of material covered in the course, the difficulty of the course for the student, the amount of black letter law to memorize, the number of practice questions to be completed, the format of the exam, and any other variables specific to a course and professor. Time should be divided among the courses to reflect these variables.
Studying X course for a week, then Y course for a week, then Z course for a week, and so forth. By focusing on one course to the exclusion of other courses for exam study, the student merely provides time to forget the material for the courses not studied. By the time the first course is cycled back to, even more material will be forgotten in that course. It is better to complete exam study in each course each week if at all possible.
Not preparing for classes in order to study for exams more. This strategy can be counter-productive because one is limiting deep understanding of the new material that will be on the final exam. By depending just on the highlights covered in class, the student loses the context as to why the law works the way it does.
Taking all of one's remaining absences at the end of the semester in order to study for exams more. Professors often give information about the exam during the last classes. Many professors will pull the course together at the end. Some professors will test heavily on the end material in the course. For all of these reasons, missing class is not a good idea.
Smart exam studying is the key to success. By using time and techniques to be efficient and effective, students can get higher grades on their exams. (Amy Jarmon)
Friday, November 4, 2011
Many law students are forming study groups for the first time at this point in the semester. Instead of using a group throughout the semester to consolidate material and compare outlines, they are narrowing their focus to problem areas in understanding and practice questions.
Study groups can be very effective. Students may benefit greatly from the practice question discussions when they realize they would have missed certain nuances in the law or confused steps in the analysis. In addition, working through problems together helps one monitor preparedness on a topic in comparison to classmates. Finally, study groups can serve an accountability function - if you promise the group you will do something before the next meeting, you have the motivation to stay on task.
However, students need to make sure that they do not overuse or depend on a study group to the detriment of their individual learning. It has to be a balance. After all, one's study group cannot answer the questions for you in the actual exam.
Consider these points to monitor the balance between study group and individual time:
- Make a list for each course of all topics with subtopics that you must learn before the final exam. Use monthly calendars for November and December. Mark your last day of classes. Fill in your exam schedule.
- Lay out on the calendar for each day through the end of classes which subtopics for which courses you will personally learn during the remaining time. This method helps you front-load learning so that you leave only a realistic amount for the exam period itself.
- Consider how much time you need for the grunt memory work on rules, exceptions to rules, methodologies, and other information. Determine how you will do your memory drills: flashcards, writing the rules ten timex, reciting the rules aloud, mind maps for each rule. Distribute that time throughout the calendars.
- Decide when you will do practice questions with your study group to get group input. You will get more from these sessions if all of the members think about the questions ahead of time and come with outlined answers.
- Leave time for practice questions that you will complete on your own. You should outline every one and write out as many as possible. Take some of the questions under exam conditions. (See Dennis Tonsing's November 2nd posting for more information on scheduling your exam study and practice questions.)
- If you find that group time is taking away from your ability to learn the material in time for the exam, moderate your group time. For example, if the group wants to meet for four hours, perhaps you will go for the portion that focuses on the course you find most difficult but not stay for discussion on other courses. Or you might go for the practice question discussion but not the more general discussion of course material. Explain to the group why you are not attending the full meetings so there will not be hard feelings.
- If the study group becomes non-productive because of personalities, too much socializing, or other negative dynamics, diplomatically resign from the group. You may be able to find one study partner who will be more compatible than trying to stay with the group.
Consider the efficiency of being in a group (wise use of time) and the effectiveness from being in a group ("oomph" out of the time). (Amy Jarmon)
Wednesday, November 2, 2011
Thanksgiving approaches. Time for students to commit their study plans to writing! Here are my recommendations for students who want to prepare for exams AND enjoy their families and friends during a (partially) relaxed Thanksgiving break.
For each course, set target dates for completion of your outline (course summary), early completion of your briefing for class, and the number of practice exam questions you intend to answer. Thanksgiving Day is Thursday, November 24, 2011. Usually, law schools have no classes on the day before, Wednesday, November 23. Reading week and exams follow shortly after the semester resumes.
For many students, time with family and friends is too important to neglect at this time of year. Plan to relax! Writing out your detailed study schedule before November (then sticking to it) will allow you to relax, because you will see the relaxation as PART of the study plan instead of interference with it.
Example for Contracts class:
A. Outline completed by November 14.
B. All cases briefed for class by November 16.
C. 50 MBE questions answered by November 22.
D. 50 single-issue essay questions answered in writing by November 24.
E. 20 one-hour essay questions answered in outline form before reading week.
F. 15 one-hour essay questions answered under exam conditions by 3 days before exam date.
The next step is to break each of those (A through F) down into components. How many hours per week/day do you realistically estimate it will take you to complete your outline, and to brief the cases ahead of the class schedule? Spread those hours out on your daily calendar.
Do the same for the questions you intend to answer, including notes as to the source of the questions. You can start gathering questions today. Here's an idea: exchange questions with your study group, to share the burden of finding questions that address the issues you need to focus on.
Do this for each class, and you'll see that you have enough time between now and the date of each exam to prepare fully, so that you can enter the exam room with well-deserved confidence!
Look in your law library for an old issue of Student Lawyer Magazine, an American Bar Association publication ... Volume 33, Number 7, dated March 2005, includes an article I wrote entitled, "A Plan for Your Exams." The article provides a more detailed explanation of this exam study plan! (djt)
Friday, October 21, 2011
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)
Saturday, October 8, 2011
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)
Wednesday, May 4, 2011
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.
Wednesday, April 20, 2011
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)
Thursday, April 7, 2011
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)
Saturday, April 2, 2011
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)
Friday, April 1, 2011
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.