Friday, November 30, 2007
Any student can use the services of ASP at my law school. During the semester, I keep a steady flow of appointments on my calendar. However, my regular load of appointments started to dwindle a few days before the Thanksgiving Break. The final week of classes has followed immediately on the heels of that holiday break.
Do not fear that I might be sitting quietly in my office with nothing to do. At the same time that my usual student load began to drop off, my walk-in traffic sharply increased. A whole new crop of students arrived to fill the gap. Many, but not all, have been 1L students.
With roughly two weeks of classes left when the first walk-ins began to appear, I found myself dealing mainly with students who had been merely surviving the semester. Some were in worse shape than others. My questions to evaluate the severity of the symptoms tended to elicit responses such as:
- Yes, I have kept up with the reading.
- No, I have no outlines of my own.
- No, I have not done practice questions.
- No, I do not go to the group tutoring sessions.
- No, I did not go to any of the ASP workshops.
- Yes, I did all right on the practice exams that my professors gave; I was just below (or at) the median grades.
- No, I did not go to see my professors about the practice exam or anything else this semester.
I consider these types of cases to be the equivalent of ER triage. Stop the bleeding. Use stitches or staples to put them back together. Provide oxygen if necessary. Prescribe some pain-killers and other appropriate medications. And, request a follow-up visit in five weeks.
Depending on the severity of the academic trauma, I must make a judgment call on whether quick action and minor procedures will suffice or if we are into academic CPR mode. (Occasionally, resuscitation is not possible, and the Academic Associate Dean is brought in on a consultation about possible WD or LOA procedures if circumstances warrant.)
First, I keep a calm voice as I probe with questions to evaluate what steps must be taken immediately. Is the pulse racing or non-existent? The student is usually at least pale, worried, near tears, or breathless. No need to arouse total panic. Good bedside manner is important. My heart may sink to the bottom of my toes as I analyze the situation, but I listen to the story and nod to encourage dialogue.
Second, I try very hard to ignore the "ounce of prevention - what were you thinking" speech in the back of my mind. Instead, I suggest to the student that there are additional steps we can take in the future, but that for now we need to take quick action. I make mental notes regarding next semester - possibly a rehab period of 4 - 6 weeks once classes start in January.
Third, I decide what can be realistically accomplished in the short time frame. How can we use time to advantage by being very efficient? A bit easier for 1L's who have nicely spaced exams than for my 2L's and 3L's who often seem to be the very ones with multiple sets of back-to-back exams plus a paper. What are the most effective study techniques for this student? The options will vary depending on the particular student, professors, courses, study deficiencies, and number of days left.
Fourth, I decide whether there is time for multiple sessions or if one intensive session will have to suffice. Although I know that my repertoire includes some powerful medicines for academic woes, I also know that there are no miracle drugs in ASP. I can provide the triage, but the student needs to have the will to live and fight another day. And, an extra strong dose of assistance may not stand up to a massive infection of poor academic planning and inadequate study habits.
Fifth, I help the student lay out a treatment plan to minimize the damage and salvage the semester. I offer follow-up visits if desired. I make referrals if appropriate. I often say silent prayers for the most traumatized.
Sixth, I remind myself that I have done the best that I can in an emergency situation. I hang up my stethoscope for the day. I close the door to go home. I am relieved that I do not wear a beeper. However, I know that tomorrow there will be a new batch of triage cases outside my office.
And after exam period ends, I wait for January when I can re-assess the prognosis after test results and schedule the major surgery needed. Hopefully, it will not be too late. (Amy Jarmon)
Friday, November 9, 2007
I am doing a brisk business in my study aids library on practice question books right now. In talking with the students, I give them some hints for using practice questions wisely.
- Use practice questions after reviewing a topic or sub-topic. Learning the material initially through the practice questions is usually not very efficient or effective. Testing oneself after study gives more information on what one does or does not understand and at what depth one has learned the material.
- Remember that practice questions perfect test-taking techniques as well as application of the actual content of the course. Examples of test taking techniques would include: reading the call of the question before the fact pattern; dividing one's time on an essay between analysis/organization and writing; charting an answer; coding of multiple-choice options for "good" and "bad" choices; coding multiple-choice questions for review if time allows.
- Evaluate one's answers for errors in content as well as test-taking strategies that need to be improved. Because both aspects help one perform optimally on the exam, it is important to hone both aspects before the exam.
- Use the index or table of contents in a practice question book to determine which questions are on the sub-topics or topics that one wants to practice. This way, time is not wasted reading through questions for ones that will match the study topic.
- Realize that using only the commercial flashcard questions does not fully prepare one for the real exam. Although the flashcard scenarios are memorable, they usually avoid complicated analysis. Students may want to start with these to check understanding, but they should not end here.
- Choose practice questions whenever possible that match the type of exam expected in each course: essay for essay; short-answer for short-answer; multiple-choice for multiple-choice.
- Choose practice questions that match the level of difficulty for which one is ready. Start with one-issue essay questions to check understanding of the concepts and rules. Then, move on to multiple-issue essay questions. Then, move on to past final exam questions from exam database at one's law school.
- Complete practice questions on one's own in addition to any questions that are done with a study buddy or study group. The study buddy or group members will not be able to help in the analysis during the exam. Solo practice at questions is essential.
- Complete as many practice questions as possible without reference to an outline or class notes. Even if an exam is "open-book" (and definitions vary of that term), one does not have time to look up very much. Therefore, thorough study and practice without looking everything up helps on time efficiency during the final.
- Complete some questions under actual timed conditions. It is important to know whether or not one can complete the analysis within the time limits. One can always complete the analysis when taking as long as needed, but that is normally not possible on an exam.
- Complete some questions under other conditions that may be required, such as word limits or page limits. Again, if one does not practice within these conditions before the exam, it is hard to stick to the limits in the actual exam.
- Practice as much as possible. One can never do enough practice questions. Practice questions force thinking about the law in new situations and recognizing the nuances in its application.
Of course, students should ideally be doing practice questions all semester after each sub-topic or topic. However, the reality is that many students are just now starting the process. Depending on the timing of practce for a particular student, I will give additional pointers if needed. (Amy Jarmon)
Monday, October 29, 2007
If you are looking for a good resource on taking law school exams, check out Suzanne Darrow-Kleinhaus's Mastering the Law School Exam, published by Thomson-West. It lays out detailed approaches to preparing for and taking various types of law school exams and includes practice exams and model answers. I think students, ASP professionals, and law professors would all find it very helpful.
Thursday, October 18, 2007
Thanks to Amy Jarmon for her superb suggestions about exam preparation. (See Amy’s October 17 blog text below.)
One of the most important recommendations she provides – and one which too many students overlook completely, is this: “Using a very structured weekly time management schedule for the remainder of the semester will allow the student to keep up with current class material while reviewing for exams which can in turn lower anxiety because all tasks are being completed.”
The “exam plan” is critical, and (I think) it needs to be made looooonnnnngggg before the final two weeks of the semester. I have sat with many students and assisted them in constructing detailed personalized exam study plans. This (your personalized assistance in creating this plan) could be the most important lesson students learn from you.
To supplement and underscore Amy’s suggestions, I have pulled some material from an article I wrote a while back for the ABA Student Lawyer Magazine (I believe it appeared in the March 2006 issue if you want to find the entire article in your law library). The article dealt with anxiety reduction throughout the semester, but included a few suggestions about exams in particular. What follows is based on that article.
The “old hands” at academic support are familiar with all of this, of course. I’m hoping this might be valuable to some of you who are relative newcomers to academic support … and, in turn, that it will ripple out to the students and those whom they eventually serve.
To excel as a law student, you need to keep your cool during study time, class time, and exam time. To excel as a lawyer, you need to do the same—even though the setting is different. Three standard law school activities—studying law with a deadline approaching, being called on in front of others to address a difficult problem, and producing cogent arguments on demand—are also standard features of most lawyers' weeks.
Law school has something else in common with law practice: collywobbles—those uncomfortable feelings in the stomach caused by nervousness, anxiety, or fear.
Students study and learn best when they are at their peak performance level, and collywobbles inhibit peak performance.
[The article suggests methods of dealing with anxiety throughout the semester, then considers the subject of minimizing exam collywobbles.] After noting that, ideally, exam preparation begins on the first day of the semester, these tips follow:
- Exam preparation should include development of a detailed written study schedule for several weeks before the examination dates.
- If you have not kept your course outlines up to date throughout the semester, you need to complete them at least a couple of weeks before exams. You should also schedule sufficient time for review and internalization of all key definitions, elements, black-letter rules — anything that may be an essential component of an exam answer's completely predictable portions.
- Developing topical “mastery” — the ability to efficiently resolve difficult problems within a short time frame in writing under pressure — is essential. Achieve mastery by writing answers to short hypothetical questions covering all the topics and issues that may be the subject of test questions. Compare your answers to sample answers to measure your achievement level. You will recognize mastery when you achieve it.
- Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse. Answer several questions similar to those you expect to encounter on each exam, under the same time and environmental conditions you will be subjected to on exam day.
- Ask for help if/as needed. During this final phase of preparing for exams, visit with your professors to clear up any areas of the law that trouble you.
- Make an appointment with your school's academic support professional if you want some fine-tuning of your style.
There is no one-size-fits-all schedule, nor is there a “rule” for how many practice questions to do. One thing I think students ought to hear, however, is based on what the bar exam professional trainers suggest. BarBri or PMBR, for example, recommend some very large number of practice MBE questions (is it near 3,000?) before taking what is essentially a pass/fail test where scoring considerably below the “average” score will earn the examinee a license to practice law (assuming the rest of the exam is passed as well).
The actual MBE exam consists of 200 questions. That’s a fifteen-to-one ratio. So, if a first-year student wants to do much better than average (earn an A, for example), maybe she ought to take a look at that ratio when planning her study for the 15 multiple choice questions her Torts professor has promised. That works out to 225 questions as a minimum.
How does that relate to essay practice? Well, is it unreasonable to practice answering questions for 45 hours to prepare for a 3-hour essay exam? Maybe yes, maybe no — however, I’ve queried many students who wind up in the nether regions of their class ranks on this very subject, and discovered that the average time spent actually answering practice questions in writing (either short ones like you’ll find in the Examples & Explanations series or standard-sized one-hour essay exams) is approximately this: 1.
If it’s true that practice makes perfect, what does this (answering 1 question) make?
Go figure. Literally. Figure out how many questions will make you (student) feel really comfortable going in to the exam room. Then include that number in your exam plan.
Hasta luego. (djt)
Wednesday, October 17, 2007
For the most part, mid-term examinations are ending this week at my law school. Each week during mid-terms, I have had students come by to discuss test anxiety. Some of them tell me that test anxiety has been an ongoing problem throughout college. However, most of them tell me that they have never had test anxiety until now.
There are a number of suggestions that I make in hopes of preventing future bouts of test anxiety as their final examinations approach:
- Reviewing outlined material regularly throughout the remainder of the semester (rather than cramming at the very end) will provide deeper understanding which can in turn create greater confidence and lower anxiety.
- Asking professors questions that the student has been unable to resolve (rather than storing them up for six more weeks) will eliminate confusion about material which can in turn lower anxiety about the course.
- Working as many practice questions as possible for the remainder of the semester will increase skill in applying the nuances of the law which can in turn mean the student is less likely to confront a question scenario which is a total surprise.
- Working as many practice questions as possible for the remainder of the semester will mean the techniques for taking exams (such as IRAC) are on "auto-pilot" which can in turn mean lower anxiety about how to proceed on a difficult question.
- Using a very structured weekly time management schedule for the remainder of the semester will allow the student to keep up with current class material while reviewing for exams which can in turn lower anxiety because all tasks are being completed.
- Using a very structured monthly time management schedule for the remainder of the semester will allow the student to designate course sub-topics to study during review time in the weekly schedule which can in turn lower anxiety as sub-topics are crossed off after each review session.
- Sleeping a minimum of seven hours per night will help the student be more alert and focused while studying which can in turn create a more positive perspective on law school and lower anxiety.
- Exercising several times a week will allow the student to take advantage of one of the most effective stress-busters which can in turn lower anxiety about exams (and life).
- Eating three nutritious meals (rather than junk food) will help the student to have more energy for productive studying which can in turn lower anxiety about getting things done.
- Practicing simple relaxation exercises (such as deep breathing and gentle shoulder or head rotations) every day will lower stress which can in turn keep test anxiety at bay.
- Taking several hours off from studying when the student is feeling "nothing is going in" despite best efforts will allow a change of pace which can in turn prevent a student from becoming overwhelmed.
- Attending counseling (or biofeedback training) through the university counseling center will assist students who have histories of test anxiety in managing the problem which can in turn lower their likelihood of having future severe attacks.
Not all of these suggestions work for every student. However, most students can find several suggestions on the list that seem good matches to their temperments and needs. (Amy Jarmon)
Thursday, July 12, 2007
Professor John Delany's How to Do Your Best on Law School Exams, is an excellent resource for both law students and ASP professionals. A longtime criminal law professor, Delaney provides an insightful and detailed approach to semester-long exam preparation, as well as practical strategies for answering the exam questions themselves in ways that demonstrate the analytical skills that law professors are trying to assess.
One of the most powerful aspects of the book is Professor Delaney's ability to tie exam preparation to the analytical skills that lie at the heart of a proper legal education. Through thoughtful explanations of effective learning strategies and multiple practical illustrations and sample problems and answers, Professor Delaney demystifies much of both the study of law and the keys to success on law school assessments.
Any student who wonders why in the world we test the way we do should read this book. Any student who wants to transform exam preparation into deep learning and powerful analytical skill development should read it and then reread it several times. (Dan Weddle)
Friday, April 6, 2007
For our campus, it is just over three weeks until exams begin. My students who have been working with me throughout the semester are right on schedule with their additions each week to outlines, reading assignments for class, review for exams, and practice questions. Most of them are calm enough that they are making solid decisions about all of their tasks and the time allotted for each task.
However, I am concerned about the students who have arrived belatedly on my doorstep or who are in trouble and have not yet come for help. At this point in the semester, I encourage all students to ask three little questions about everything that they do:
- What is the payoff on exams of what I am doing right now? (And, if minimal, what would have more payoff?)
- Is what I am doing right now the most efficient use of time? (And, if not, what would be more efficient?)
- Is what I am doing right now the most effective way of doing this task? (And, if not, what would be more effective?)
If a study task has little or no payoff for exams, then the student needs to re-think the approach. For example, re-reading every case in the course usually has little or no payoff since exams focus on application to new facts rather than on close inspection of cases. On the other hand, reviewing an outline or doing practice questions would both have big payoffs. By asking the question, a student should realize she needs to drop the first approach and focus on the other two tasks.
Even a big payoff task can be done inefficiently if one is not careful. For example, doing practice questions before any review of the material may be totally inefficient as a first step to studying because the student will not have the knowledge base to test understanding accurately. On the other hand, asking a professor questions after reviewing a single topic would be more efficient than storing up all questions to the end of review for all topics.
A student may choose a big payoff task and do it efficiently, but still not have the studying be effective. Reviewing outlines is a big pay-off item. And, reviewing them early in the study process (rather than cramming) is a very efficient use of time. However, reviewing topics that have already been learned well and avoiding the difficult topics would be ineffective in the scheme of preparing all topics for the exam.
Efficiency and effectiveness sometimes overlap. Studying the difficult topics when the student is most alert during the day would be both efficient (a wise use of those hours) and effective (more will be understood and retained when the student is alert).
I find that students who are stressed at this time of the semester often despair over difficult courses unless they can get more control over their studying. These three little questions help them to critique their study tactics and replace bad choices with better choices. (Amy Jarmon)
Monday, March 26, 2007
As your first-year students prepare for another round of exams, you might want to direct them to my UMKC colleague Barbara Glesner Fines's Law School Materials for Success. Having been through their first set of exams, 1L's can absorb her advice from a more informed perspective than the one they had back in November. (dbw)
Monday, March 19, 2007
Now that my students are back from Spring Break, they are more aware of how short the rest of the semester is. Many of them are beginning to plan their exam studying.
I have discovered that there are some myths out there that have been handed down through generations of law students. Unfortunately, the myths are bad ways to study for exams. So, I always go into "mythbuster" mode at this time of the semester. Here are the myths that I have to confront most frequently:
- Slack off in Legal Practice for the rest of the semester to gain more time to study for exams. You may call the course Legal Skills or Legal Research and Writing at your law school. The logic (or more accurately the illogic) behind this myth is that Legal Practice is not a "real" or "serious" course because it is only worth 3 instead of 4 credits. I point out the following to my students: a) an "A" or "B" is a 3-credit course still does wonders for your GPA; b) summer employers often look at the LP grade very closely to determine whether or not they should make an offer; c) doing well in research and writing and other legal skills is essential for clerking in the summer if you do not want to look foolish.
- Do not do any practice questions until you reach the exam period. I explain to students that this strategy is a great deal like riding a bull in a rodeo without practicing beforehand. (This is Texas, so rodeos seem a better example than skiing or some other activities that I use in other regions of the country.) I explain that the benefits of lots of practice questions over time are: a) increased ability at issue spotting; b) deeper understanding of the nuances of the law; c) increased memory of the black letter law; and d) increased skill at exam writing techniques and strategies.
- Spend two weeks focusing on each course during the next six weeks and you will be ready for exams. Since we forget 80% of what we learn within 2 weeks if we do not review regularly, this seems a real recipe for failure. (Ideally, I want them to study all semester for exams - but that is a whole other column.) I talk about the benefits of regularly reviewing each course every week for the remainder of the semester. I tell them that although they may focus on certain topics for those courses each week, they still want to review the entire outline for each course to keep it fresh. Besides, many of the students who use this method ignore the six weeks of new material and then are really in trouble. And, what do you do with this myth if you have four or five exam courses?
- Treat all of your exam courses alike in your studying plan for exams. It is a rare law student who is equally competent or equally lost in all courses. When I get them to talk about how the courses, exams, and material are different from each other, they begin to see that they need to tailor a study plan for each course separately. I suggest that they consider: a) will the exam cover the entire semester (some students have mid-terms and that material is deleted from the final); b) how many topics and sub-topics are there for each course that will be included in each exam; c) how thoroughly have they already learned each of those topics and sub-topics; d) which courses do they need more time on to be prepared for exams because they are confused about the material or how to apply the material; e) how many practice questions have they already completed.
- You do not have to study as hard for an open-book exam. Open-book exams are usually a trap. Students who do not learn the material as they would for a closed-book exam often have to look everything up. Only a general, surface knowledge of the material is often the result of believing this myth. And, we all know that you rarely have spare time in an exam to look much up in your materials.
- You do not need to study as hard for multiple-choice exams. The old college saying was that you just need recognition and not recall. Students underestimate the difficulty of "best answer" multiple-choice exam and the nuances involved. Again, general, surface knowledge of the material is encouraged by this myth.
- Save all of your absences and do not go to class the last week to gain more time to study for exams. Obviously, they see the error of this advice when I explain that professors often give additional information about the exam and tie together the material in the last week. In addition, I warn them that some professors weight the last couple of weeks of class heavily in the exam questions.
- Stop reading for your courses to gain more time to study for exams and just "pass" if you get called on during class. I often ask students if the material during the next 6 weeks will be on their exams. When they respond that it will be, then I ask how they are going to learn the material for those exams if they do not understand what is going on in class since they did not read the cases and other materials.
- Stay up as late as possible during exam period to get in those extra hours of studying. Wrong! Being alert and well-rested will provide a far better result in the exam. For my student skeptics, I tell them my horror story from first-semester 1L year about oversleeping for my Contracts exam. (I was given the full time to take the exam, but my grade was docked two steps in our grading scale. That gets their attention!)
After 5 semesters of conscientious "mythbuster" efforts, I am finding that I do not hear these myths as often as I used to when I first arrived to start an ASP program here. However, the myths still rear their ugly heads at unexpected times. A mythbuster's work is never done. (Amy Jarmon)
Monday, March 5, 2007
It's midterm time here, and most teachers give multiple choice tests. (In a future post, I'll raise some questions and issues regarding the policies, advantages, and disadvantates of our practice of giving midterms each semester, but for now, here is one approach that has worked to some extent with some students (is that qualified enough?).)
Of course, I echo that the route to a good grade on multiple choice exams is the same as the one that will get you to Carnegie Hall - practice, practice, practice.
But for some, simply practicing is not enough, and some guided steps can be helpful. I suggest to students that they review their completed practice exams through three lenses: (1) doctrine; (2) application; and (3) test-taking strategies. All three are in the mix with each question, in differing degrees. They overlap, of course.
First comes doctrine - what doctrine does the question require for choosing the right answer? Is their articulation of that doctrine accurate and complete (the two criteria I set out for them in evaluating rule statements in their study groups/outlines, etc.)? If they have paraphrased the rule, e.g., from a Restatement, have they changed it or left out an element or factor?
Application: Did the correct answer to the question depend on a particular fact that they either overlooked, ignored, or didn't understand? Or, was the doctrine triggered by the absence of facts (i.e., res ipsa loquitur)? Did the facts trigger a policy that made one answer better than the others?
Test taking stragegies: Are the students using all the structural clues that the questions themselves provide as guides to the correct choices? For example, if two choices are virtually identifal paraphrases of one another, attrative as they are, neither one is likely to be the correct answer. If one choice discusses unfamiliar doctrine that was not covered in class or on the syllabus, it's good practice to have the confidence to pass it by, on the theory that "I studied, I'm prepared, if I don't recognize it, it's not because I'm unprepared." Does that particular teacher tend to put in red herring facts?
One good exercise is to take a question apart, figure out the least crummy choice out of four crummy choices (a/k/a the right answer), and then break the class up into small groups, giving each the task of adding one or two facts that will either make another answer better, or test some different doctrine.
Finally, for now, is my "margin of error" speech. There is a margin of error built into most exams, which is why an A on the exam rarely, if ever, requires a score of 100 percent. That margin of error is, to a large extent, beyond the control of the student, i.e., there's some doctrine, I didn't get, some fact I didn't recognize, some quirk I didn't pick up. The object is to narrow that margin of error so that all of hte questions that are in my control, I get right. The "three lens" technique gives some students a handle on how to do that.
Thursday, February 15, 2007
As mid-terms roll around for first-year students and for those upper-division students in two-topic courses that divide the semester into two exams, I am reminded of the perils of take-home exams. Students often make flawed assumptions about take-home exams.
Some students assume that these exams will be easier because they are given more time usually to take the exams - many times an entire weekend. However, professors write take-home exams that are just as hard as in-class exams. And, they sometimes have higher expectations if students have been given especially long time blocks to take the exam.
Other students assume that they do not really have to study because many of these exams are also open book. However, going into any exam without serious studying is a recipe for poor performance since all exams require deep understanding of the material, the ability to apply the material to new facts, and precise use of the law and policy for the course.
Some students worry to death about the fact that other students in the class may have more time to do well because those students do not have the same work load over the testing period given for the exam. Take-home exams are written with the premise that all students have been learning the material throughout the semester. If a student has been diligent all semester, the work load over one testing period should not matter. Besides a student can only do her best. Worrying about the competition undermines that ability.
Take-home exams can be disastrous for students unless they make wise choices as to time management, strategies, and techniques. Some suggestions that I offer to my students are as follows:
- Make sure that the instructions are fully understood. How many hours or days are given for completion of the exam? What page limits or format requirements apply? When and where must the exam be picked up and turned in? What materials, if any, can be referred to during the exam?
- Study for a take-home exam as one would for a comparable in-class exam. If it is closed book, then condense the course outline and work on memory and relationships of concepts well before the actual starting time for the exam. If it is open book exam, do not decide to do any studying of the material while taking the exam. Study as if it will be closed book exam so that time is not wasted time looking everything up during the taking of the exam.
- Use the format and page limits that the professor requires. Do not be so foolish as to decide that one can ignore the professor's instructions to write an office memorandum or letter to the client. Page or word limits are real because many professors will not read one more word than the instructions indicated.
- Make a time chart for the exam that matches the time given. For example, if the time period is 48 hours for the exam, subtract out time to sleep, eat, take breaks etc. If the time is 8 hours, subtract out less break or meal time. Divide the remaining time proportionately among the questions based on points or suggested times made by the professor. Finally, if the exam is an essay one, divide the time for each question into 1/3 for reading the question, analyzing, and outlining an answer and 2/3 for writing and editing the answer. Some good typists can use a 1/2 to 1/2 formula instead. (If an exam is for shorter periods of time, such as 3 or 4 hours, work straight through and still use the 1/3 - 2/3 or 1/2 - 1/2 formula.)
- If a long time is given to do an exam (12 or more hours for what is in effect a 4-hour exam), read through the entire exam as soon as one is permitted to look at it. This way, one can begin to think about the questions and how to approach and organize the material before actually sit down to work in earnest.
- Use "bursts" and "breaks" if one has a long time period to complete the exam. Work with an intense focus for 60 - 90 minutes. Then take a short 5- or 10-minute break. Then do another burst of intense work. Continue this pattern.
- Beware procrastination. Assume that study preparation is going to take longer than expected. Once the exam is started, do not delay even though tasks might be spread over several days. Avoid the "I have all day" philosophy. Realize that the goal is to finish the exam before the end of the "clock" so that there is time to review and edit as necessary. Also, by not delaying, an excellent product is still possible even if illness, a family emergency, or other mishap intervenes.
- Beware perfectionism. Set a strict time limit on studying for the exam so that going overboard and losing valuable exam writing time do not result. Do not over-outline or over-write answers because this is an exam, not the Nobel Prize for literature. Do not delay the actual writing of the exam once the outline for an answer is completed. One can broaden the analysis, include more detail, and edit as needed.
- Stock up on ink cartridges, paper, food, beverages, and other necessities before starting. Do not allow concentration to be shattered or time wasted by these items that could be planned for and acquired before starting the exam.
- If writer's block occurs, take scrap paper and write anything: stream of consciousness, fuzzy ideas, or the errand list for the week. Just start writing to help unblock the process. Once focus is regained, move on to the actual exam.
Students tend to either love or loath take-home exams. By using these simple strategies, all students can feel more secure in their performance on take-home exams. (alj)
Sunday, January 21, 2007
In a posting a few days ago, I discussed briefly the problem many students have seeing the forest for the trees. In talking with one of my students about that problem – one he had observed in himself and had overcome – I asked what he does to step back from the individual trees in the casebook and see the larger forest.
He told me that he takes each section of his outline and writes a prose explanation of the entire section, as if he were explaining it to someone else. He says, in effect, "Here's how defamation works." He then explains the basic concept: its rules, exceptions, defenses, competing minority and majority views, its underlying logic and its roots in public policy, etc.
He said that studying a linear outline does not pull those relationships together for him. Until he converts his outline into a coherent prose explanation, it is simply a list of concepts, not something he understands deeply and can manipulate to analyze a new set of facts.
Each prose explanation, on the other hand, becomes what he calls "the filter I pour the facts through." It his guide for sifting the facts to see where the questions lie and how the law might answer them. He does not use it, by the way, as a prewritten exam answer, a mechanical regurgitation of concepts into which he can sprinkle facts; he truly uses it as an analytical tool for attacking fact patterns and resolving the questions they raise.
What he has discovered is the power of learning by explaining. By forcing himself to explain the law to himself in writing, he necessarily comes to understand it more deeply and completely.
We who teach understand the dynamic he has discovered because we see it in our own work every day. Every teacher admits that she came to truly understand her subject when she had to make it clear to her students. My student simply applies that lesson to his own learning and makes himself teacher and student in the same moment. (dbw)
Monday, October 9, 2006
As midterm exams come around, you may be hearing from students who struggle with moderate or severe test anxiety. One of the key antidotes to test anxiety is, of course, thorough preparation; so students must begin to reduce the power of fear by confronting it with semester-long preparation.
Some students, however, prepare very well and still find themselves hamstrung by panic during their exams. Those students need to do more than study well; they need some strategies for reducing that panic, and they need to start putting many of those strategies into effect long before exams begin. Below is a link that contains some techniques your students can begin to employ now – as well as some they can use during their exams – to control the fear that can sometimes debilitate even the most prepared student. (dbw)
Thursday, September 21, 2006
Most of you have probably advised your students to begin outlining by now, but you also know that first-year students typically have only limited understanding of the process. Below are some links that I think provide good explanations of the outlining process. You may wish to use them for your own edification, or you may want to direct your students to them as well. (dbw)
Thursday, July 20, 2006
Another great resource for an overview of key skills law students must acquire is Prof. Vernellia Randall's slide show, The Law School Learning Pyramid. In the slide show, Prof. Randall lays out the key intellectual skills from simplest to most complex, in a form very much like Bloom's famous taxonomy of learning behaviors. She then ties those skills to specific activities in a"Strategic Study" plan.(dbw)
Sunday, April 30, 2006
During exam time, a strong pressure exists for students to cut back on sleep, exercise, and nutrition in order to devote more time to study. The reality, however, is that studying at the expense of such things is subject to the law of diminishing returns; it does more harm than good.
In the years I have been teaching, including those in which I was a high school teacher, I have found that my preparing for class in the wee hours of the night seldom produces a high quality class session the following day. I find that, while my lesson plan is detailed as can be and completely logical in each progression of thought or activity, I cannot seem to execute the plan with the vigor or flexibility required to make it work properly.
Rather, I find that I cannot keep the steps clearly in mind as I try to move through the plan, I cannot think quickly enough to respond effectively to students' insightful questions or extrapolations, and I cannot adequately assess my students' areas of confusion. All my energy is focused on executing this perfect plan, and I am too fatigued to adjust effectively when necessary, so I end up unable to execute the plan after all.
The plan becomes the enemy of the lesson, primarily because I am too tired to let the point of the lesson drive the plan. I just cannot think fast enough and hold the complexity in my head completely enough to do the material justice. I find myself staring at the plan from somewhere far afield of the point of the class session, wondering how the heck I ended up so off course. My students mostly just end up staring.
As a result, over the years my practice has become to schedule preparation to avoid late night scrambles, making room for the daily fires that often wreck schedules that have no room for slippage. I have accepted the fact that at some point preparation becomes self-defeating as it cuts into rest. I have repeatedly found that a good night's sleep will allow the success of a somewhat incomplete lesson plan while fatigue will generally sabotage a more complete plan.
I suspect our students need to learn that same principle as they prepare for tests. Studying into the wee hours for a test the next morning is probably worse than stopping short of the goal and simply being rested for the exam. A rested, alert mind is more likely to fill in the gaps than is an exhausted, slow-moving mind which is trying to remember all that was crammed into it at 3:00 a.m.
Perhaps the point is that if one is not fully prepared at 11:00 p.m., one will likely not be any more prepared at 3:00 a.m. First, what is absorbed from 11:00 to 3:00 probably will not stick particularly well; and, second, the fatigue created in those hours will interfere with applying even those concepts that have been absorbed, including those that were mastered in the days and weeks leading up to the exam.
Law school exams demand complex thinking that can respond quickly to difficult combinations of issues; that sort of brain work requires energy and mental agility, two things fatigue impedes. Being unable to sleep the night before an exam is not fatal, but it is not helpful either; so there is no point creating that situation on purpose.
Let's encourage our students to protect the quality of their thinking by scheduling rest, exercise, and good nutrition during their exam weeks. If they are behind on their flow charting or on internalizing material, they probably cannot effectively close those gaps in the middle of the night. At this point hard, steady work throughout the day combined with a rested, energetic mind on each exam day is the best hope.
An exam is one of those things you just shouldn't lose sleep over. (dbw)
Tuesday, April 25, 2006
As students are preparing for exams, you might direct them to Villanova Law School's helpful advice contained in the "Strategies" page of its Academic Support Program's website. The advice covers strategies for before, during, and after exams, including specific approaches tailored to different types of exam questions. Even for students who are only days away from the start of exams or whose exam periods have already begun, the page offers concise, practical explanations of strategies that can be implemented immediately. (dbw)
Sunday, April 23, 2006
According to Answernet.com, "[T]he identity of Franklin P. Jones is not clear." Whether Mr. Jones was an American businessman who lived from 1887-1929, a "humorist" of the same era, or an Oklahoma furniture store owner remains a mystery. I think he worked in a law school. As a matter of fact, I think he may have directed an academic support program. Check this out . . .
A few quotes (all net accessible) ...
- Experience is that marvelous thing that enables you to recognize a mistake when you make it again.
- Honest criticism is hard to take, particularly from a relative, a friend, an acquaintance, or a stranger.
- It's a strange world of language in which skating on thin ice can get you into hot water.
- The easiest way to solve a problem is to pick an easy one.
This last quotation is the most subtle when it comes to advising students. To paraphrase Professors Paul and Fischl (Getting to Maybe), the world of exams is a world where simply "knowing the material" is not enough. Why do students walk in to our offices after they receive poor grades, and say, "I don’t understand it . . . I knew the material!"?
Suffice it to say that when I taught Street Law to high school students, Legal and Ethical Environments of Business to college students, and the UCC to MBA students, nearly all of the students "knew the material." I doubt that one in ten would do well in law school, however.
You know why—law students need to know how to use the material to resolve complicated hypothetical problems. That represents another level (at least another zone) of thinking and doing.
So, how do students who did not meet their expectations during the first semester attempt to solve this problem during the second (or fourth) semester? Far too many attempt to solve the problem by "picking an easy one." That is, they confuse the "problem" with the solution, or the anticipated result.
How many times have you heard this as a response to your inquiry, "What do you intend to do to improve your performance?": "I intend to study harder." You see, the problem is not the "hardness" with which one studies, rather it’s identifying the problem accurately, then addressing it logically.
The problem is generally this: the student is not well prepared to respond to sophisticated hypothetical problems, in writing, under considerable time pressure. The logical remedy to the problems is . . . well . . . to practice responding to sophisticated hypothetical problems, in writing, under considerable time pressure.
Students who have played a sport, an instrument, or a character in a play all readily identify with the concept of preparing to excel at the very thing they will be judged on (tournament, recital, or opening night) by repeating the best approximation of the ultimate exercise (via practice games, practice recitals, or rehearsals) over and over and over.
Today is the 23rd of April. Most of our students begin final exams after May 1. Subtracting a bit for sleeping and eating (9.5 hours each day), that leaves at least 100 hours before the first exam ... for many students, the time extends much longer ... not to mention some time between exams. If students can answer 6 to 10 single-issue questions per hour from (for example, the Examples & Explanations series or Emanuel’s First-Year Questions and Answers), that allows time for 600 to 1000 questions divided among about 14 credit hours (up to 71 short-answer questions per credit ... thus for a 3-credit class, over 200 questions). That would require 14-hour days if a student attempted to answer all of the questions for all of the subjects before a May 1 test, but in reality there would be more days available over which to spread the time because of time between exams. Ten to twelve hours a day from now until the last exam would easily allow time to answer a total of 1000 questions before the last exam and 200 subject-specific questions before each exam.
Overkill? Gee, I don’t know. If you eat, sleep and exercise, and have a 1.9 GPA, is there something wrong with studying over 10 hours per day for a couple of weeks? Isn’t this what bar examinees do across the country for TEN weeks? And all THEY have to do is "pass" a minimum competency exam. Most of them (just to "pass") answer about 3000 sample MBE questions to prepare for 200.
That’s a ratio of 15 to 1.
My suggestion to students? Sure, review your outlines, memorize a few acronyms, and discuss some interesting policy issues with your study group friends. Then practice doing the very thing you will be called upon to do in a couple of weeks—the very thing that will determine whether you stay in school, whether you’re in the top or bottom of the class rank, whether you retain your scholarship, or whether you are selected for that interview you hope for next year. Practice strings of single-issue questions followed by a series of (for example) hour-long questions.
To be sure, "one size" does not fit "all." However, whether you choose the backstroke, sidestroke, breaststroke or medley, you’d better swim one heckuvalotta miles before you try to cross the channel.
Don’t address the "easy problem." Identify the most difficult problem, then solve it. Practice.
Note: If you want to copy any of the foregoing and send it to your students, I’ve certainly got no problem with that. (djt)
Monday, April 17, 2006
Professor Dionne Koller has put together an excellent set of tips for taking law school essay exams. It has great examples to go with the tips as well as advice on mistakes to avoid. Check it out and consider directing your students to her "Strategies for Taking Law School Exams . . . So They Don't Take You" as they begin preparing to take their spring set of exams. (dbw)
Saturday, April 15, 2006
For students who need to refresh their memories and rethink their strategies regarding exam preparation and exam taking, my UMKC colleague Barbara Glesner Fines's Law School Materials for Success is a great source. Having been through their first set of exams, 1L's can absorb her advice from a more informed perspective than the one they had back in November. (dbw)