Saturday, November 16, 2013
We get them every year--the students who, two to three weeks before the exam, realize that they need help. It is always difficult. It is in our nature to try to save every student. Some students will get it together, and make it through first-semester exams. Other students have just missed too much, and cannot pack enough into the last few weeks. When I meet with students in crisis, I discuss a number of factors that affect their outcomes:
1) Have you kept up with the reading?
If the students has blown off the reading all semester, it is near-impossible to catch up at the end of the semester.
2) Have you discussed your challenges with your professor?
If a student is struggling to understand the substantive material, their first stop should be their professor. I find that may students are intimidated by their professors, and resist seeking the assistance they need in order to understand the material. With support and encouragement, I can usually help these students craft questions to ask their professors that help them gain a better understanding of course material.
3) Are you synthesizing the material (outlining/course summaries)?
Many students wait for some magic moment when their courses come together. They do not understand that they create that magic moment for themselves when they synthesize the course material. Synthesizing the course material can come in the form of a tradition outline, or it can be graphs, flow charts, are some amalgamation of all of these things. While waiting until the last 2-3 weeks of class is not a good idea, if a student has not started synthesizing the material into one document, getting them started will help them before finals.
4) If you had a major life issue that disrupted your study plans, is that issue resolved?
If a student has an ongoing, disruptive life issue that consumes a large amount of time and energy, they may be better off taking a leave of absence before finals. Yes, they lose a semester of tuition (not good), withdrawing before finals gives them the opportunity to come back after they have their life in order.
5) Do you feel like you can succeed?
The student has to find it within themselves to succeed; I cannot help them if they are unwilling to help themselves. If a student is too distraught, they cannot focus on the tough work they need to do to catch up. Students need to self-evaluate.
Monday, November 11, 2013
The law school grapevine is working overtime right now. All sorts of ill-advised exam study advice is out there. Here are some of the recent grapevine ideas that are bad advice:
- Stop preparing for classes so you have more time to study for exams. This advice is bad because preparing for class leads to deeper understanding of the material. Without preparation, one is merely taking class notes and hoping that the kernels of information are in there somewhere. Unlike undergraduate courses where students were spoon fed what would appear on the exam, law professors expect preparation for class to provide a springboard for deeper discussion and hypothetical analysis. Without a basic understanding from class preparation, the student will not connect the dots in class and will walk away without deeper knowledge and the ability to apply the material.
- Use all of your stored up class absences and skip the maximum number of classes you can so you have more time to study for exams. This suggestion is bad advice because many professors use the last days of classes to pull material together and to discuss the exam details. Other professors cover course material which by its very nature will weigh more heavily on the exam than earlier material. Either way means missing critical information and hoping other classmates will tell you everything that was covered.
- Use your class absences to leave early for Thanksgiving Break. This variation of the prior advice is bad for the same reasons - especially at schools where the classes before the break are the last classes for the semester.
- Focus on your doctrinal courses and slack off in your legal skills/research and writing class. This bad advice is usually based on the fact that these courses often carry fewer credit hours than the doctrinal courses (at our school, 3 credits versus 4 credits in the fall semester). These non-doctrinal courses are critical to employment decisions during law school and later and to the performance level during those jobs. It also never seems to occur to students that an A or B grade in a 3-credit course of this type comes attached to substantial quality points to determine one's grade point average.
- Study only for your first exam until it is over, then switch to the second exam, then the third exam, etc. First-year students who have nicely spaced exams are especially vulnerable to this bad advice. But second- and third-year students also fall prey. By focusing exclusively on one exam at a time, students are not considering which courses are most difficult for them, which courses covered the most material, which courses they have understood/kept up with the most, which courses have exam formats that are most difficult for them, and many other individual study characteristics. One-size-fits-all exam study can lead to bad decisions about how to divide one's time. Each study decision should be carefully weighed for that course in relation to the other courses.
- You just have to memorize the black letter law to do well. This bad advice stems from the undergraduate cram and regurgitate mentality. Law school exams require students to apply the law to new legal scenarios. A student definitely needs to memorize the law. However, that alone is not enough to do well on final exams. Understanding the law is important. Completing practice questions is a critical step to exam analysis - for both fact-pattern essays and for multiple-choice questions.
My advice to students is to take everything heard on the grapevine with a salt shaker's worth of salt. Use your common sense to determine the soundness of the advice. If in doubt, ask the academic success professional at your school for feedback on the study ideas that you have heard. (Amy Jarmon)
Friday, November 8, 2013
For the past several years, every student that found themselves in academic jeopardy told me that they hadn't done any practice questions. Consequently, this year I have been hammering them with constant exhortations to "Do practice questions! Do them early, do them often!" Of course, questions from their profs are the best, but if those are not available, they should look at commercial outlines, other profs, or bar materials.
But what to do with the questions? Besides valuable practice and insight into how a question may be asked (because, in the grand scheme of things, there are only so many scenario variations an exam can have -- for example, a Contracts exam would have to have someone offer someone something, a Torts exam would have to have someone behave negligently in some way), perhaps one of the most helpful things practice questions can do is to help create a "Monster List."
When I was in law school and taking the bar exam, I used to do practice questions for a course and then go over my answers, both right and wrong, and write out on a legal pad all the points of law I didn't know -- something like, "1. Person called 'Evil person' -- circumstantial evidence, does not assert person committed crime, 2. Reputation can be hearsay, 3. Dying declaration applies in civil case or homicide prosecution and statement must concern the cause or circumstances of impending death." I would continue to add to and study this list as I went along, and it would be the last thing I looked at before I sat for the exam.
I had a lot of success with this, and I have seen many students do so as well. In fact, for some students, it becomes the "Attack Outline" that they go into exams with. (Alex Ruskell)
Thursday, October 31, 2013
Along with decorative gourds and tiny sociopaths demanding candy, the end of October brings an uptick in study group formation as we get closer to finals (I saw what looked like three new ones in the lobby on my way into work).
Several years ago, this annual rite resulted in some major kerfluffles, ados, and foofaraws -- so-and-so is cheating on one group with another, so-and-so doesn't do any work, s0-and-so always brings an enormous bag of potato chips, so-and-so's non-lawyer biker boyfriend enjoys attending -- and everyone ended up in my office for advice on how to work things out.
In response, I found an earlier posting from Amy Jarmon about the things study groups need to keep in mind, and I turned it into an actual contract, which I printed out and passed around to the First Year class.
A few days later, I saw several completed and signed contracts sticking out of bookbags, books, and binders, and all the complaining stopped. Since that time, I have mentioned the contract (repeatedly) and the concerns and complaints disappeared.
Many, many thanks to Amy, and below is the contract (Alex Ruskell) --
non in legendo sed in intelligendo legis consistent
STUDY GROUP CONTRACT
1. New members will be added only if _____ members agree.
2. New members will not be added after _________ (a certain point in the semester).
3. A member may/may not belong to more than one study group as long as all members are informed of the decision to do so.
4. A member will not be “fired” unless:
A. The group has talked with the person about problem behaviors (eg. argumentativeness, slacking on commitments, lateness, dominating the group discussions, etc.).
B. The person has had ____ chances to improve on the problem behavior after discussion.
C. The group unanimously agrees that the member will be told to leave and as group discusses the decision with the member.
5. A member who decides to leave the study group must tell the other members that he or she intends to do so and not just “disappear.”
6. The study group will have a rotating facilitator who is responsible for setting the agenda and keeping the group on track each week. The order will be: _________________, ___________________________, ______________________.
7. The study group will meet ________ times per week at _______________________.
8. Study group members may/may not bring food -- certain types of food are banned: ________________________.
9. Each member is to show respect for other members and their opinions.
10. All materials developed by the study group together are not to be shared outside the group unless __________________of the members agree.
11. All matters discussed in the study group are to be confidential and are not to be used for “gossip.” (The exception would be if the group is concerned about the physical or mental well-being of a member so that the appropriate action would be to talk to a dean, counselor, etc.)
12. Study aids purchased jointly should be equally available for use as a matter of courtesy. If the group agrees to share study aids purchased by individuals, then rules may be needed.
Wednesday, October 30, 2013
Most of our law schools have only 5 or 6 weeks of class left in the semester. Students are starting to get overwhelmed at how much they have left to study before they will be ready for finals. They are also horrified at how many steps need to be completed before their paper deadlines.
I find that some students are so overwhelmed that they make very poor decisions about managing their studies. Because much of what I advise students is based on common sense and tried and true techniques, they are often surprised at fairly simple solutions and ask "Why didn't I think of that?"
They did not think of the solutions because they are in the midst of the situation and cannot view things objectively! If you are panicky over the quicksand all around you that is sucking you under, you may indeed overlook the jungle vine immediately above your head.
You cannot control how much more material your professor will cover. You cannot control the questions on the exam. You cannot control usually when your exams are scheduled.
But there is a great deal that you can control. You can control how you distribute your study time among courses. You can control the study strategies that you use. You can control your daily use of time.
Have a plan for the remaining weeks.
- Make a list for each course of all of the topics and subtopics that must be learned for the final exam. This list gives you the skeleton outline for the review needed for the exam.
- The lists will be long because they focus on subtopics. It takes far less time, however, to learn a subtopic than an entire topic. Progress can be made more quickly by focusing on subtopics in the list than trying to complete an entire topic at one time.
- Draw a line below the subtopic most recently completed in the class. Above this line is the material that has already been covered; below this line is the material that will be presented in the coming days.
- Estimate the amount of time that each subtopic will take to learn intensely so that you will be ready to walk into the exam (the learning time only and not the practice question time that one might also do on the subtopic later - you have to learn it first).
- Total the subtopic estimates for each separate course. This total gives you an approximate idea of the time needed to learn the material thus far for the course.
- Compare totals among the courses to understand how you should proportion study time. Perhaps Course A and Course C need equal time while Course B needs twice as much time and Course D needs three times as much time.
- Decide when in the class week you can find time for exam study each week for the remainder of the semester. Label the found times by course in proportion to the totals.
- Number the subtopics on each list. Distribute the subtopics over the next three or four weeks to finish your review of the material that has already been covered.
- Save the remaining two or three weeks before the end of classes to distribute the new material as you estimate the time for intense study that is needed for each subtopic.
- If possible, leave only two weeks of new material to learn during the reading/exam period.
Make sensible decisions so you stay in control of your time and focus:
- Prioritize what you need to get done each day. Start with the most important tasks and move down the list to end with the least important tasks.
- Within these prioritized categories, consider doing disliked or harder tasks earlier in the day when you are fresh and alert. Then complete the liked or easier tasks in a category.
- Break every large task or project into small pieces. You will not get as overwhelmed when you focus on a small task (reading one case, writing one paragraph, studying one subtopic) instead of the enormous task (a 30-page paper, an entire course).
- Take small breaks throughout the day - 10 minutes every 90 minutes of studying. Get up and walk around or stretch to get some movement into your routine. Then refocus for the next task.
- Use self-discipline. Do not turn a 10-minute break into an hour break. Do not waste time on Facebook, Twitter, television sitcoms, and other distractions.
- Decline invitations to spend time on things that will mean you do not finish your daily task list. Be diplomatic, but say no. Avoid excessive meal breaks, shopping excursions, socializing instead of scheduled studying, and more distractions.
- After you have learned a particular topic well, move on to the next topic. Do not just keep reviewing what you already know to avoid getting to the hard stuff.
- Get questions that you have about course subtopics answered as you do your review. Do not store up hundreds of questions for the last week of the professor's office hours.
Law school is to a great extent about organization and time management. So is legal practice. Take control of what you can. Move forward - any progress is still progress. (Amy Jarmon)
Sunday, October 20, 2013
Law students often put off completing practice questions until the very end of the semester. They give me a number of reasons for delaying this important step in exam preparation:
- "I don't know enough yet to do practice questions."
- "I can't do practice questions until we have had the entire course."
- "I know the material really well so it is not necessary to do questions."
- "I get discouraged when I get questions wrong and don't want to do any more."
- "I can't find practice questions for the course."
- "I don't know what type of questions the professor will ask because he has never taught before/has never taught this course before/is a visitor."
- "I'll do practice questions with my study group later."
Successful law students complete as many practice questions as they can find time for throughout the semester. In addition to thinking about the questions, they outline answers to many of the essays, write out completely the answers for multiple essay questions, and complete some questions under exam conditions (timed, closed book, etc.). For multiple-choice questions, they track their mistakes so they can correct error patterns. They also carefully read the answer explanations to learn nuances that they may have missed.
Why do successful law students spend time on practice questions? They know that the following benefits flow from the task:
- Practice questions help them see if they really understand the law and can apply it to new scenarios.
- Multiple practice questions before the exam allow the student to manipulate the material through a number of different fact scenarios so that the actual exam scenarios seem less terrifying.
- Practice questions can increase confidence when one gets them right and can allow one to focus future time on less well-known material.
- Practice questions can pinpoint areas of confusion that need more work to master that topic long before the exam would uncover the same weakness.
- Practice questions and their model answers (essays) or answer explanations (multiple choice) help students gain deeper understanding of the law and its proper application.
- Practice questions allow students to practice issue spotting, careful reading of facts, charting or outlining answers before writing, stating the law precisely, analyzing for both parties, making appropriate policy arguments, and determining the best multiple-choice answer.
- Practice questions under timed conditions help students with properly pacing their work during the actual exams.
What about the objections that I mentioned at the beginning of this posting? Here are my responses to each one:
- Once you intensely review a subtopic or topic, you should be prepared to complete practice questions that are available. Intense review means learning that slice of the course as though the exam were Monday.
- Most courses have discrete topics or a series of topics that interrelate. Most practice question books indicate in the table of contents or index which topics are covered in the individual questions.
- You don't know how well you understand the material until you complete practice questions. Memorizing material and being able to apply the material to new fact scenarios are separate skills.
- Students should not attempt practice questions until they have studied the material in a serioius manner. Then they should do questions in increasing levels of difficulty: start with one-issue questions, move to intermediate-level questions, and then move to full-blown exam questions only after success at the prior levels of difficulty.
- For some courses there are fewer practice question sources. Ask the professor if s/he can supply the class with old questions. Go to the state bar examiners' website if old exam questions in that legal specialty are available. Get together with several classmates in the course and write and swap your own practice questions. Check out other law school websites for professor practice questions or old exams.
- If you don't know the professor's exam style, then practice questions of a variety of types. Once the professor decides the exam format, then switch to that particular style of question. All practice questions will help you test your knowledge and understanding until you have more information on the specific exam.
- Working on practice questions with a study group has merit - especially if each person works on the questions individually ahead of time. However, you also need to do plenty of questions on your own - your study group won't be allowed to help you think it through in the actual exam.
Practice questions are a critical component of exam study. If you have not started on them yet, now would be the perfect time to do so! (Amy Jarmon)
Tuesday, July 23, 2013
During the final week of bar prep, memorization is paramount. Overlearning the law is the best way to conquer the bar exam. MBE success requires quick recollection and MEE success requires depth of knowledge- both of which rely on memorization.
When studying this week, above all, try to understand your learning preference(s). Listening to your inner voice and sticking with what works best for you is the best way to be successful with your memorization. However, if you are still looking for other ways to memorize, here are a few ideas:
- Find creative ways to interact with the material and keep it fresh.
- Use a study partner or significant other to test you on your knowledge with flashcards or just talk out a subject together.
- Create tables, flowcharts, or diagrams to illustrate difficult rules or concepts. Even drawing pictures can help you create a memorable visual.
- Use other memory devices such as: flash cards, sticky notes, white boards, or a tape recorder.
- Create mnemonics that have meaning to you or use ones that have been created by your bar prep.
- Explain the main points of a subject or essay to someone else (a family member, friend, or roommate). Or, talk to yourself- it's ok, you are studying for the bar!
- Color code, use different fonts, or hand-write rules over and over in order to individualize the material and make it more memorable.
- Read your lecture notes or outline/study-aid aloud, record it, play it back and listen to it.
- Study while you move- walk, ride a bike, bounce on an exercise ball, or use an elliptical.
Good luck on your memorization this week!
Thursday, May 9, 2013
At most law schools, final exams are rapidly approaching. The drawn-out "practices" with course material over 14 or 15 weeks are drawing to a close. A few professors are providing last-minute dress rehearsals with practice questions or reviews of material.
The tension is mounting just as it would before opening night of a theater production. Everyone knows that this is it: the law must be at one's finger tips, the exam strategies must be in place, the last-minute tweaking is all that there is time for at this point. Those who have not "learned their lines," "blocked their places," and paid attention "to the director" will be frantic soon.
Butterflies are natural just as they are before a production. Sheer panic, however, indicates a lack of preparation. Those who are trying to learn 14-15 weeks of material at the very end of the semester are struggling at this point.
If students have been diligent throughout the semester, then they need to focus on the following points:
- Review material learned already by reading outlines through at a moderate pace to keep material fresh.
- Concentrate on newer material that needs to be understood and learned.
- Complete as many practice questions as possible - some under timed, exam conditions.
- Spend extra memory drill time on the few (hopefully) areas that are still troublesome: rules, exceptions, policy arguments.
If students are faced with an overwhelming amount of material to learn at this point, then they need to consider the following:
- Prioritize studying: what areas are most likely to be tested heavily; what areas are still the most confusing or hardest and need extra time.
- Spend time on study strategies that will get the most results: it might be too late to make flashcards, but reading one's outline may work well; attack outlines or flowcharts may be more helpful than starting a full-blown outline for some topics.
- Balance individual study time with any group study time so that personal knowledge will be there for the exam.
- Remember to do practice questions to go beyond just memorizing material and become proficient at applying the material.
- Have a list of the material one is going to complete during the day for a particular course - be realistic, but diligent enough to complete the topics over the days left before an exam.
A good night's sleep before an exam will pay off more than staying up to the wee hours cramming. Brain cells need sleep to work properly during the exam. A good breakfast or lunch before an exam is also a must to fuel one's brain cells.
Good luck to all of our student readers on your exams! (Amy Jarmon)
Wednesday, April 10, 2013
With the stress at the end of the semester, I am seeing more students make poor decisions because they have misplaced their common sense. Here are some things that students all know but tend to overlook when overwhelmed:
- Attend classes and prepare for them. Skipping class to gain more study time may mean that you miss important information about the exam or the wrap-up of major topics for the course. Not reading and briefing in order to save time only mean that you have the gist of the course without real understanding.
- Avoid spending lots of time organizing to study rather than actually studying. If a clean desk, organized bookshelves, and a code book with a thousand colored tabs do not increase your actual learning, you have been inefficient (used time unwisely) and ineffective (gotten minimal or no results).
- If you are sick, go to the doctor and follow the doctor's advice. Multiple negative repercussions follow from coming to school sick and refusing to get medical attention: you infect others with your illness; your illness becomes more debilitating than it should; you ultimately lose more class and study time than you would have with prompt treatment.
- Get enough sleep; do not get less sleep during the remaining weeks of the semester. Without sleep, your body and brain do not work well. You absorb less material, retain less material, zone out in class or while studying, and are generally less alert.
- Eat regular and nutritious meals; do not skip meals to save time. Your body and brain need fuel to do the studying you have to do. Dr. Pepper and Snickers bars are not a balanced diet. Neither are pizza and soda.
- If you have an emergency during the exam period, tell the academic dean or registrar. You may be eligible for delayed exams because of the circumstances (medical illness, family illness, death in the family). Most law schools have procedures/policies dealing with emergencies and will work with students who have exceptional circumstances.
Take time to use your common sense to help you make wise study and personal decisions during these last few weeks of the semester. Do not put yourself at a disadvantage by blindly taking action fueled by panic - think about the consequences of your choices. (Amy Jarmon)
Sunday, April 7, 2013
The end of the semester is approaching at break-neck speed right now for most students. A common lament is that there is not enough time to get everything done before exams. Students are frantically working on papers and assignments while trying to find time for extra final exam studying.
Here are some ways to carve out time when you feel that you have none:
- Look for time that you waste during each day and corral that time for exam studying or writing papers: Facebook or YouTube or Twitter time; e-mail reading and writing; cell phone time; chatting with friends in the student lounge. Most people fritter away hours on these tasks.
- Become more efficient at your daily life tasks: prepare dinners in a slow cooker on the weekend to heat up single servings during the week; wear easy maintenance clothes to save ironing/dry cleaning tasks; pack your lunch/dinner to take to school instead of commuting time to eat at home; clean the house thoroughly once and then merely spot clean and pick up. You can garner ample study time if you cut down on these types of daily tasks.
- Curb excessive exercise time, but do not give up exercise time entirely. Your normal gym workout of two hours five times a week is most likely a luxuary at this point in the semester. Cut it back to two times a week or make it one hour three times a week. The guideline for exercise is 150 minutes per week. You need to focus on strengthing your brain cells rather than your abs right now.
- Consider getting up earlier each day, but do not get less than 7 hours of sleep per night. If you tend to sleep in on weekends and days when you do not have early classes, you are losing productive study time. Go to bed at the same time Sunday through Thursday nights and get up at the same time Monday through Friday mornings; do not vary the schedule more than 2 hours on the weekends. You will be more alert and better rested if you have a routine.
- Decide whether you could study an hour or two longer on a Friday or Saturday night if you currently end at 5 or 6 p.m. You want some down time, but may be able to go a bit longer than previously in order to gain more study time.
- Set up a schedule so that you delineate for each day when you will read/brief or outline for each of your courses. Then repeat the tasks at the same days/times each week. You will waste less time asking yourself what to do next.
- Break tasks down into small pieces. Small pockets of time (under an hour) can then be used effectively to complete tasks. You may be able to study a subtopic for a course in 20 minutes but would take 3 hours for the whole topic. Any forward movement is progress!
- Use windfall time when you gain unexpected time: a class is cancelled, your friend is late picking you up, a meeting ends early.
Instead of getting overwhelmed by everything you have to do, take control of your time. Conquer each course one task at a time. (Amy Jarmon)
Sunday, February 24, 2013
Leave Your Point of View at the Fact Pattern Door: Part 2 of 2 (Guest post by Seth Aiken, UMass Law)
In the first installment of this post, I suggested that for some law students, life experience and a strongly held point of view can get in the way of law school success. “Older” students, having lived and worked and experienced a little more than most of their peers can tend to let their own point of view and perceptions about the world interfere with legal reasoning. Rather than seeing the legally significant issues in a fact pattern, they focus on the implausibility of the facts and how unlikely or unfair a scenario seems in the context of their own experience or personal values.
With these students, my strategy is to have them start by adding a phrase to the beginning of the first sentence of every essay question, “On an island that you’ve never been to and where no visitors ever go…(essay question begins). I want them to remember that a fact pattern is a closed universe and that adding facts or injecting personal insights into it will only derail their best efforts.
Then I give my students five steps for looking at a fact pattern and drawing out the legally important issues:
- Call of the Question – Start at the end of the exam and read the call of the question so you understand what you are being asked to do.
- Acts – Rather than trying to spot and analyze whole issues, start instead by reading the fact pattern sentence-by-sentence and highlighting any act or failure to act by a party – anything someone in your fact pattern says, does, or chooses not to do.
- Resist Judgment – You do not have enough information yet to know whether any of these acts give rise to a legally significant issue. Resist making any judgment about whether the act is relevant, worthwhile, good, bad or otherwise because all you know right now, is that somebody said or did something.
- Elements – Assuming you studied and know all the elements of every issue you might be tested on, go to each act and consider if it could be one element of an issue. Remember, don’t skip or overlook an act just because it seems like a little thing. The seriousness or severity of the action doesn’t matter. Whether you think the action would lead to a legal action in real life doesn’t matter. What matters is whether that act in the fact pattern, taken at face value could satisfy one element of something you are being tested on. On the other hand, you don’t want to force an issue that simply isn’t relevant. Some facts ARE there to tempt you into a time-wasting, grade-crushing wild goose chase. In order to stay on target, ask:
a) Is the issue you’re thinking about within the testable universe? (i.e. DO NOT analyze a Criminal Law issue in a Torts exam.)
b) Is this issue relevant to the call of the question? (i.e. DO NOT discuss the rights of B vs. C when the question is asking only about the rights of A vs. B.)
c) Are there other facts that satisfy each of the other necessary elements to make out this issue? DO NOT speculate about other elements based on your common sense or some past experience.
Success vs. Relevance – This is the fifth and final step I ask my students to think about because I want the word “success” to trigger a few different cautionary flags.
The success of the issue: Just because a complaining party has a weak case (weak elements) and is likely to lose doesn’t mean the issue isn’t worth raising. If you can make a good faith, “straight-faced” argument that each of your elements is supported by some fact or facts, it is probably a relevant issue, win or lose. In fact if you can make a good faith argument that MOST of your elements are supported by facts, you should raise the issue. Weak facts or a missing element bear on the success of an issue, but are never a reason to not raise it. Being able to explain to your professor why an issue fails is just as important as being able to show why an issue succeeds.
The successes a student brings into the exam: You are walking into the exam with a point of view based in your life experience. Your successes and accomplishments have equipped you to identify and solve many challenging problems, to relate to people and empathize with their circumstances. HOWEVER – here in this exam, you must leave those successes and accomplishments behind. Relating to the people in your fact pattern and empathizing with their circumstances will distract you from seeing what is relevant and keep you from engaging in effective legal analysis.
Seth-Thomas Aitken, UMass School of Law - Dartmouth
Saturday, November 24, 2012
I did not cook for Thanksgiving this year. My best friend and I decided to go out to dinner instead. I realized in the days after Thanksgiving that I basically was content not to have leftovers crowded in my refrigerator. Except maybe the from-scratch cranberry sauce. And the stuffing. But the turkey, green beans, succotash, gravy, potato au gratin, sweet potato casserole, crescent rolls, pumpkin pie, pecan pie - well you get the picture - were not missed.
I realized for many of my students, the last week of classes (at our law school immediately after the holiday break) is a lot like leftovers. More reading, briefing, and new class material up to the last minute are now no longer appealing. One is already sated with those items and ready for something else. The professors who wrap up or review material are like the favorite leftovers that one is happy to have servings of for the next 5 days after the holiday.
Like all of us who ate too much and sat overstuffed on the couch after the holiday meal, our students are lethargic when it comes to more class sessions. They are focused on exams and want the leftover classes to be over. Wrap-up and reviews make sense because they go along with the exam purposefulness that students have. (Amy Jarmon)
Tuesday, November 20, 2012
I have watched this classic law school film multiple times over the years and vividly remember seeing it in the cinema when it first came out (long before I ever ventured across a law school threshold as a 1L student). Recently I decided to watch it once more because it had been several years since my last viewing.
The film has always seemed to me to be the perfect commentary on how not to have a study group. I was reminded of those points once again. Here are some of the things we learn from the movie:
- A study group needs to have members with the same goals and purposes to avoid logistical and group dynamic problems.
- A study group needs to have some ground rules so that each member knows the responsibilities and etiquette of the group.
- A study group will falter if each person is assigned one course to specialize in because only that one person learns the course well and the others suffer if the expert drops out of the group.
- A study group will have conflict if its members become overly competitive, are argumentative, refuse to negotiate on tasks, or hold others hostage by refusing to share information.
- A study group does not belong to the person who invites others to join; it belongs to everyone and should be cooperative.
- A study group will be disrupted by members who become overwhelmed and are unable to pull their weight in the group.
- If one does not study outlines all semester long and distribute learning the material, it may require holing up for days with no sleep at the end in order to cram.
- Learning styles within a group vary; one person will consider an 800-page outline a treasure while the others will view it as a curse.
- Always have a back up copy of your outline in case your computer crashes (or your outline is accidentally tossed out a window).
My wish for all law students would be to have supportive, cooperative, hard-working study groups without drama and negativity. (Amy Jarmon)
Saturday, October 20, 2012
Students who are just now realizing how close exams are and how much they have to do are looking for ways to be more efficient and effective. The trick is to continue the daily work for classes but still find time for exam review. A good time management schedule can help a student see where everything can be completed. (See my Thursday, September 6th post "When will I have time for . . . " for advice on time management.)
When looking specifically at exam study tasks, a student should ask the following questions:
- What is the payoff for exams of this exam study task?
- Is this exam study task the most efficient use of time?
- Is this exam study task the most effective way of doing the task?
Question One: This question is focusing on whether the exam study task is really going to help one do well on exams. If not, then the task should be dropped (or modified) for a task that will have more payoff.
- Example 1: Re-reading cases to study for exams rarely has much payoff because the exam will not ask you questions about the specific cases and instead will want you to use what you learned from the cases to solve new legal problems.
- Example 2: Reading sections in a study aid that do not correspond to topics covered by your professor in the course will have little payoff on your exam. If your professor did not cover defamation, reading about it in a study aid "just because it is there" in the book is a waste of time.
In example 1, you would get more payoff by spending time on learning your outline and doing practice questions. In example 2, you would get more payoff by reading only those sections of the study aid that are covered by your professor's course and about which you are confused.
Question Two: This question focuses on whether the task that you have determined has payoff is a wise use of your time. If you do a task with payoff inefficiently, you can still be making a study mistake.
- Example 1: You have not bothered reviewing and learning a particular topic for the exam yet. You decide to complete a set of 15 multiple-choice questions on the topic. You get 8 of them wrong and guessed at 3 of the ones you got right.
- Example 2: After outlining, you have lots of questions about the first three topics that your professor has covered in the course. You decide to worry about them later and continue on through the course with more questions surfacing each day.
In example 1, practice questions have payoff, but you wasted time because the questions would have more accurately gauged your depth of understanding and preparedness for the exam if you had done them after review. In example 2, listing the questions you have on material has payoff, but you wasted time by not getting all questions for the first three topics answered while you had the context before moving on with new material.
Question Three: This question focuses on whether the task that you determined has payoff is getting you the maximum results. If you do a task that has payoff ineffectively, you can also be making a study mistake.
- Example 1: You are reviewing your outline which is a high-payoff task. However, you choose to review your outline in the student lounge while talking to friends and watching the news on the television.
- Example 2: You join a study group which meets every week and has an agenda of topics and practice questions that will be covered. You attend regularly but never go over the material or practice questions before the meetings.
In example 1, your outline review was ineffective because you were not focused fully on that exam study task. You may say you spent two hours reviewing, but your results will be far less than the time you pretend to have spent. In example 2, your exan study was ineffective because you got minimal results compared to what would have been possible if you had prepared before the meeting.
Spending time on exam studying must have payoff, be efficient, and be effective to deserve being called exam study. Otherwise, you only fool yourself. (Amy Jarmon)
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)