Law School Academic Support Blog

Editor: Amy Jarmon
Texas Tech Univ. School of Law

Saturday, November 12, 2011

The Fallacy of Mere Memorization

Law students try at times to substitute memorization of the black letter law for actual understanding of their course material.  They are then surprised that they receive grades in the "C" range in return for their efforts.

The focus on memorization is a leftover from many undergraduate courses where the professor just wanted students to regurgitate information on a page for an "A" grade.  The difference in law school is that students have to go beyond mere memorization.  Memorizing the rules, exceptions to rules, methodologies, policy arguments, and so forth is essential to a good grade in law school; but memorization is just the beginning of the learning process rather than the end goal.

Lawyers in essence are problem solvers.  They are confronted with client problems that they must solve either by prior knowledge or through research.  The easy questions are dealt with fairly quickly.  The hard questions are the ones that consume their days and our court system.  To problem solve, lawyers must understand the law and how to apply it to legal scenarios.

Law students must also be able to problem solve.  On their exams, they are faced with new legal scenarios that they must analyze.  To do so effectively, they need to understand the law that applies to the situation and explain their analysis in detail.  Yes, they need to have memorized the law so that they can state it accurately.  But without understanding they will be able to apply it only superficially.

Memorization is the start.  Understanding is the key.  Application is the reward.  (Amy Jarmon)

November 12, 2011 in Exams - Studying, Study Tips - General | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Some Common Errors in Exam Study

Students often study for exams in ways that are counter-productive.  They may adopt old undergraduate methods for exam study because they do not understand how law school exams are different.  Well-meaning advice from upper-division law students may lead them into methods that go against memory and learning theory.  Here are some common techniques that do not work and why they are not wise:

Re-reading cases is rarely an effective strategy.  The professor is not going to ask a student to tell him everything the student knows about a case.  Instead the professor is going to ask the student to apply the essentials from all the cases on a topic to a new fact scenario.  Time is better spent on pulling together the topics and subtopics with the law for each.  The cases become illustrations in that bigger picture.

Reading an entire study aid right before the exam.  There is too much information to absorb at the end of the semester when reading an entire study aid.  The study aid may not match the specific professor's version of the course which will lead a student to learn the material in a way that actually makes it harder for the professor to find points on the exam.  Study aids tend to include multiple topics or subtopics that the professor never touched on in class.

Choosing to complete very few practice questions.  Exams in law school are all about applying the law to new fact scenarios.  Practice questions allow a student to check understanding of the material and ability to spot issues.  Practice also allows one to get really good at organizing answers and writing them out - especially if some questions are done under timed conditions.   

Treating all exam courses equally may lead to trouble.  It is the rare student who has a truly equal situation in all courses.  The amount of time spent for exam study in each course should consider: the amount of material covered in the course, the difficulty of the course for the student, the amount of black letter law to memorize, the number of practice questions to be completed, the format of the exam, and any other variables specific to a course and professor.  Time should be divided among the courses to reflect these variables. 

Studying X course for a week, then Y course for a week, then Z course for a week, and so forth.  By focusing on one course to the exclusion of other courses for exam study, the student merely provides time to forget the material for the courses not studied.  By the time the first course is cycled back to, even more material will be forgotten in that course.  It is better to complete exam study in each course each week if at all possible. 

Not preparing for classes in order to study for exams more.  This strategy can be counter-productive because one is limiting deep understanding of the new material that will be on the final exam.  By depending just on the highlights covered in class, the student loses the context as to why the law works the way it does. 

Taking all of one's remaining absences at the end of the semester in order to study for exams more.  Professors often give information about the exam during the last classes.  Many professors will pull the course together at the end.  Some professors will test heavily on the end material in the course.  For all of these reasons, missing class is not a good idea.

Smart exam studying is the key to success.  By using time and techniques to be efficient and effective, students can get higher grades on their exams.  (Amy Jarmon)

November 9, 2011 in Exams - Studying | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Friday, November 4, 2011

Use Study Groups Wisely

Many law students are forming study groups for the first time at this point in the semester.  Instead of using a group throughout the semester to consolidate material and compare outlines, they are narrowing their focus to problem areas in understanding and practice questions. 

Study groups can be very effective.  Students may benefit greatly from the practice question discussions when they realize they would have missed certain nuances in the law or confused steps in the analysis.  In addition, working through problems together helps one monitor preparedness on a topic in comparison to classmates.  Finally, study groups can serve an accountability function - if you promise the group you will do something before the next meeting, you have the motivation to stay on task.

However, students need to make sure that they do not overuse or depend on a study group to the detriment of their individual learning.  It has to be a balance.  After all, one's study group cannot answer the questions for you in the actual exam.

Consider these points to monitor the balance between study group and individual time:

  • Make a list for each course of all topics with subtopics that you must learn before the final exam.  Use monthly calendars for November and December.  Mark your last day of classes.  Fill in your exam schedule.
  • Lay out on the calendar for each day through the end of classes which subtopics for which courses you will personally learn during the remaining time.  This method helps you front-load learning so that you leave only a realistic amount for the exam period itself.
  • Consider how much time you need for the grunt memory work on rules, exceptions to rules, methodologies, and other information.  Determine how you will do your memory drills: flashcards, writing the rules ten timex, reciting the rules aloud, mind maps for each rule.  Distribute that time throughout the calendars.
  • Decide when you will do practice questions with your study group to get group input.  You will get more from these sessions if all of the members think about the questions ahead of time and come with outlined answers.
  • Leave time for practice questions that you will complete on your own.  You should outline every one and write out as many as possible.  Take some of the questions under exam conditions.  (See Dennis Tonsing's November 2nd posting for more information on scheduling your exam study and practice questions.)
  • If you find that group time is taking away from your ability to learn the material in time for the exam, moderate your group time.  For example, if the group wants to meet for four hours, perhaps you will go for the portion that focuses on the course you find most difficult but not stay for discussion on other courses.  Or you might go for the practice question discussion but not the more general discussion of course material.  Explain to the group why you are not attending the full meetings so there will not be hard feelings.
  • If the study group becomes non-productive because of personalities, too much socializing, or other negative dynamics, diplomatically resign from the group.  You may be able to find one study partner who will be more compatible than trying to stay with the group.

Consider the efficiency of being in a group (wise use of time) and the effectiveness from being in a group ("oomph" out of the time).  (Amy Jarmon)


November 4, 2011 in Exams - Studying, Miscellany | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Fall Finals Study Plan

Thanksgiving approaches. Time for students to commit their study plans to writing!  Here are my recommendations for students who want to prepare for exams AND enjoy their families and friends during a (partially) relaxed Thanksgiving break.

For each course, set target dates for completion of your outline (course summary), early completion of your briefing for class, and the number of practice exam questions you intend to answer.  Thanksgiving Day is Thursday, November 24, 2011. Usually, law schools have no classes on the day before, Wednesday, November 23. Reading week and exams follow shortly after the semester resumes.

For many students, time with family and friends is too important to neglect at this time of year.  Plan to relax!  Writing out your detailed study schedule before November (then sticking to it) will allow you to relax, because you will see the relaxation as PART of the study plan instead of interference with it.  

Example for Contracts class:

A.  Outline completed by November 14.
B.  All cases briefed for class by November 16.
C.  50 MBE questions answered by November 22.
D.  50 single-issue essay questions answered in writing by November 24.
E.  20 one-hour essay questions answered in outline form before reading week.
F.  15 one-hour essay questions answered under exam conditions by 3 days before exam date.

The next step is to break each of those (A through F) down into components.  How many hours per week/day do you realistically estimate it will take you to complete your outline, and to brief the cases ahead of the class schedule? Spread those hours out on your daily calendar.

Do the same for the questions you intend to answer, including notes as to the source of the questions.  You can start gathering questions today.  Here's an idea: exchange questions with your study group, to share the burden of finding questions that address the issues you need to focus on.

Do this for each class, and you'll see that you have enough time between now and the date of each exam to prepare fully, so that you can enter the exam room with well-deserved confidence!

Look in your law library for an old issue of Student Lawyer Magazine, an American Bar Association publication ... Volume 33, Number 7, dated March 2005, includes an article I wrote entitled, "A Plan for Your Exams."  The article provides a more detailed explanation of this exam study plan!  (djt)

November 2, 2011 in Advice, Exams - Studying, Stress & Anxiety, Study Tips - General | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Friday, October 21, 2011

Practice Exams Given by 1L Professors

We are entering the time period at our law school when many of our first-year professors in the doctrinal courses give their students practice exams.  The exam feedback varies by professor: some give students "grades" (check-plus, check, check-minus, for example).  Some professors review the exams in class and hand out an answer key.  Exams are usually one fact pattern if essay; they are 10-15 questions if multiple-choice.  Some professors will write combination exams.

It always surprises me how many of our first-year students do not take full advantage of these opportunities.  Some students choose not to take the practice exams.  Those students will go into the final exam without any experience of a law school exam.  Some students who take the exams do not study for them at all.  Those students often excuse their poor performance with "If I had studied, I would have gotten a good grade."  However, that statement may not be true at all - they will never know.

Practice exams allow students to monitor several things for fact-pattern essay exams:

  • Do they understand the material as well as they thought?
  • Are they able to spot the issues?
  • Can they precisely state the rules?
  • Are they able to write an organized answer applying the law to the facts with arguments for both parties?
  • Can they perform well under timed conditions?

Practice exams allow students to monitor several things for multiple-choice exams:

  • Do they understand the material as well as they thought?
  • Can they recognize the nuances in the law when choosing a "best" answer?
  • Can they perform well under timed conditions?

Students often talk about wanting feedback so that they know how they are doing.  Hopefully more students will realize that practice exams allow them to gain feedback - even if it is not of the graded variety (Amy Jarmon)




October 21, 2011 in Exams - Studying | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Saturday, October 8, 2011

New Exam Skills Book

I just received a review copy of Barry Friedman and John CP Goldberg's Open Book, Succeeding on Exams from the First Day of Law School. While I have not had the chance to read the book closely, my first impression is that this is a book we will be seeing a lot in ASP. It is relatively short (180 pages) and uses cartoons and humor throughout. The structure of the book is clear; I can flip to the table of contents to find chapters on specific topics (IRACing, outlining, etc) without having to search. It starts with an introduction on how to use the book, which is especially useful, since most students do not know how to use exam skills books.

There are many good ASP books out there, but I think this one will get added to the pile I use and recommend to students. (RCF)

October 8, 2011 in Exams - Studying, Exams - Theory, Publishing, Reading, Study Tips - General | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Keeping grades in perspective

It is exam time.  Angst is in the air.  So many students are seeing their grades as life and death matters.

Losing perspective is easy In the middle of all the stress, studying, and single-minded focus on exams.  The competitive atmosphere is not helping matters.  It all seems so incredibly important in the fish bowl of law school.

Here are some things to keep in mind about grades on exams:

  • An exam measures knowledge on one set of questions, on one day, at one point in time.  No exam is able to measure everything that was in the course.  No exam is able to measure everything that a student may have learned from a course.
  • A grade reflects an assessment in just X credits out of Y credits required for graduation.  If the course is 3 credits out of 90 credits for graduation, then there are 87 other credits that can reflect ability when one course exam proves disappointing. 
  • Employers look for upward trends in grades.  A weak semester can be overcome by future strong semesters.
  • There are jobs for people who are not in the top 10% - 25% - 30% - 50% of the class.  There are also plenty of attorneys working who were in the bottom half of the class in law school.  All of those attorneys have jobs at law firms, government agencies, and non-profits with competent professionals committed to serving clients well.
  • Plenty of attorneys who were not the "cream" at their law schools prove themselves in practice.  Law firms unwilling to consider them right out of law school based on grades will later woo them based on reputation.
  • Focus on taking one day at a time.  Perseverance and hard work will improve the chance of good grades.  Fretting over grades merely steals energy from more important tasks.
  • Avoid talking about exams after they are over.  The issues that others say they spotted may have been rabbit trails.  Some students will purposely pretend there were issues on an exam to upset others in their studying.  You cannot change anything about a completed exam.  It is more valuable to turn your attention to the next exam. 
  • Do not focus on your feelings about an exam.  I can recount many stories of students certain they did poorly who end up with very good grades - they focus on how they feel about the exam and do not know the big picture of overall performance for the entire class.

Ten years from now, no one hiring you for a new opportunity in practice will likely ask about your specific grades.  They will want to know how well you perform in the practice of law.  They will want to know whether you are ethical, hard-working, committed to clients, and a good fit with their current attorneys and staff. 

So, keep things in perspective.  Take a deep breath.  Cross off the days on your calendar until you can celebrate the end of another semester.  (Amy Jarmon)   

May 4, 2011 in Exams - Studying | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Unusual fonts may aid in learning

More new science on learning and metacognition:

Helpful tips for students:

1) We learn better from re-working the material.

This piece of gold is hidden on the second page of the article. It's saying what we have said in ASP for ages; reading a canned outline, or memorizing the outline of a 2L who booked the course, will not increase learning. Re-working your own notes into an outline will help you learn the material.

2) Try one of the unusual font types for your outline.

"Think of it this way, you can’t skim material in a hard to read font, so putting text in a hard-to-read font will force you to read more carefully"

3) We overestimate our own ability.

One of the great lessons from law school exams: if you feel like you nailed it, you probably didn't. The material you are being asked to learn and apply on a law school exam is difficult and complicated. The majority of exams you will encounter as a law student have more complications and nuanced issues than you have time to answer. You should feel as if you didn't hit everything. If you feel like you knew everything on the exam, you probably oversimplified the issues.

4) We all take shortcuts. We all forget we take shortcuts.

Students should always take practice exams before finals. Actually taking the exam is important. Many students will read the fact pattern, "answer it in their head" or take a couple of notes, and then read the model answer. This is more harmful than helpful. Students will unconsciously overestimate what they understood if they have not taken the test and written a complete answer. This gives them a false sense of confidence. Students need to take a cold, hard look at what they understood and what they missed. the best strategy is to take the practice test under timed conditions with a study group, and correct answers as a group. This gives students a chance to discuss what they did not understand. It's easy to lie to ourselves, it's harder to lie to a group.

Summary of the article:

"Concentrating harder. Making outlines from scratch. Working through problem sets without glancing at the answers. And studying with classmates who test one another." These are the keys to learning more efficiently and effectively. (RCF)

New York Times-Health
Come On, I Thought I Knew That!
Published: April 18, 2011
Most of us think bigger is better in terms of font size and memory, but new research shows we are wrong.

April 20, 2011 in Advice, Bar Exam Preparation, Exams - Studying, Miscellany, News, Science, Study Tips - General | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Making time when there seems to be none

A common theme in my discussion with students this week is that there are not enough hours in the day.  Many of them are starting to get stressed over the amount of work to fit into the amount of time left in the semester. 

Part of the problem is that they are trying to juggled end-of-the-semester assignments and papers with ongoing daily tasks and review for final exams.  It can seem overwhelming if one does not use good time management skills.

Here are some tips:

  • Realize that you control your time.  With intentional behavior, a student can take control of the remainder of the semester rather than feeling as though it is a roller coaster ride. Make time for what really matters.
  • Work for progress in every course.  If one focuses on one course to the detriment of the other courses, it creates a cycle of catch-up and stress.  A brief might be due in legal writing, but that should not mean dropping everything else for one or two weeks.  Space out work on a major assignment over the days available and continue with daily work in all other courses.
  • Use small pockets of time for small tasks.  Even 15 minutes can be used effectively!  Small amounts of time are useful for memory drills with flashcards or through rule recitation out loud.  20 minutes can be used to review class notes and begin to condense the material for an outline.  30 minutes can be used for a few multiple-choice practice questions or to review a sub-topic for a course.
  • Capture wasted time and consolidate it.  Students often waste up to an hour at a time chatting with friends, playing computer games,  watching You Tube, answering unimportant e-mails, and more.  Look for time that can be used more productively.  If several wasted blocks of time during a day can be re-captured and consolidated into a longer block, a great deal can be accomplished!  For example, reading for class can often be shifted in the day to capture several separate, wasted 30-minute slots and consolidate them into another block of perhaps 1 1/2 hours. 
  • Use windfall time well.  It is not unusual in a day to benefit from unexpected blocks of time that could be used.  A ride is late.  A professor lets the class out early.  A study group meets for less time than expected.  An appointment with a professor is shorter than scheduled.  Rather than consider the time as free time, use it for a study task.
  • Realize the power of salvaged blocks of time.  If a student captures 1/2 hour of study time a day, that is 3 1/2 extra hours per week.  An hour per day adds up to 7 hours per week.  Time suddenly is there that seemed to be unavailable.
  • Break down exam review into sub-topics.  You may not be able to find time to review the entire topic of adverse possession intensely, but you can likely find time to review its first element intensely.  By avoiding the "all or nothing mentality" in exam review,  progress is made in smaller increments.  It still gets the job done!
  • Evaluate your priorities and use of time three times a day.  Every morning look at your tasks for the day and evaluate the most effective and efficient ways to accomplish everything.  Schedule when you will get things done during the day.  Do the same thing at lunch time and make any necessary changes.  Repeat the exercise at dinner time.
  • Cut out the non-essentials in life.  Save shopping for shoes for that August wedding (unless perhaps you are the bride) until after exams.  Stock up on non-perishable food staples now rather than shop for them every week.  Run errands in a group now and get it over with to allow concentrating on studies for the rest of the semester.
  • Exercise in appropriate amounts.  If you are an exercise fanatic spending more than 7 hours a week on workouts, it is time to re-prioritize.  You may have the best abs among law students at your school, but you need to workout your brain cells at this point in the semester.
  • Boost your brain power in the time you have.  Sleep at least 7 hours a night.  Eat nutritional meals.  Your brain cells will be able to do the academic heavy lifting in less time if you do these simple things.

So, take a deep breath.  Take control of your time.  And good luck with the remainder of the semester. (Amy Jarmon)          

April 7, 2011 in Exams - Studying, Miscellany, Stress & Anxiety, Study Tips - General | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Use common sense when preparing for exams

In the stress of studying for exams, some students lose their common sense.  They exhibit behaviors (either acts or failures to act) that seem illogical after the fact.  They say things they will regret later.  They make judgment calls that are inadequate.

To help students avoid a lack of common sense, the following list includes some observations and suggestions:

  • Study the things you do not know and not just the things you are comfortable with already.  Students often avoid the topics or courses that they see as confusing or difficult. 
  • Big blocks of time are usually unattainable at this point in the semester.  A whole Saturday to outline Y course is elusive.  Break large tasks down into small tasks and complete parts in smaller time slots so that there is progress on the task.
  • Spend time studying rather than merely organizing to study.  Students often waste time getting ready to study rather than just getting down to it. 
  • Unless a professor has indicated that something is not on the exam, study it.  Everything is considered fair game by most professors if it was assigned.
  • Attend all of the remaining classes for a course - even if allowed absences will be unused for the semester.  Professors provide information about the exam and pull together material in the last weeks of class. 
  • Learn the professor's version of the course.  Commercial study supplements are written for a national (or state) audience.  They can be helpful in clarifying points.  However, they may use different rule versions, different steps of analysis, or different emphases.  The professor will find the points more quickly in an exam answer if it is formatted and explained to match what was taught in class.   
  • Complete as many practice questions as possible.  Just knowing the law is not enough.  Students need to apply the law to new fact scenarios on the exam.  Students also need to practice any test-taking techniques so they will be on auto-pilot.
  • Complete practice questions that are as similar as possible to the format the professor will have on the exam: essay for essay exams; multiple choice for multiple-choice exams; short answer for short-answer exams.  First choice should be questions written by your professor if those are available.  Second choice should be questions with similar format and complexity.
  • Complete at least some practice questions under test conditions (on a timed basis, closed book, or other appropriate conditions).  By practicing under similar conditions, one gets used to working within those constraints.
  • One has to study thoroughly for open-book exams.  There is never time to look up much material during an exam.  Do not be fooled into lazy studying because of an open-book format.
  • Individual study must take place even when one has a good study group.  The study group cannot confer about the answers during the exam.  It will not be helpful that everyone else in the study group was knowledgeable about X topic if the student writing the answer on the topic is not.
  • Shortcuts are not the same as efficient and effective studying.  Shortcuts usually focus on someone else's understanding (example, other students' outlines) rather than individual processing for understanding.
  • Get help from professors, teaching assistants, tutors, or other academic support resources now.  Student positions often end on the last day of classes because those students need to prepare for their own exams.  Professors are often at home grading during exam periods.  Some professors have cut-off dates for questions.
  • Remember that others are listening and watching.  Overly competitive actions, rude behavior, mean remarks, or other inappropriate behaviors and comments will be remembered.  It is easier to think twice before speaking or acting than to apologize later. 
  • Stay away from the law school for studying if it is too stressful.  Study in another environment if it will be helpful: other academic buildings, the university library, a coffee shop.
  • Stay away from law students who are procrastinating, whining, belittling others, or exhibiting other negative behaviors.  Seek out those law students who are focused on productive work and will support your efforts. 
  • Sleep is critical to exam performance.  A minimum of 7 hours is needed.  Students often skimp on sleep and then realize in an exam that they are too tired to think.
  • Nutrition is critical to exam performance.  Brain cells need fuel.  Caffeine, sugar, and carbohydrates do not equal a balanced diet.  Students often turn to sodas, energy drinks, pizza, other fast food, and candy instead of keeping the real food groups on their plates.
  • Exercise is a wonderful stress buster.  Now that the weather for some of us has gotten nice (sorry about the latest snow for those of you in Massachusetts or elsewhere), it is a good idea for students to walk around outside for 15-30 minutes for a study break.  30-60 minutes of exercise three times a week can make a big difference.

Evaluating study choices carefully during this time period can have big benefits.  Taking care of oneself also has a big payoff.  (Amy Jarmon) 

April 2, 2011 in Exams - Studying | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Friday, April 1, 2011

Do students know what is good for them? Do they care?

The ABA Journal and the National Law Journal reported on an law review article that studied laptop use among law students. The students self-reported their laptop use in class, including their feelings on whether laptops aid their learning. Students overwhelmingly reported using laptops, and overwhelmingly reported that they used  thier laptops to "goof off" during class. I am going to bypass the issues that have been argued in other blogs (should laptops be banned in class, are professors failing to teach their students). Without a study that tracks laptop use in class and student grades, I am left to wonder, do students actually know what is good for them? If something feels good and it is satisfying, people will report that the activity helps them. Here, students reported laptops aided their learning, but that really means they find laptop use satisfying. What I want to see is an empirical study of the grades and attitudes of students who use laptops, comparing students who hand-write their class notes, students who use a laptop but do not goof off, and students who use a laptop and admit to goofing off in class.  I would like to see their grade trajectory throughout law school, as well as their attitudes about goofing off, if it does have an impact on their grades.  This study has yet to be performed (to my knowledge). 

There are so many things we could learn from a study that tracks laptops and grades. It would be a wonderful diagnostic tool in ASP; having this information to share with students would help when students come to our offices to discuss lackluster performance. Assuming the data demonstrated a correlation between goofing off on a laptop in class and poor grades, I would have a better idea of what is behind less-than-stellar performance. I would approach a student who does not "goof off" in class, yet struggles, quite differently from a student who uses a laptop and plays during class while telling me that the laptop helps them learn.  Right now, I don't make that assumption because I don't know if laptop use in class has a correlation with grades. I know playing on a laptop is rude and disrespectful, to me and to peers, but unless I have hard data showing a correlation between laptop use and grades, students are less likely to give up the laptop because of poor law school performance.

There is another issue hidden in laptop use that extends beyond exam performance; if students knew it had an impact on grades, would  they care? I think this brings up issues about how we teach and student engagement in class. It also implies issues with motivation and depression. I know most of the pre-law students I work with are excited about law school, and motivated to do their best. If those same students become apathetic about their own performance, choosing to use a laptop even if it hurts their grades, we need a more serious examination of student mental and emotional health during their 1L year. Thanks to the amazing work of Larry Kriegar and Ken Sheldon, we know law school has a deleterious effect on law student mental health. But does depression extend to self-defeating behaviors, or is the effect limited to personal and professional outlook?

I wish we had more people doing empirical work on the behavior, motivation, and learning occuring in law schools. Larry and Ken are prolific, but we need more people doing more of this work. I think this is a problem resulting, in part, from the lack of research time and funds that go to law school professionals that work in legal writing and academic services. The people with the most time in the trenches with students, who would be best able to perform a large-scale empirical study, are the same people who are non-tenure track, and have least access to research funding. I am hoping some intrepid souls take on this challenge and produce more scholarship that relates directly to student academic success and health.


April 1, 2011 in Current Affairs, Exams - Studying, News, Writing | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Did you hear what I heard?

Professors are winding down their classes.  Statements are being dropped left and right about what will or will not be on the exam.  Details about the exam format, number of questions, time limits, and other matters are being given out in class.  Tips for exam study are being voiced.  Review sessions are pulling together the course material.

I could talk to eight students in the same class and get totally different answers if I asked about the upcoming exam.  Four of the students might tell me all about the exam - though the specificity may vary.  Two students might tell me contradictory information to what the other four heard the professor say.  And two students might tell me that the professor has not said anything about the exam.  (I am not making up this scenario - it happens every week.  The numbers within the eight might vary, but the reality is the same.) 

It amazes me that as all of the professors' comments to help students succeed on exams occur, so many students miss the content entirely or at least the details.  Some students miss out because they decided now is the time to take any leftover class absences they are allotted - they are not present.  Some students miss out because they are tired of classes and do not focus most class periods - they are comatose.  Some students miss out because they are too busy surfing the net, answering e-mails, or playing Spider Solitaire during class - they are irresponsible.

Now, more than ever, is the time to become an active listener!  Zoning out is a risky choice.  So, go to every class and pay very close attention.  There is gold in them there hills.  (Amy Jarmon)

November 23, 2010 in Exams - Studying, Miscellany | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Keeping a positive attitude

Over the 9 years that I have been doing academic support with law students, I have become more and more convinced that a positive attitude is a must for this period in the semester.  When law students begin to focus on the negative and lose their self-esteem, they handicap themselves in their studying.

Consequently, I give a lot of pep talks.  But, I cannot be with them 24 hours a day to keep that positive attitude going.  So, here are some of the things that I suggest they can do to stay focused on the positive:

  • Post positive messages around the apartment.  For one student, these messages might be famous quotes.  For another student, they may be scriptures.  For another, inspirational pictures rather than words may be more helpful.  (Personally, I watch Susan Boyle's first appearance on Britain's Got Talent on You-Tube whenever I want inspiration for beating the odds - talk about a positive attitude when everyone is snickering before you open your mouth to sing!)
  • Ask an encourager to phone or e-mail every day.  A family member or friend whose job is to keep you focused on the positive can be a valuable asset.  Having someone who cares enough to believe in your abilities is priceless.
  • Visualize your own success.  Athletes often visualize themselves succeeding in whatever they are trying to accomplish: a new height for a pole vaulter, a difficult jump for a figure skater, a faster flip turn for a swimmer.  Law students can use visualization to picture themselves walking into an exam, being confident in every question's answer, and completing the exam on time.
  • Remember that people learn differently.  You are the same intelligent, successful person as when you arrived at your law school.  You may learn at a different pace than others.  You may have different learning styles.  Determine how you need to learn and work for understanding rather than measure yourself against what others do.  If they have a technique that will work for you, adopt it.  But do not try to become someone that you are not.
  • Forget about grades.  Grades will not come out until January, and there is no way of knowing now what your grades will be.  Focus on today.  Finish today what needs to be done.  It is the daily accumulation of knowledge that gets the grades.  Focusing now on January grades takes one's eye off the ball.     
  • Avoid people who are toxic.  There are always a few law students who want to make others feel stupid and who play games to panic those who are less confident.  You do not have to agree to be the victim.  Walk away.  Do not listen to their ploys.
  • Study somewhere different than the law school.  Law students often tell me that they feel they have to study non-stop at the law school during the last weeks.  Then they tell me how stressed the law school makes them feel.  My response?  Go somewhere else to study: the main university library, another academic building, the student union meeting rooms, a coffeehouse.   
  • Keep your perspective about law school in the scheme of life.  As bad as your day may seem, it is really a blessing.  Lots of people would love to have the opportunity you have.  Each day millions of people in our world are without food, water, health care, shelter, and education.  Law school is not so difficult in comparison.
  • Up your number of hours of sleep.  If you are well-rested, you will be more likely to stay positive.  Things look much brighter when you have enough sleep.  And you absorb more, retain more, and are more productive.  Get a minimum of 7 hours and try for 8 hours.
  • Add exercise as a break from studying.  Exercise is a valuable stress-buster.  Whether you just walk around your apartment complex, run a mile, or do 25 sit-ups it will help you expend stress.  Instead of skipping exercise, add in at least 1/2 hour three times a week. 
  • List three nice things you did during the day.  Before you go to bed, think of three things you did that were acts of kindness.  It may be holding a door, giving change for the vending machine, or lending your notes to a classmate.  No matter how small, the acts of kindness will make you feel good about yourself.  And before you know it, you will be able to count more times than three when you were a blessing to someone else.

When you are in the thick of law school, it is hard to realize that there are simple ways to get your perspective back.  Practicing even just one or two of these methods can make a difference in your attitude.  And the more of these steps you follow, the more positive you will feel.  (Amy Jarmon)



November 17, 2010 in Encouragement & Inspiration, Exams - Studying, Stress & Anxiety | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Thursday, April 22, 2010

It's triage time again

We have seven class days left.  I am meeting lots of students who are brand new to my ASP services.  These students are usually panicky.  For the most part, they are extremely behind.  We are talking no outlines or, best case, last outlined in Week 4 of the semester.  If I am lucky, they have at least been reading for class (though usually not briefing).

Welcome to ASP triage work.  I want to ask "What were you thinking?"  I don't.  First of all, we do not have the time right now for that discussion.  Second, I do not want to risk sending them "over the edge" and flat-lining any chances we have of fixing the situation to some extent.  

Here are a few of the emergency measures that I suggest to them:

  • Make every minute count.  Do not waste time.  Only undertake studying that gets results.  Always consider what the payback will be for the exam (or paper or project) when starting a task.
  • Keep up with current class reading.  Many students are tempted to stop reading for class to find more study time.  This strategy is a bad idea because then they are then lost on the current material which will also be on the exam.
  • Continue going to all classes.  Many students are also tempted to skip class to find more study time.  This strategy does not work because the professor will now be pulling the course material together, will give out information about the exam, and will test on the new material.
  • Develop a structured time management schedule.  Block out times for the week when reading for class, writing any papers, and reviewing for exams will occur.  Label each block with the course related to the task.  Spread the time for exam review among all exam courses so that progress can be made on every one of them.  Few people can work more than a few hours on a paper at one time.  Use breaks from a paper for reading or reviewing for exams.   
  • Prioritize your courses and topics within courses.  Some of the things to consider are:
    • Determine the level of understanding in each course. 
    • Determine the amount of material to learn for the first time in each course. 
    • Determine the amount of material already reviewed for each course. 
    • Evaluate which topics are most likely to be heavily tested, moderately tested, and slightly tested for each exam. 
    • Determine whether course topics need to be studied chronologically as presented (because they build on one another) or can be isolated for study in any order. 
    • Check to see the order of your exams within the exam period.  
  • Break course topics down into sub-topics.  It is easier to stay motivated and to see progress if one can cross off sub-topics quickly.  It is also easier to find a shorter block of time to complete review of a sub-topic than it is to find a block of time to review the entire long topic.
  • Condense material to the essentials for each course.  These students no longer have the advantage of learning all of the nuances and gaining full understanding.  They need to make sure they understand the basic concepts, the important rules, and the methodologies.  Unfortunately, they will be depending on working memory and may well have to re-learn everything later during bar review.  
  • Apply the law after learning each topic.  Do a few practice questions to see if you can actually use what you learned about a topic.  Once you know how to structure an answer for a particular topic, the structure can be used when you confront new facts for the same topic on an exam.
  • Get enough sleep.  Staying up late and getting less than seven hours of sleep as a minimum will be counter-productive.  Going into an exam in a sleep-deprived state will only mean being unable to focus and analyze clearly.  Cramming more material during last-minute, late-night study will not make up for exhausted brain cells.    

After we avert this crisis as much as possible, we have the "next semester" conversation about using sound study habits from the first day of the semester.  (Amy Jarmon)


April 22, 2010 in Exams - Studying, Stress & Anxiety | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Do teachers grade more harshly when they use red pens?

Some interesting science to least one presenter at every ASP conference mentions that students feel that red pen makes it look as if the paper is "bleeding" negative comments. A new spin: teachers actually grade more harshly when using red pen.  Another reason why green, pink, purple might be better bets when giving student feedback. 

(I realize this link doesn't look like it fits with my does.)

And a link to the full study is here:

The pen is mightier than the word: Object priming of evaluative standards

by Rutchick, Slepian, and Ferris


April 21, 2010 in Advice, Current Affairs, Exams - Studying, News, Reading, Teaching Tips | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Monday, April 19, 2010

Policy and the law - the big "huh?"

When I discuss exam writing with students, I have noticed that mentioning the possibility of "policy points" usually elicits some concern.  I often get a glazed stare, a deer-in-the-headlights look, or a furrowed brow in response.  Over the years, I have decided that these responses come from several sources.

What does "policy" mean?  For some students, the responses are based on the peculiar fact that faculty members talk about policy readily without ever actually explaining the term.  As lawyers, we all know what it means, but do not connect with the fact that students (especially 1L's) do not.  Once students realize that "policy" is the purpose behind a law, a light bulb goes on for them. 

They relax once they understand that courts may use policy discussion to reason through (some would say justify) law in new areas or changes to the existing common law.  It will make sense to them that attorneys may argue policy to convince a court to alter the existing law to a small degree.  It suddenly becomes obvious that legislatures may use policy reasons for enacting a law that impacts society in a new way.

Why should I care about it?  Professors often enjoy the discussions of policy that accompany their courses.  If they are "idea" people, they may even get a "buzz" from discoursing on policy implications.  Some courses (or at least topics within courses) are traditionally taught with lots of policy discussion.

Students who are intuitive learners tend to understand innately policy's important place in legal thinking.  They like dealing with concepts, abstractions, and theories.  They see the inter-relationships among various policies and how to use those policies to further their arguments. 

However, students who are sensing learners do not always understand why policy should be important.  These learners are very practical people who hone in on facts and details and direct applications to problems.  They may only pay attention to policy if they see how policy impacts the law.  If a professor merely discusses policy on a very theoretical basis without actual examples of its use, these students may miss the point entirely.  They need more information: How can the plaintiff's or defendant's attorney argue this policy?  Would the parties choose different arguments based on competing policy choices?  How have policy changes actually altered the law over time?

Will my professor care about policy?  It depends.  Some courses are so codified that policy has become relatively unimportant; there may be little or no policy discussed by the professor.  Some professors will relate the historical policy discussions as background, but see them as unimportant for exams.  Some professors will ask pure policy questions on their exams.

I can think of two professors who taught the same topics from the same case book, but had totally different expectations for final exam answers.  One professor expected policy discussion on every question while the other was uninterested in policy discussion unless it was the only argument a party could make.  "Know thy professor" is the best tack to take for determining the potential for policy points on exam answers.

When I get one of the looks of concern, I explore the student's reaction to see if one of these aspects is the reason.  We then discuss further whether or not policy points are an appropriate strategy.  (Amy Jarmon)

April 19, 2010 in Exams - Studying, Miscellany, Study Tips - General | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Thinking about the review process

Some law students have been studying for exams all semester by staying on top of their course reading, adding to their outlines each week, and conscientiously learning new material while reviewing past material.  In truth, this ongoing process is the key to the highest grades because deeper understanding and long-term memory result.

However, most students are only now beginning to think about exam study.  Depending on the school, they are 6 - 8 weeks out from exams.  For many, they will be on the "downward slope" when they return from Spring Break.

There are four kinds of review that students need to accomplish as they study for exams.  If all four kinds are included in their study plans, they are more likely to master their courses and garner better grades.

First, one needs to learn intensely each topic.  This type of study has deep understanding as its goal.  It is the "could walk into the exam on Friday" kind of learning.  It may take several study sessions to reach this level of learning for a long topic that was covered over multiple class sessions.  Intense learning may need to include additional reading in study aids or time asking the professor questions in order to clear up all confusion and master the material.  In addition to learning this one part of the course, the student should consider how it relates to the course as a whole. 

Second, one needs to keep fresh everything in the course.  This type of study is focused on reading one's outline cover to cover at least once a week.  It makes sure that the law student never gets so far away from a topic that it gets "foggy."  Students forget 80% of what they learn within two weeks if they do not review regularly.  After intensely learning a topic, it would be a shame to forget it.  Constant review reinforces long-term memory and provides for quicker recall when the material is needed.

Third, one needs to spend time on basic memory drills.  This type of study helps a student remember the precise rule, the definition of an element, or the steps of analysis.  For most students, these drills will be done with homemade flashcards.  Some students will write out rules multiple times.  Other students will develop mnemonics.  Still others may have visual reminders.  The "grunt work" of memory can be tedious.  However, if one does not know the law well, one will not do well on the exam.

Fourth, one needs to complete as many practice questions as possible.  This step has several advantages.  It monitors whether one has really understood the law.  It tests whether one can apply the law to new fact scenarios.  It allows one to practice test-taking strategies.  And it monitors whether one needs to repeat intense learning on a topic or sub-topic because errors on the questions indicate that it was obviously not learned to the level needed.

Ideally students need to set aside blocks of study time to accomplish each of these reviews every week for every course.  The proportion of time for each course will depend on the amount of material covered, the difficulty of the course for the student, and the type of exam.  (Amy Jarmon)      

March 9, 2010 in Exams - Studying | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Friday, December 11, 2009

A Tribute to Movies

You may be wondering why a posting under the category "Exams - Studying" would be about movies.  No, I am not going to suggest that students watch Paper Chase or Presumed Innocent.  Instead, I am strongly encouraging them all to purchase a ticket to the local cinema.

During law school, I saw more movies than any other time in my life.   Why did I watch so many movies?  Here are my reasons:

  • It is impossible to sit in a movie theater and worry about law school.  The plot catches up every thought and catapults the viewer into another world and other lives.
  • Unlike a DVD or Movie on Demand at home, there is no pile of books on a desk in one's line of vision to beckon one back to studying.  The guilt factor disappears because one is out of the study milieu.
  • Movies reminded me that law school was not the "real world" for most people.  Movies allowed me to retreat from the fish bowl of law school and be an ordinary citizen again.
  • Although my favorites were comedies (because they made me laugh) and children's films (because they depended on imagination and not critical thinking), other genres can equally allow healthy escapism.  I would not recommend a law-related plot, however, because it defeats the purpose of going to the movies.
  • Most movies allow for approximately 2 hours of total diversion when one relaxes completely instead of stressing about memos, papers, or exams.  Enough time to relax, but not so much time as to waste an entire day.

So, here is to the matinee ticket - cheap and cheerful!  Give your brain cells a break.  Relax completely, and then go back to the books refreshed.  (Amy Jarmon)

December 11, 2009 in Exams - Studying | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Thanksgiving for law students

Most of my law students realize that the carefree days of undergraduate Thanksgiving breaks from class are no longer possible.  Unless law students have been diligent in reviewing for exams all semester (fortunately, more of my students are seeing the benefits of this strategy), they will not be able to afford 5 days away from the books.  Even my diligent students often want the extra review time.

Students who have a study plan before the break begins tend to get more accomplished than those students who "take it day by day."  By planning, they waste less time trying to decide what to study and getting started on their studying.  They are also less susceptible to the temptations of TV, shopping, non-law-school family members' relaxing, and frittering away time.

Each day basically has three potential study chunks within it: 8-12, 1-5, 6-10.  For many students, thinking about the day in thirds helps them plan their studying realistically.  It is easier to estimate what can be done in 4 hours than what can be done "today."  Even if a student decides to not use all three potential chunks every day, it allows conscious decisions about each part rather than drifting through the day.

For each chunk, a student has to determine how to use the time most effectively for her study habits and learning styles.  One student may want to spend all of the day's time (a potential 12 hours) on one subject for review.  Another student may need to switch off courses to stay focused.  Within each of the three chunks, one student may "mix it up": read through an entire outline, flashcards, intense studying of one topic, practice problems, reading a supplement, making graphic organizers for the material.  Another student may focus better by completing one type of task the entire time.

Students will maintain their focus best, gain greater understanding, and retain more information if they are active in their studying.  Some may read out loud.  Some may recite rules out loud.  Some may ask lots of questions while reviewing the material.  Some may even pace while doing flashcards.  Being actively involved is more effective than merely "doing time" over the books.

Within the longer chunks, students should take short breaks roughly every 90 minutes.  A quick trip to the refrigerator for a drink, a snack, or a brief chat with family will allow one's brain to file the recently completed information. 

Family circumstances vary.  Some students can hole up in their rooms without causing a problem with their family.  Other students will find that it is best to go to the public library, coffeehouse, or some other location to study because their family members interrupt them too much or resent "tip-toeing" around the house so the law student can study.

However, I always encourage my students whether they are here in town to study or at home with family and friends to take most, if not all, of the actual holiday itself off.  Why?  Because otherwise they are miserable.  They feel sorry for themselves and resent not having the holiday.  So, better to have some time off and enjoy it than to not focus on what they are trying to study because of their emotional response.  If they are staying in town, I encourage them to join with other law students or folks they know in the community for a dinner.  At minimum they should go out to a restaurant and have a nice meal.  Peanut butter and jelly or turkey sandwiches are not the same as a good holiday meal. 

And, I think it is helpful if the students have a reward planned for studying each day.  Being able to look forward to the reward is a motivator.  Claiming the reward at the end of the day is satisfaction for a job well done.  Whether it is watching TV with family, going to a movie, playing Spider Solitaire, or a bubble bath, the reward will make the day a success.

Happy Thanksgiving to all ASPers and to all our law students.  (Amy Jarmon) 

November 24, 2009 in Exams - Studying, Miscellany | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Non-traditional students and exam study

All law students are into exam study mode right now.  However, I want to address non-traditional students and specific study issues that they bring to the "crunch time" of the semester. 

Unlike many of their colleagues, they are often juggling partners and/or children in the law school mix.  If they are attending part-time/evening programs, they are further juggling work deadlines and boss expectations as well.  Some of them also add community or family obligations such as care of elderly or ill parents.

Here are some tips to help "non-trads" get more study time:

  • Discuss with your family why this period in the semester is so important.  Your family may not understand since law school is so foreign to everyone who has not attended - especially if you never disappeared like this during other degree programs. 
    • Ask for help in trying to find blocks of time when you can have uninterrupted study time.
    • Agree on family time that you will participate in to stay connected with "real life": a regular dinner hour or story time before bed might be examples.
    • Agree on what chores and other responsibilities will be kept by you and what ones your family can pick up (or what chores can be temporarily jettisoned).  
  • Decide with your family whether studying at home will work.  If you have a separate study/office area, it might.  But, you cannot expect your family to tip toe around for the next 5 weeks.  Some plans that have worked for other non-trad law students are:
    • Go to the law school or some other location to study so that family knows that when you are home you are available.
    • One family had a red light-green light system for the study/office door.  If the law student could not be interrupted, the red light signaled that status.  The green light meant short interruptions were okay.
    • Post your study schedule on the refrigerator to let everyone know when you will be studying and when there will be down time.
  • Realize that you may be asking your partner (or other family members) to shoulder more of the chores and responsibilities than are truly fair.  Make sure your partner and family know how much you appreciate the support.  Plan ways to say "thank you" during the semester break.
  • If you are a single parent, then make some decisions about what your priorities are going to be:
    •  Consider what chores can be jettisoned or trimmed (example, an extreme clean may not happen each week).
    • Consider whether separate home-cooked meals every night can be replaced with crock-pot-cooked meals on the weekend that are frozen and recycled over several weeks.
    • Consider whether some activities can be trimmed down a bit in time so that extra half-hour slots can be accumulated into a larger study block during the day (example, meal time, bath time, story time).
    • Decide whether you are using time between classes during the day to greatest advantage so that you can shift some studying prior to when your children arrive home.
    • Decide whether set meal, nap, bath, and bed times would help both you and your children have a better routine. 
  • Call in the reinforcements!  If you live near parents or other family members, ask for help with childcare during this crunch period.  It is important to be able to get large blocks of uninterrupted time for exam study.  Family are probably already helping to some extent, but ask if they can assist a few additional hours each week.
  • If you do not live near family, join with other law students, friends, or neighbors to swap childcare and set up play dates.  By sharing the childcare duties, you can gain some additional study hours and the other person also gains quality time.   
  • Plan activities that will be fun for your younger children while you are occupied with your studies.  Select DVDs, games, and other favorite activities that they can participate in to provide you with some uninterrupted time to focus.  You may be in the next room with your parental radar on alert, but will at least be able to have study time. 
  • Remember that you are a role model for your children.  If they see that education and studying are important to you, then they will treat them as important in their own lives.  
  • Consider whether your partner or older children can help you study (example, flashcard quizzing).  If so, then they become part of your endeavor rather than being on the outside.
  • Plan your allotted study breaks for time with your family so that they have your attention during those slots.  Chatting over a cup of tea or reading a story together can help all of you have some relaxation and be a reward for uninterrupted study time. 
  • If you are working while in law school, consider the following:
    • Can you take vacation or personal days to gain more study time?
    • Can you work on flex-time so that you shift your hours for several weeks to allow more study time? 
    • Will your boss agree to your studying at the office if your job duties are slow?
    • Can you swap duties/deadlines for the next several weeks with other co-workers in return for repaying the favor later?
    • Are there projects or tasks that can be delayed until after exams?
  • Plan a celebration at the end of the semester to thank everyone for the much-needed understanding and support.  If your family has special things to look forward to over semester break, they will have a reward for helping you find study time now. 

Non-trads have some special responsibilities that can be managed within the exigencies of law school with some extra planning.  Fortunately, most of them have fairly good time and work management skills from their jobs and family duties.  However, communication with loved ones and work colleagues goes a long way in making the transition to law school studying a smooth one.  (Amy Jarmon) 

November 19, 2009 in Exams - Studying | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)