Thursday, November 12, 2009

Battles with the grapevine

I must admit that at times I grow weary battling the misinformation about exam studying that stays alive and well on our law school grapevine.  So much of the advice throws water in the face of memory and learning theories. 

Students need to remember that they must allow time for four types of exam studying for each course each week if they want to achieve high grades:

  1. cover-to-cover review of their outlines to keep everything fresh;
  2. intense review of material that they still need to learn;
  3. memory drills of the essential black letter law; and
  4. practice questions to apply the law.

Misinformation #1:  Cramming works.

We forget 80% of what we learn if we do not review it regularly.  Thus, the law student who waits until 4-6 weeks (or less) from exams to learn everything for the semester is really re-learning material.  Not very efficient.

Also, the same student will at best be using working memory (previously called short-term memory) rather than long-term memory.  Working memory is like one's desk top.  Long-term memory is like one's filing cabinet.    Working memory means that the person will likely only retain it long enough for the exam.  Not very helpful for bar review or future client discussions. 

Misinformation #2:  Shirking on reading and briefing allows for more study time.

It is as if these students forget that the new material will also be on the exam.  If one skims cases (or worse does not read them at all) and skips briefs, one is not going to know the material deeply.  Professors do not discuss everything in class that may be valuable for the exam.  This is not undergraduate school where class is all one needs to do well.

Deep understanding of material allows students to think and write like lawyers.  By understanding the nuances of the law, students can better analyze questions and make arguments.

Misinformation #3:  Memorizing the black letter law is all you need.

The black letter law is the minimal foundation needed when someone goes into an exam.  However, the good grades go to those students who can apply the law to new fact scenarios.  The memorized law is merely the toolbox that students use to work on solving legal problems.

In the past when I have asked professors what grade a student who merely knows the black letter law will get on their exams, the answers have ranged from some kind of "C" to some kind of "D."

Misinformation #4:  Working with your study group can get you through the exams.

Study groups can be very helpful for clarifying material, getting to the big picture, seeing a practice question from different perspectives, and other purposes.  Alas, a student is not able to depend on the study group in the exam itself. 

Each student has to balance group time with enough individual hard work.  Unless the individual student understands the material deeply and is prepared to analyze the scenario and write a concise and cogent essay answer (or carefully choose among answer options in multiple-choice), the game is lost.  

Misinformation #5:  Waiting until exam period to do practice questions is best.

Ideally one wants to complete practice questions at the end of every topic (and in some cases, sub-topic) throughout the semester.  Then as one reviews for the exams, one completes more questions.  During the exam period, one is then ready for even harder questions rather than just getting started.  Also, students who complete many questions are ready to complete questions under timed conditions long before others can do so.

Practice questions for essay exams are essential because they not only help one spot issues and apply the law but also help one practice the approach to questions and strategies for exam writing.  The sooner one works on all of these skills and strategies, the greater the chance of success on exam day.  It is all good and well to know what "IRAC" means but an entirely different thing to do it well.

Practice questions for multiple-choice exams are also essential because they too allow practice of both skills and strategies.  Because multiple-choice questions are usually "best answer" format, lots of practice trains one in seeing the nuances that make one answer better than another.

Misinformation #6:  Studying each course for two or more weeks and then ignoring it until later works best.

If one focuses on one course for a long period and then moves on to another course (for example, two weeks on civil procedure, two weeks on contracts, etc.), it is a recipe for disaster.  A variation that you start with your last exam for two weeks, then your middle exam, etc. is equally wrong-headed.  These methods ignore how memory works. 

As mentioned above, we forget 80% of what we learn if we do not review it regularly.  Also, as mentioned, long-term memory works to greater advantage on exams.  By using the four types of review mentioned in the beginning of this posting for each course each week, memory will benefit.

One would think that merely 1L students would fall for these poorly conceived study misinformations on the grapevine.  Surprisingly, 2Ls and 3Ls hang on to grapevine misinformation even when it has not worked for them in the past!  When I explain the reasons why the misinformation is wrong, most students immediately choose better strategies.  (Amy Jarmon)  

November 12, 2009 in Exams - Studying | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Rewards as Motivators

Law students may find that providing themselves rewards for task completion during final assignments and exam studying will keep them motivated.  Students should match the reward to the accomplishment: large rewards for large tasks completed; medium rewards for medium tasks completed; and small rewards for small tasks completed.   

Students can determine their own definitions of large, medium and small tasks depending on difficulty of course material, type of assignment, and length of the paper.  In addition, students will differ as to the content of the motivators depending on their own tastes and lifestyles.

Here are some ideas to help students generate their own rewards lists:


  • Ice cream for dessert
  • Chai latte on the way to school
  • Popcorn snack mid-afternoon
  • Chat in the student lounge for 10 minutes
  • Sit outside and work on one's tan for 10 minutes
  • Check e-mail for 10 minutes
  • Walk around campus for 10 minutes


  • Watching a 1/2 hour sitcom.
  • Phoning a friend for 30 minutes.
  • Lunch with a friend in the student lounge
  • Video games for 30 minutes
  • Free cell for 30 minutes
  • Playing Frisbee with the family dog
  • Reading a story to a child


  • Lunch or dinner at a restaurant
  • Going to the cinema
  • Reading the Sunday paper cover to cover
  • Reading a novel for several hours
  • Taking a drive in the countryside
  • Buying a new cookbook
  • Taking one's children to the park

The rewards are only limited by the law student's imagination and finances.  By having something to look forward to, it is easier to persevere and finish a task.  (Amy Jarmon) 


April 8, 2009 in Exams - Studying, Stress & Anxiety, Study Tips - General | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Stress Busters

Exams start here in 21 days, so the stress level is increasing by the minute.  Many of my students are handling their stress well, but some have become so stressed that they are not able to get a perspective on how to help themselves.

Students sometimes think their stress comes only from studying itself, but stress can also come from friends, family, and personal responsibilities.  By dealing with both the law and non-law stress, students can cope more effectively.

The following list of stress busters should help students who are looking for quick and easy solutions for decreasing their stress:

  • Tackle your most onerous task for the day as early as possible in your schedule.  That way, it won't "hang over" you all day long and add to your stress.
  • Tackle your hardest study tasks when you are most alert.  Your brain will absorb material more easily for greater understanding and retention.  Consequently, you will feel better about your study session and lower your stress. 
  • Decide whether you study better for exams by focusing on one subject or several subjects per day.  Some students need the variety to stay focused.  By working with your own style, you will be less stressed than trying to study the way your friends study.   
  • Read through your outlines cover to cover each week in addition to any specific topics you are studying.  By keeping all of the material fresh, you will feel less anxious about forgetting things.    
  • Take short breaks (5-10 minutes) every 90 minutes and longer breaks every 4 hours (45 minutes).  Your brain will keep filing information while you relax.  You will stay more focused by allowing some down time to de-stress.
  • Explain to your family and non-law friends why you need to focus on preparing for exams.  Schedule some fun activities for after exams so they know you will make it up to them after this last push.  If you do not feel guilty about family and friends, you will be less stressed. 
  • Exercise for 30 minutes at least 2-3 times per week.  You may not have time for your usual long workout at the gym.  However, taking time to go for a walk or jog will help defuse stress.
  • Eat three balanced meals a day.  Resorting to junk food deprives your brain of much needed fuel and contributes to stress.  Cook large quantities over the weekend or in a crock pot so that you have meals for the week.
  • Avoid caffeine overloads, including energy drinks.  High doses of caffeine can have serious health side effects: increased blood pressure, panic attacks, increased anxiety, insomnia, and more.  Drink ice water instead.   
  • Avoid sugar highs and crashes from too many candy bars and sodas.  Too much sugar will add to irritability which will cause you to feel stressed.   
  • Get a minimum of 7 hours of sleep per night.  Shirking on sleep means your brain cells do not work as well, your productivity goes down, and your ability to cope with stress decreases. 
  • Stock up on all of your exam essentials now: pens, pencils, ink cartridges, healthy snacks, healthy beverages, foods with long shelf life.  Fewer errands to run as exams approach will lower your stress. 
  • Complete a "whirling dervish" clean of your apartment now.  Then just pick up and spot clean for the remaining weeks.  Finding time for major chores every week can be very stressful. 
  • Switch to low-maintenance clothing so that you have less ironing to do and fewer dry cleaning trips to fit in to your schedule.  Again, one less chore to worry about will lower your stress.   

By adding even one or two stress busters, students can increase their coping skills as the semester winds down and the stress winds up.  (Amy Jarmon)

April 7, 2009 in Exams - Studying, Stress & Anxiety | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Warning: Toxic Environment

As the exam period is getting closer, more students are telling me that they are having difficulty studying at the law school.  Stress seems to be in the very air that students breathe.  Some students are irritable and taking it out on others.  Some students are predicting gloom and doom.  Rumors about professors' past exams or grading curves are on the increase.

Law students need to escape negative vibes in order to keep their focus and lower their own stress levels.  For some students, their apartments are not good options because of distractions such as television, the bed, or video games. 

Here are some places that law students can consider for studying if they need to escape the law school but cannot go home: 

  • Other academic classroom buildings on campus.
  • The main university library on campus.
  • Meeting rooms in the university Student Union. 
  • The business conference room or other areas in their apartment complex clubhouse.
  • Sunday School classrooms at their church (with permission of the church staff).
  • Coffee houses, fast-food restaurants, or 24-hour restaurants (with purchase every few hours and a big tip for the wait staff).
  • The branch locations for the public library.

Some students will find that changing locations every few days will help them stay motivated and focused.  Others will thrive on a routine and prefer to go to the same location regularly.  (Amy Jarmon)

April 2, 2009 in Exams - Studying | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Getting Control of Exam Studying

This week is four weeks before exams for my students.  A number of them have spoken to me about their feelings of being overwhelmed.  Our calendar changed this year, and 2L and 3L students were bit surprised to realize that exams start earlier than usual. 

I have been working with many students on strategies to get control of exam studying rather than letting it control them.  A Chinese proverb seems appropriate: You can eat an elephant one bite at a time.  Depending on a student's difficulty with a course, we may be talking about a baby elephant, an adult elephant, or a legendary elephant of massive proportion.

Four types of review are needed each week for each course throughout the remainder of the semester: intense review of subtopics, cover to cover outline review, memory drills, and practice questions. 

  • "Intense review" is accomplished through the subtopic lists described in the steps below and prepares students to know the material as if the exam were tomorrow.
  • "Cover to cover outline review" is reading through the entire outline at least once each week for each course.  This type of review keeps everything fresh in memory and will take relatively little additional time each week.  
  • "Memory drills" are for those rules and elements that still need to be learned more precisely.  The additional time needed will depend on the course and the student's adeptness at memorization. 
  • "Practice questions" should be done a day or two after the intense review to see if one really understood the material and can apply it.  Most students need 1-2 hours per course each week for this task.   

Here are the steps that I suggest they use to gain control through the "intense review" process:

Make a list of every topic with all of the subtopics to be studied for the final exam..  Each coure should have its own sheet of paper for this step.  The subtopics are the critical pieces in this scheme.  Number all of the subtopics down the list.  If the student has a syllabus for the whole semester, then the entire list will be numbered.  If a professor gives out the syllabus in pieces, then more topics/subtopics may need to be added later and the numbering continued.

For each subtopic that has already been covered in class, write down an estimate of the amount of time needed to know the material for the exam.  Some subtopics that are already understood may only take 15 more minutes.  Others may need 30 minutes, 45 minutes, 1 hour or more.  If the estimate is a range (1 - 1 1/2 hours), then always choose the higher time.  It is better to have more time than too little time estimated.  Estimates will be added for new subtopics as they are covered in class.

Total the amount of time needed for each course for all of the subtopics so far.  This total gives a student a realistic idea of the intense review time needed for the course up to this point in time.  Courses will vary in the amount of time because of the amount of material covered and the difficulty of that material for a student.  The total will increase as estimates are added for new subtopics covered in class. 

Decide regular hours that can be used for each course for exam study time.  Students who use structured weekly time management schedules will find this step very easy because their routinized study schedule already shows blocks of time that are open.  For students who have not been structured, this is a good time to become more structured so that each week's schedule becomes more routine and predictable.  For this step, a student might decide that she can spend 3-5 every Monday and 2-4 every Saturday on intense Property review, every Tuesday 8 - 10 and every Sunday 3-5 on intense Crim Law review, and every Saturday 9-12 and 7-9 on Con Law intense review.

Use monthly calendars to scheulde subtopics for the regular exam study times for each course.   Now pencil in the subtopic numbers for each course that will be completed during those regular times.  Every Monday 3-5 will have Property subtopic numbers as will every Saturday 2-4 (3/28 P1-4, 3/30 P5-7 etc.).  Frontload the subtopics for the material already covered because new material subtopics will be studied as they are covered.

As a subtopic is completed, visually indicate on the list that the intense review is finished.  Some students like to use highlighters; some students like to draw a line through the subtopic.  The idea is for the student to see her progress as she conquers the list. 

The goal is to have all subtopics except the last 1 or 2 weeks of new material ready for the exam by the last day of classes.  Students will be less stressed about exams, feel more confident about the material, and have less to learn during the exam period this way.  (Amy Jarmon)

March 31, 2009 in Exams - Studying | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Monday, March 23, 2009

Condensing Monster Outlines

A number of law students spent their Spring Breaks catching up on outlining for each course and beginning to review specific topics for exams.  Some students will have lengthy outlines that include a great deal of detail (probably over 60 pages with 6 weeks to go still).  

Students who are prone to making lengthy "monster" outlines are often insecure about what they can safely leave out of the outlines.  Part of this dilemma may be a misunderstanding as to the purpose of the outlines.  Some students believe that course outlines need everything included because they will depend on them to study for the bar or to remember the law once in practice.

The purpose of a course outline is to manage information and to pass the final exam.  When it comes time to study for the bar exam, the bar review course will provide an enormous box of books with "everything you need to know for the bar exam."  Few students actually use any course outlines to study for the bar because 1) no professor can cover every topic that may be on the bar; 2) a law school course may have been too specific or not specific enough about state law, common law, or a uniform code; and 3) the law may have changed by the time one graduates.  Recent graduates tend to keep their bar review course outlines hidden in a desk drawer at work (rather than their personal outlines) for those anxious first months as a new lawyer.  After that time period, neither resource is used because they have "graduated" to other library resources that are state-specific or more updated as well as a personal foundation in their practice areas. 

Another reason students may have lengthy outlines with too much detail is that they are sequential-sensing learners who learn first through the parts, facts and details.  Only after they are comfortable with these stages can they begin to seek the bigger picture of a course.  However, they need to get to that overview with an understanding of the inter-relationships among the parts in order to succeed on their exams.  If they stay bogged down in details, they may miss issues, write about phantom issues, and run out of time on exams.  

It is more efficient to condense class notes and briefs before they are put into an outline.  That way the outline contains the essentials in a topic and sub-topic format rather than bogging down in details of cases.  Also, it takes less time to construct the outline if it is pre-condensed, so to speak.  However, this type of condensation is often easier for 2L and 3L sequential-sensing learners because they have more experience of what is unnecessary for exams.

Assuming that one is not able to let go of the details for the first outline stage, let's consider how to condense it afterwards.  Whether you will have an open-book exam where your outline is allowed or a closed-book exam where you have done extensive memorization, there is no time in an exam to leaf through a monster outline to find something - whether the leafing is done mentally or in real time.  Thus, one wants to have as few outline pages to consider as possible.

Someone once described the process of condensing outlines to me as a family tree.  The long first version is MASTER OUTLINE.  It should then be condensed to Son of Outline (approximately half the original size), then Grandson of Outline (half the size of the second version), Great-Grandson of Outline (5 - 10 pages at the most), and Great-Great-Grandson (the front and back of a sheet of paper).   

If memorized for a closed book exam, the one-pager is written on scrap paper as soon as the proctor says "begin."  It acts as a checklist for all exam answers.  (For the open book exam, it goes on top of the outline.)  The Great-Grandson of Outline is the next mental outline stage to think through for a missing rule or step of analysis.  One works back mentally through the versions if one needs more depth of information.  (In the open-book exam, the outlines are arranged from shortest to longest in a binder.)

I have never had a student tell me that she had time to go back further or needed more detail than Son of Outline during the exam.  And, many students admit that everything they needed was in the Great-Grandson of Outline.  Thus, staying tied to the monster outline is inefficient in the end.

Although a student may still start with the monster outline, it should be condensed in stages as indicated as one learns each section.  The most successful students will study the outline throughout the semester (or the remainder of the semester for those who have just started) and condense old material as they add new topics.  Thus, the outline will shrink and expand simultaneously until the final versions are produced.

If your students are skeptical that these methods will work, have them go back after their exams and highlight anything that they actually used in the monster outline on the exam.  They should then evaluate how much information they slaved over including that was ultimately unnecessary.  This exercise should help them learn what is essential for an outline and what is unnecessary.  (Amy Jarmon)


March 23, 2009 in Exams - Studying | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Monday, February 9, 2009

When concentration is an issue...there is not a magic solution

About this time of year, I hear a lot of students complain that they can not get through the reading each night. They drift off, they are distracted, they can't follow the arguments. This is not an unusual phenomena; law school reading is difficult, requires intense mental effort, and sometimes, it's just boring. Not every case is going to be personally interesting to all students; literature majors don't expect every book they are assigned to be spellbinding, and law students should not expect every case to be compelling. One of the toughest messages for students to hear is that lack of concentration has no magic solution.  There is no fairy dusk I can sprinkle on their case books to make the cases more exciting, nor do I have a potion that will help them concentrate when they are studying late at night.  I do, however, have a set of behavioral changes that I suggest to increase concentration and retention of the material:
1) Reading: Start with your least favorite subject when you are most alert.  If you find Civ Pro (or Torts, Criminal Law, Constitutional Law, Property, etc etc etc) to be the dullest subject, read it first; otherwise, you will put it off and it will be even more dreadful when you are reading it while you are only 1/2 awake. 
2) Schedule breaks into your reading. Even if you get into a "flow" state, you need to take a break to get the blood pumping and to give your brain a rest. Break does not mean two hours of video games; a break is a trip to the bathroom, a snack, or one game of spider solitaire. 
3) Find your optimal studying environment. Everyone has a different optimal study environment; for some people it is a quiet coral in the library silent study area, but for others, it is in their bedroom at home with classical music playing. 
4) Your parents were right: save the fun and games until after the homework is done, or you will never get to it.  That doesn't mean don't take a break after a day of classes; a break is good for you if you have been thinking all day. Go running, take a short nap.  But if you start watching hours of television, playing video games, or finding other methods of procrastination in the name of "break time" you are going to find it very hard to switch gears and read. 
5) If you absolutely can not read a word on the page, take a break and come back to it after you have napped, eaten, or done whatever you need to do in order to focus. 

None of my suggestions are groundbreaking; all the student have heard them before at different points in their life.  But they are suggestions that are easy to hear and hard to implement; they require the discipline and commitment that many students are lacking now that grades have come out and they are burnt out of the law school experience.  It is only in very rare cases that the lack of concentration signals a bigger problem, like a learning disability or ADHD.  As a mentioned in my post last week, students need to forgive themselves and give themselves extra time.  They are exhausted, and that is to be expected at this time of the year.  But there is a line between exhaustion and lack of effort that is easy to cross and hard to come back from.  But concentration doesn't come in a magic potion.

February 9, 2009 in Exams - Studying | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Two resources for non-read/write predominant learners

As students are gearing up for finals, I have received a number of requests, and corresponding reviews, of help for students who are not predominantly read/write learners.  Here are a couple of my suggestions for these students that have received positive reviews from their peers:

For aural learners: The Gilbert's Legends Series and the Sum and Substance Audio Series.  One of the neat suggestions a students gave me was to "talk back" to the CD's, and turn the listening experience into an argument, or discussion.  When something on the CD is confusing or leads to an ephiphany, stop the CD and talk  to yourself about it. Ask questions of the material, like a dialogue with the CD.  Students often have the answer to their own questions, but need something to spark their understanding.  A caveat for law students reading this post--these CD's are NOT a replacement for class, but a chance to review and condense the material.

For visual learners: Inspiration software. For students who like to create diagrams, mind maps, and charts, Inspiration turns traditional outlines into these visual learning tools, and can change visual tools into a traditional outline. The Inspiration software has a free 30-day trial. Attached is my intentional tort chart, created with Inspiration software; you may need to load the Inspiration software on your computer to see the chart Download intentional_torts.isf


November 12, 2008 in Exams - Studying | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

The Last Week of Classes

It is the last week of classes here at Texas Tech School of Law.  3L students are counting down in minutes now. 2L students are anticipating summer jobs while still worrying about exams.  And, 1L students are surprised at how fast the semester went.

The 3L students have commented on how difficult it is to concentrate on this last set of exams.  Some have frankly told me that all they want is C grades.  3L students often state their stressors in terms beyond law school: chasing their outstanding job possibilities, planning for their move to a new job, finding housing in their new city, or worrying about the bar exam.

For these students, I often suggest that they become list makers.  By making task lists, they can see the progress that they have made on finalizing their plans as each task is crossed off the list.  For those stressed by decisions about which job to accept, which city to move to in hopes of a job, or which house is the best to buy, I talk about making tallies of the pros and cons for each option.  For those worried about their studying for the bar, I recommend Pass the Bar! by Denise Riebe and Michael Hunter Schwartz.  Once they have a plan of attack for these future concerns, I bring their attention back to planning for exam studying.

Despite their summer plans, the 2L students are very much still focused on this set of exams and doing well.  For many, they are struggling with "burn out" because they have worked part-time, participated in student organizations, been officers in some organizations, done pro bono work or other community activities, and taken some very hard required courses. 

I suggest that these students talk to their employers about shortening their hours or not working at all over the two weeks of exams.  Most employers understand that grades have to be a priority.  I also suggest that these students schedule adequate breaks into their studying so that they can avoid being too tired to concentrate.  Fortunately, most student organizations finished their end-of-the-year events last week.

The 1L students are often uncertain as to how they need to schedule their study time for this week and the two weeks of exams.  I have been working on study schedules with many of them.  In addition to group workshops where students build a schedule as we consider strategies, I work with students one-on-one as needed. 

I encourage them to think about each day as having 3 potential study segments: morning, afternoon, and evening.  I suggest alternative strategies for them to consider depending on their individual abilities to focus: one course per day; two courses per day; three courses per day.  I also suggest that they choose an option for studying this last week of classes: alternate days for courses in the order of the exams; begin with the course in which they feel least prepared and then add in the other courses.  Finally, we discuss the exam period itself and determine the days that need to be focused on one course and the days that need to be focused on two courses.  We also talk about breaks after each exam before they return to studying for the next exam.

The relief on students' faces once they have a plan of attack for their own stressors tells me that planning pays off in a big way.  Modifications may occur, but having an initial plan goes a long way to turning anxiety into action.  (Amy Jarmon)


April 22, 2008 in Exams - Studying, Stress & Anxiety | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Friday, April 4, 2008

The Elephant in the Room

It is three weeks away from the end of classes at my law school.  Most students are feeling the pressure right now.  Many students are telling me that they are having the blahs, the blues, bouts of depression, or burdens of inferiority. 

In short, it is time for me to help them regain perspective and become motivated for the final haul.  (Obviously, the ones who need counseling are referred to our Student Wellness Center for additional assistance.)

Here are some ideas that I discuss with each student to help increase motivation and get perspective back. 

  • Remember the Chinese proverb that "You can eat an elephant one bite at a time."  It is easy to get overwhelmed by the amount of material to learn in each course.  Focusing on an entire course means you are looking at the elephant.  Focusing on pieces of the course means taking the individual bites.  A student gains control by listing the subtopics in a course, estimating the time needed to know each subtopic well, and laying out a study schedule for which subtopics will be done each day.  As each subtopic is crossed off the list, the elephant is gobbled down.
  • Think of exam study as covering two time periods.  The first period includes the weeks remaining in classes when one keeps up with the usual tasks (reading, briefing, outlining each week) and carves out time to study for exams.  The second period includes the actual reading and exam periods.  By front-loading as much exam study as possible into each class week, you feel as though progress is being made toward the ultimate exams.  Then, by planning the reading and exam period for the remaining tasks, you can focus on the final crunch.
  • Have a three-track study system each week for both time periods.  Read each course outline through cover to cover to keep all the material fresh.  Focus on specific subtopics to learn them in depth for the exam.  Finally, do practice questions on subtopics that have already been studied.
  • Remember that you are the same unique, talented, bright, and special person that you were when you came to law school.  If you have lost sight of this fact, it is time to ask a relative, friend, spouse, or other mentor to agree to become your "encourager" for the remaining weeks in the semester.  Either telephone that person when you need a boost or have the person telephone you every day with words of encouragement.
  • Use inspirational quotes, scriptures, or other sayings to motivate yourself.  Whether you keep them in a binder that you read each morning and evening or post them around your apartment, these sources can inspire and encourage you to keep working hard.
  • Visualize yourself making progress on your review for exams and taking the exam with confidence.  An athlete visualizes success regularly before the actual swim meet or the actual pole vault at a new height.
  • Do your best rather than trying to be perfect or an expert in a course.  Law school is about learning to analyze areas of  law that are new every semester.  You cannot become an expert in every course in law school.  You can only ask yourself to do your best each semester.
  • Focus on the positive each day rather than the negative.  By giving yourself credit for what you have accomplished rather than bemoaning what you should have done, you are more likely to move forward in your studying rather than stalling.
  • Set up a reward system to motivate yourself for tasks.  Set small rewards for small tasks (10-minute phone call, walk to the vending machine for a snack, playing 4 games of solitaire).  Set medium rewards for medium tasks (half hour break; playing frisbee with the dog; reading a bedtime story to your child).  Set large rewards for large tasks (dinner with friends; a movie; a long bubble bath).

In addition to discussions of study strategies, I find that I often give "pep talks" during this time of year.  I praise students for what they are doing right in their study efforts.  I encourage students who need to change some strategies to become more efficient and effective.  And, I focus on managing the elephant's parts rather than being overwhelmed by the very large elephant in the room.  (Amy Jarmon) 

April 4, 2008 in Encouragement & Inspiration, Exams - Studying | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Excellent Piece on Willpower (Related to Studying for Exams)

From the New York Times, Wednesday, April 2, 2008
Op-Ed Contributors: SANDRA AAMODT  and SAM WANG, 
Tighten Your Belt, Strengthen Your Mind

"On the other hand, if you need to study for a big exam, it might be smart to let the housecleaning slide to conserve your willpower for the more important job. Similarly, it can be counterproductive to work toward multiple goals at the same time if your willpower cannot cover all the efforts that are required. Concentrating your effort on one or at most a few goals at a time increases the odds of success.
Focusing on success is important because willpower can grow in the long term. Like a muscle, willpower seems to become stronger with use."

(Rebecca Flanagan--I apologize--I keep forgetting to add my name!)

April 2, 2008 in Exams - Studying | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Developing rubrics for students to self-correct practice exams

As the semester winds down and exam prep speeds up, I am working on a rubric for students to self-correct practice exams.  I am developing the rubric for several reasons, the most pressing is time management. I
can't give feedback on practice exams for all the students that schedule time with me, so I need a tool to help them help themselves.  A generic rubric that provides students with a guide to self-correcting exams needs to be broad but specific to law school exams, be easy to use and explicit where students needs help. 

This is my work-in-progress template. I welcome any feedback, comments, or suggestions, as I know many of my fellow ASPer's have developed rubrics in the past. (RCF)


Is there a broad issue statement?










Does it mirror the call of the question?
















Is the rule clearly and explicitly stated?










Is the rule broken into elements?










Are the elements correctly stated?










Is each element discussed sequentially?










Are all the elements discussed?
















Is the element matched to relevant facts?








**Are cases used to compare and contrast facts and   rules/elements?


**if relevant and appropriate for the question






Are all problematic facts discussed? 


 If   no, list
















































Are any arguments dismissed without discussing both sides (pro/con, yes/no,   applies/doesn’t apply)










Are relevant policy concerns discussed?
















Does the analysis conclude?








Is the conclusion consistent with the analysis?












Each idea is in a new paragraph.










Sentences are clear and concise


(no run-on sentences)








Sentences are complete.
































April 1, 2008 in Exams - Studying | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Friday, November 30, 2007

Can we save the patient?

Any student can use the services of ASP at my law school.  During the semester, I keep a steady flow of appointments on my calendar.  However, my regular load of appointments started to dwindle a few days before the Thanksgiving Break.  The final week of classes has followed immediately on the heels of that holiday break. 

Do not fear that I might be sitting quietly in my office with nothing to do.  At the same time that my usual student load began to drop off, my walk-in traffic sharply increased.  A whole new crop of students arrived to fill the gap.  Many, but not all, have been 1L students.

With roughly two weeks of classes left when the first walk-ins began to appear, I found myself dealing mainly with students who had been merely surviving the semester.  Some were in worse shape than others.  My questions to evaluate the severity of the symptoms tended to elicit responses such as:

  • Yes, I have kept up with the reading. 
  • No, I have no outlines of my own. 
  • No, I have not done practice questions. 
  • No, I do not go to the group tutoring sessions. 
  • No, I did not go to any of the ASP workshops. 
  • Yes, I did all right on the practice exams that my professors gave; I was just below (or at) the median grades. 
  • No, I did not go to see my professors about the practice exam or anything else this semester.

I consider these types of cases to be the equivalent of ER triage.  Stop the bleeding.  Use stitches or staples to put them back together.  Provide oxygen if necessary.  Prescribe some pain-killers and other appropriate medications.  And, request a follow-up visit in five weeks. 

Depending on the severity of the academic trauma, I must make a judgment call on whether quick action and minor procedures will suffice or if we are into academic CPR mode.  (Occasionally, resuscitation is not possible, and the Academic Associate Dean is brought in on a consultation about possible WD or LOA procedures if circumstances warrant.)   

First, I keep a calm voice as I probe with questions to evaluate what steps must be taken immediately.  Is the pulse racing or non-existent?  The student is usually at least pale, worried, near tears, or breathless.  No need to arouse total panic.  Good bedside manner is important.  My heart may sink to the bottom of my toes as I analyze the situation, but I listen to the story and nod to encourage dialogue.

Second, I try very hard to ignore the "ounce of prevention - what were you thinking" speech in the back of my mind.  Instead, I suggest to the student that there are additional steps we can take in the future, but that for now we need to take quick action.  I make mental notes regarding next semester - possibly a rehab period of 4 - 6 weeks once classes start in January. 

Third, I decide what can be realistically accomplished in the short time frame.  How can we use time to advantage by being very efficient?  A bit easier for 1L's who have nicely spaced exams than for my 2L's and 3L's who often seem to be the very ones with multiple sets of back-to-back exams plus a paper.  What are the most effective study techniques for this student?  The options will vary depending on the particular student, professors, courses, study deficiencies, and number of days left.

Fourth, I decide whether there is time for multiple sessions or if one intensive session will have to suffice.  Although I know that my repertoire includes some powerful medicines for academic woes, I also know that there are no miracle drugs in ASP.  I can provide the triage, but the student needs to have the will to live and fight another day.  And, an extra strong dose of assistance may not stand up to a massive infection of poor academic planning and inadequate study habits.

Fifth, I help the student lay out a treatment plan to minimize the damage and salvage the semester.  I offer follow-up visits if desired.  I make referrals if appropriate.  I often say silent prayers for the most traumatized.   

Sixth, I remind myself that I have done the best that I can in an emergency situation.  I hang up my stethoscope for the day.  I close the door to go home.  I am relieved that I do not wear a beeper.  However, I know that tomorrow there will be a new batch of triage cases outside my office.

And after exam period ends, I wait for January when I can re-assess the prognosis after test results and schedule the major surgery needed.  Hopefully, it will not be too late.  (Amy Jarmon)




November 30, 2007 in Exams - Studying | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Friday, November 9, 2007

Practice Makes Perfect

I am doing a brisk business in my study aids library on practice question books right now. In talking with the students, I give them some hints for using practice questions wisely.

  • Use practice questions after reviewing a topic or sub-topic.  Learning the material initially through the practice questions is usually not very efficient or effective.  Testing oneself after study gives more information on what one does or does not understand and at what depth one has learned the material.
  • Remember that practice questions perfect test-taking techniques as well as application of the actual content of the course.  Examples of test taking techniques would include: reading the call of the question before the fact pattern; dividing one's time on an essay between analysis/organization and writing; charting an answer; coding of multiple-choice options for "good" and "bad" choices; coding multiple-choice questions for review if time allows.
  • Evaluate one's answers for errors in content as well as test-taking strategies that need to be improved.  Because both aspects help one perform optimally on the exam, it is important to hone both aspects before the exam.
  • Use the index or table of contents in a practice question book to determine which questions are on the sub-topics or topics that one wants to practice.  This way, time is not wasted reading through questions for ones that will match the study topic.
  • Realize that using only the commercial flashcard questions does not fully prepare one for the real exam.  Although the flashcard scenarios are memorable, they usually avoid complicated analysis.  Students may want to start with these to check understanding, but they should not end here.
  • Choose practice questions whenever possible that match the type of exam expected in each course: essay for essay; short-answer for short-answer; multiple-choice for multiple-choice.
  • Choose practice questions that match the level of difficulty for which one is ready.  Start with one-issue essay questions to check understanding of the concepts and rules.  Then, move on to multiple-issue essay questions.  Then, move on to past final exam questions from exam database at one's law school.
  • Complete practice questions on one's own in addition to any questions that are done with a study buddy or study group.  The study buddy or group members will not be able to help in the analysis during the exam.  Solo practice at questions is essential.
  • Complete as many practice questions as possible without reference to an outline or class notes.  Even if an exam is "open-book" (and definitions vary of that term), one does not have time to look up very much.  Therefore, thorough study and practice without looking everything up helps on time efficiency during the final. 
  • Complete some questions under actual timed conditions.  It is important to know whether or not one can complete the analysis within the time limits.  One can always complete the analysis when taking as long as needed, but that is normally not possible on an exam.
  • Complete some questions under other conditions that may be required, such as word limits or page limits.  Again, if one does not practice within these conditions before the exam, it is hard to stick to the limits in the actual exam.
  • Practice as much as possible.  One can never do enough practice questions.  Practice questions force thinking about the law in new situations and recognizing the nuances in its application.

Of course, students should ideally be doing practice questions all semester after each sub-topic or topic.  However, the reality is that many students are just now starting the process.  Depending on the timing of practce for a particular student, I will give additional pointers if needed.  (Amy Jarmon)   

November 9, 2007 in Exams - Studying | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Monday, October 29, 2007

Exam Resource

If you are looking for a good resource on taking law school exams, check out Suzanne Darrow-Kleinhaus's Mastering the Law School Exam, published by Thomson-West.  It lays out detailed approaches to preparing for and taking various types of law school exams and includes practice exams and model answers.  I think students, ASP professionals, and law professors would all find it very helpful.

Dan Weddle

October 29, 2007 in Exams - Studying | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Exam Planning ... the time is now!

Thanks to Amy Jarmon for her superb suggestions about exam preparation.  (See Amy’s October 17 blog text below.) 

One of the most important recommendations she provides – and one which too many students overlook completely, is this: “Using a very structured weekly time management schedule for the remainder of the semester will allow the student to keep up with current class material while reviewing for exams which can in turn lower anxiety because all tasks are being completed.”

The “exam plan” is critical, and (I think) it needs to be made looooonnnnngggg before the final two weeks of the semester.  I have sat with many students and assisted them in constructing detailed personalized exam study plans.  This (your personalized assistance in creating this plan) could be the most important lesson students learn from you.

To supplement and underscore Amy’s suggestions, I have pulled some material from an article I wrote a while back for the ABA Student Lawyer Magazine (I believe it appeared in the March 2006 issue if you want to find the entire article in your law library).  The article dealt with anxiety reduction throughout the semester, but included a few suggestions about exams in particular.  What follows is based on that article. 

The “old hands” at academic support are familiar with all of this, of course.  I’m hoping this might be valuable to some of you who are relative newcomers to academic support … and, in turn, that it will ripple out to the students and those whom they eventually serve. 

To excel as a law student, you need to keep your cool during study time, class time, and exam time. To excel as a lawyer, you need to do the same—even though the setting is different. Three standard law school activities—studying law with a deadline approaching, being called on in front of others to address a difficult problem, and producing cogent arguments on demand—are also standard features of most lawyers' weeks.

Law school has something else in common with law practice: collywobbles—those uncomfortable feelings in the stomach caused by nervousness, anxiety, or fear.

Students study and learn best when they are at their peak performance level, and collywobbles inhibit peak performance.

[The article suggests methods of dealing with anxiety throughout the semester, then considers the subject of minimizing exam collywobbles.] After noting that, ideally, exam preparation begins on the first day of the semester, these tips follow:

  • Exam preparation should include development of a detailed written study schedule for several weeks before the examination dates.
  • If you have not kept your course outlines up to date throughout the semester, you need to complete them at least a couple of weeks before exams. You should also schedule sufficient time for review and internalization of all key definitions, elements, black-letter rules — anything that may be an essential component of an exam answer's completely predictable portions.
  • Developing topical “mastery” — the ability to efficiently resolve difficult problems within a short time frame in writing under pressure — is essential.  Achieve mastery by writing answers to short hypothetical questions covering all the topics and issues that may be the subject of test questions. Compare your answers to sample answers to measure your achievement level.  You will recognize mastery when you achieve it.
  • Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse. Answer several questions similar to those you expect to encounter on each exam, under the same time and environmental conditions you will be subjected to on exam day.
  • Ask for help if/as needed.  During this final phase of preparing for exams, visit with your professors to clear up any areas of the law that trouble you.
  • Make an appointment with your school's academic support professional if you want some fine-tuning of your style.

There is no one-size-fits-all schedule, nor is there a “rule” for how many practice questions to do.  One thing I think students ought to hear, however, is based on what the bar exam professional trainers suggest.  BarBri or PMBR, for example, recommend some very large number of practice MBE questions (is it near 3,000?) before taking what is essentially a pass/fail test where scoring considerably below the “average” score will earn the examinee a license to practice law (assuming the rest of the exam is passed as well).

The actual MBE exam consists of 200 questions.  That’s a fifteen-to-one ratio.  So, if a first-year student wants to do much better than average (earn an A, for example), maybe she ought to take a look at that ratio when planning her study for the 15 multiple choice questions her Torts professor has promised.  That works out to 225 questions as a minimum. 

How does that relate to essay practice?  Well, is it unreasonable to practice answering questions for 45 hours to prepare for a 3-hour essay exam?  Maybe yes, maybe no — however, I’ve queried many students who wind up in the nether regions of their class ranks on this very subject, and discovered that the average time spent actually answering practice questions in writing (either short ones like you’ll find in the Examples & Explanations series or standard-sized one-hour essay exams) is approximately this: 1.

If it’s true that practice makes perfect, what does this (answering 1 question) make? 

Go figure.  Literally.  Figure out how many questions will make you (student) feel really comfortable going in to the exam room.  Then include that number in your exam plan. 

Hasta luego. (djt)

October 18, 2007 in Exams - Studying | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Managing Test Anxiety

For the most part, mid-term examinations are ending this week at my law school.  Each week during mid-terms, I have had students come by to discuss test anxiety.  Some of them tell me that test anxiety has been an ongoing problem throughout college.  However, most of them tell me that they have never had test anxiety until now.

There are a number of suggestions that I make in hopes of preventing future bouts of test anxiety as their final examinations approach: 

  • Reviewing outlined material regularly throughout the remainder of the semester (rather than cramming at the very end) will provide deeper understanding which can in turn create greater confidence and lower anxiety.
  • Asking professors questions that the student has been unable to resolve (rather than storing them up for six more weeks) will eliminate confusion about material which can in turn lower anxiety about the course.
  • Working as many practice questions as possible for the remainder of the semester will increase skill in applying the nuances of the law which can in turn mean the student is less likely to confront a question scenario which is a total surprise.
  • Working as many practice questions as possible for the remainder of the semester will mean the techniques for taking exams (such as IRAC) are on "auto-pilot" which can in turn mean lower anxiety about how to proceed on a difficult question.
  • Using a very structured weekly time management schedule for the remainder of the semester will allow the student to keep up with current class material while reviewing for exams which can in turn lower anxiety because all tasks are being completed.
  • Using a very structured monthly time management schedule for the remainder of the semester will allow the student to designate course sub-topics to study during review time in the weekly schedule which can in turn lower anxiety as sub-topics are crossed off after each review session.
  • Sleeping a minimum of seven hours per night will help the student be more alert and focused while studying which can in turn create a more positive perspective on law school and lower anxiety.
  • Exercising several times a week will allow the student to take advantage of one of the most effective stress-busters which can in turn lower anxiety about exams (and life).
  • Eating three nutritious meals (rather than junk food) will help the student to have more energy for productive studying which can in turn lower anxiety about getting things done.
  • Practicing simple relaxation exercises (such as deep breathing and gentle shoulder or head rotations) every day will lower stress which can in turn keep test anxiety at bay.
  • Taking several hours off from studying when the student is feeling "nothing is going in" despite best efforts will allow a change of pace which can in turn prevent a student from becoming overwhelmed.
  • Attending counseling (or biofeedback training) through the university counseling center will assist students who have histories of test anxiety in managing the problem which can in turn lower their likelihood of having future severe attacks.

Not all of these suggestions work for every student.  However, most students can find several suggestions on the list that seem good matches to their temperments and needs.  (Amy Jarmon)

October 17, 2007 in Exams - Studying, Stress & Anxiety | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Thursday, July 12, 2007

An Excellent Text on Preparing for and Taking Law School Exams

Professor John Delany's How to Do Your Best on Law School Exams, is an excellent resource for both law students and ASP professionals.  A longtime criminal law professor, Delaney provides an insightful and detailed approach to semester-long exam preparation, as well as practical strategies for answering the exam questions themselves in ways that demonstrate the analytical skills that law professors are trying to assess. 

One of the most powerful aspects of the book is Professor Delaney's ability to tie exam preparation to the analytical skills that lie at the heart of a proper legal education.  Through thoughtful explanations of effective learning strategies and multiple practical illustrations and sample problems and answers, Professor Delaney demystifies much of both the study of law and the keys to success on law school assessments.

Any student who wonders why in the world we test the way we do should read this book.  Any student who wants to transform exam preparation into deep learning and powerful analytical skill development should read it and then reread it several times.  (Dan Weddle)   

July 12, 2007 in Exams - Studying | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Friday, April 6, 2007

Three Little Questions

For our campus, it is just over three weeks until exams begin.  My students who have been working with me throughout the semester are right on schedule with their additions each week to outlines, reading assignments for class, review for exams, and practice questions.  Most of them are calm enough that they are making solid decisions about all of their tasks and the time allotted for each task.

However, I am concerned about the students who have arrived belatedly on my doorstep or who are in trouble and have not yet come for help.  At this point in the semester, I encourage all students to ask three little questions about everything that they do:

  1. What is the payoff on exams of what I am doing right now?  (And, if minimal, what would have more payoff?)
  2. Is what I am doing right now the most efficient use of time?  (And, if not, what would be more efficient?)
  3. Is what I am doing right now the most effective way of doing this task?  (And, if not, what would be more effective?)

If a study task has little or no payoff for exams, then the student needs to re-think the approach.  For example, re-reading every case in the course usually has little or no payoff since exams focus on application to new facts rather than on close inspection of cases.  On the other hand, reviewing an outline or doing practice questions would both have big payoffs.  By asking the question, a student should realize she needs to drop the first approach and focus on the other two tasks. 

Even a big payoff task can be done inefficiently if one is not careful.  For example, doing practice questions before any review of the material may be totally inefficient as a first step to studying because the student will not have the knowledge base to test understanding accurately.  On the other hand, asking a professor questions after reviewing a single topic would be more efficient than storing up all questions to the end of review for all topics.

A student may choose a big payoff task and do it efficiently, but still not have the studying be effective.  Reviewing outlines is a big pay-off item.  And, reviewing them early in the study process (rather than cramming) is a very efficient use of time.  However, reviewing topics that have already been learned well and avoiding the difficult topics would be ineffective in the scheme of preparing all topics for the exam. 

Efficiency and effectiveness sometimes overlap.  Studying the difficult topics when the student is most alert during the day would be both efficient (a wise use of those hours) and effective (more will be understood and retained when the student is alert). 

I find that students who are stressed at this time of the semester often despair over difficult courses unless they can get more control over their studying.  These three little questions help them to critique their study tactics and replace bad choices with better choices.  (Amy Jarmon)

April 6, 2007 in Exams - Studying, Miscellany | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Monday, March 26, 2007

Getting Ready for Another Round of Exams

As your first-year students prepare for another round of exams, you might want to direct them to my UMKC colleague Barbara Glesner Fines's Law School Materials for Success.  Having been through their first set of exams, 1L's can absorb her advice from a more informed perspective than the one they had back in November. (dbw)

March 26, 2007 in Exams - Studying | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)