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)      


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