Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Procrastination and Perfection

Procrastination reigns supreme during this time of year, in the last few weeks before the first set of finals. It's relatively easy to recognize procrastination in some of its forms, as when suddenly it becomes critical to clean behind the refrigerator and under the kitchen sink. Long "study breaks" for games, TV, or social media are another obvious sign of procrastination. But the most insidious form of procrastination is using law study itself to procrastinate from learning and practicing legal analysis.

During fall break, it's not unusual to find that outlining has become a form of procrastination, usually taking one of these forms:

  • The student focuses on one outline to the exclusion of all others. Their torts outline, for example, is close to done, and once they have finished that they will start working on their other subjects.
  • The outline becomes a detailed compendium of every case and every pearl of wisdom coming from the professor, rather than being a useful guide for how to approach a legal problem.
  • The outline goes into excruciating detail on minor topics but fails to show a coherent approach to major issues. 
  • The student is working exclusively on outlines, vowing that once the outlines are "done," they will turn to doing practice problems.

When students are getting bogged down in creating perfect outlines, this can be a symptom of depression or self-doubt, an honest but misguided attempt to master the material, or both. Depending on the situation, here are some approaches to consider:

  • Self-care. Even more than the rest of the semester, self-care is critical during the time approaching and taking finals. While the student may feel strapped for time, they can get some exercise and fresh air: walking briskly around the block is the best possible study break. Especially when students feel they don't have time to rest, it's vital to remember that getting a full night's sleep will help their academic performance better than pulling an all-nighter to study.
  • Self-confidence and goals. It's helpful for students to reflect on their strengths, especially the times that they have shown mastery of material in their law school classes. Finals is also a good time to reflect on their motivations for attending law school to give them the incentive to do work they might be avoiding.
  • Big-picture focus. Sometimes students need to back away from their outline to determine if they understand the major issues and the rules that govern them.  A useful exercise is to give 30 minutes to handwrite the major rules covered by the course in a logical sequence. This helps cement major concepts and structure. And if they are afraid to work on an outline in a subject where they perceive they are weak, focusing on the big picture can give them confidence to step forward.
  • The outline as pre-writing the exam. The most useful outlines essentially function as pre-writing the exam. A great outline will reflect in what order the student will tackle issues on an exam, and it will contain the rules the student will use to address those issues in words that the student can remember and recreate on the exam paper. Paraphrasing rules in the outline is far more useful than pasting in rules that come word-for-word from a case or Restatement, because the student can remember and write their own paraphrased rule on the exam far more easily than the arcane words of another.
  • Rotate subjects. While it is tempting to work on one outline until it is "done," students should consistently rotate the subjects they work on, addressing at least two subjects a day, so they can better master the material, remember the material, and catch errors before the last minute.

Finally, and most importantly, at this point in the semester it is vital to work on problems every single day, even if -- and especially if -- the student has not mastered all the nuances of the subject. Doing problems helps the student understand the issues that must be addressed in an exam, pinpoint their areas of strength and weakness, and practice writing in a clear, easy-to-follow order.  (Nancy Luebbert)

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