Monday, November 16, 2020

Developing a Plan of Attack for Law School Exams, Part I

            When preparing for law school exams, law students frequently develop a framework for analyzing particular issues they may encounter on an exam. They also often plan how to use their outline, casebook, and rulebook during open-book exams. Indeed, many of us have seen (perhaps even created): elaborate flowcharts for a choice of law or battle of the forms analysis; lists of steps/questions to guide a personal jurisdiction, equal protection, or parol evidence rule analysis; and mind maps for navigating negligence claims. We have seen casebooks and rulebooks bursting with colorful tabbies, and outlines complete with tabs, indices, and tables of contents.

            An oft-overlooked aspect of exam preparation, however, is a broader strategy for how to take the exam. Where is the checklist of steps students will take to navigate the exam? What will they do when the exam clock begins ticking? Students who develop, practice, and refine a plan of attack build exam-taking muscle memory that pays dividends on exam day. Quieted is the sense of panic and amplified is the sense of know-how.

            As with so many things, there is no singular “right” way to develop a successful plan of attack and a student’s plan may not look the same for each class. However, students looking to develop and/or refine their exam-taking plan of attack may want to consider the following:

  1. Types of Assessments. Consider whether your exam will consist of multiple-choice questions, essay questions, short answer questions, etc. If you have a mix of multiple-choice questions and essays, consider working through the multiple-choice section first. There is typically more unpacking to do in a law school essay than you can possibly complete in the time allotted. If you begin with the essays (rather than the multiple-choice), you run the risk of exceeding your allotted time for essays and, as a result, not having adequate time to carefully work through the multiple-choice questions. If you do not know what types of assessments will be included on each of your exams, ASK. ASK NOW. If your final exam has a multiple-choice component, also ask about the number of questions and suggested time allocation in order to get a sense of the pacing. Work toward achieving that pace via practice and be sure that your plan of attack accounts for the multiple-choice component of your exam.
  1. Choosing where to begin. It is likely that you will encounter more than one fact pattern on your final exam, so your plan of attack should include a strategy for choosing where to begin. You should not plan to automatically proceed in the order the questions are presented. In other words, you do not have to do Question 1 first simply because it’s labeled “Question 1.” Instead, get a sense of the exam by skimming each fact pattern, noting the time suggested for each question. In choosing where to begin, adopt a methodology that best suits you. For students who prefer to ease into the exam and build confidence as they go, an uphill approach might be a good fit. Those students would begin by answering the question they perceive to be “easier” and work their way up to the harder questions. For students who prefer to get the “hard” stuff out of the way first, when they are most alert and there is a low likelihood of exam fatigue, then a downhill approach might be a better fit. Those students would begin by answering the question they perceive to be “harder” (or, perhaps, more rigorous because it has the longest suggested time) and work their way down to the easier questions.

(Victoria McCoy Dunkley)

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