Monday, December 4, 2023

Can We Fix It? Yes, We Can!


It is that time of year again. I warned students that the minute they finished digesting their Thanksgiving meal, finals would be upon us. And here they are. Here are my most often dispensed tips for tackling the time before and exams themselves:

  1. Make an exam plan: put your exams on your calendar and work back from them to today. Think of the tasks you need to complete between the exam and today: finishing up your outline, reading the completed outline, and doing practice questions (both multiple choice and essay for those classes that will have both). Repeat for every class, including the ones where you have a paper due instead of an exam. Plot a course to finish your course successfully.
  2. Engage in active rather than passive studying: reading your outline or casebook or (although ASP folks shudder to say it) a commercial outline over and over is not effective. You need to know the material certainly, but you also have to be able to use it.
  3. Practice Building an Answer: I tell students that the law is like the tools on Bob the Builder[1]’s tool belt[2]: you need to have them with you on exams (that would be memorization or in case of an open book exam, careful tabbing of the cases and statutes). But it is not enough to just drag the tools into the exam, you need to know when and how to use them-because the essay exam question is going to be a pile of wood that you need to shape into a sturdy answer. You’ll need to pull the correct law out of your tool belt and apply it correctly to build something that works. You’ll also need to know the sequence of building steps. That is part of what you need to practice before the exam.
  4. Prime your pump: take some time to outline your exam answers before you begin writing. I know running out of time on exams can be an issue, but the time taken to make a list, or better yet, a chart, of the issues you have spotted and how you plan to deal with them is worth it. Use this as both a framework and a checklist for writing your answer. This will keep you from straying off into tangents that are a time suck. And, as a bonus, in the event you do run out of time, you can always use what remains of the list to at least tell the grader that you spotted these issues. That can be worth a few points!
  5. Self-check your issue spotting: use a pencil or a highlighter to mark facts as you use them in your answer. Most of the facts in your hypo are going to be important, so a large, unmarked area indicates that you have missed an issue.
  6. Don’t go shopping without a list on multiple choice questions: much like going to Trader Joe’s hungry and without a shopping list, you will be anxious to find anything good among your choices on a multiple choice question and therefore fill your answer sheet with things you don’t need just because they look tempting. Stop! Don’t be tempted into choosing plausible sounding but incorrect answers as you browse the options. I actually went to Trader Joe’s today to get dog treats. I had no list, so I came home with brie, a tin of cookies, crackers, dish soap, flowers, and dog treats. Don’t be me on your exams. When you look at a multiple choice question,[3]cover the answers, think of the answer in your head and then shop for what is on your mental list among the answers.
  7. Practice Multiple Choice questions from more than one source: here is a crazy idea: your professor may not write their own questions. If they don’t (or even if they do), the language on the exam may seem a bit foreign compared to the terminology you used in class. Practicing from many sources will make you fluent in the topic and able to use a larger vocabulary to understand questions and pick correct answers.
  8. A little anxiety is okay, but a lot is paralyzing being a little nervous is likely to help you focus and stay on task, but being extremely nervous is likely to stop you in your tracks and take up time you cannot afford to squander. Practice calming strategies as part of your studying. Work with your therapist or any other trusted person (including, always, yourself!) to think of what you will do when you are staring at a question and draw a complete panic inducing blank. Will you move on to another question? Breathe a few times? Remember your mantra (mine was always, “Brain, don’t fail me now!”).
  9. Have a list of 5-9 short items in your head: many studies have shown that the ideal number of items to hold in your head is 7 (plus or minus 2).[4] Right before the exam, load your brain with 5-9 things you seem to always miss and as soon as the exam begins, dump those items onto the exam paper (or onto your computer). I always forgot to include defenses, so my list would start there.

I’d love to be able to say that exams are not important, that they don’t mean much in the scheme of life, but that would be condescending and dismissive to say to students, and essentially false. And of course, there are more tips and techniques that I share with students, but that would bring us way over the magic number.

(Liz Stillman)



[2] As much I liked Handy Manny, his tools did the work themselves and therefore this very short-lived show could not provide the exam analogy I needed.

[3] This will work for most types of questions, but there will always be some that require you to read all the options. Some examples of these might ask like for a “best argument”, or “all of the following are true except” types of questions…


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