Tag Archives: memorization

The Most Frustrating Phrase in Law School: “It Depends”

For those of you beginning law school this month, welcome to the world of uncertainty! From childhood, we have all been taught that there are rules—absolute truths, if you will–that guide our understanding of the subjects we have studied. We memorized dates, names, and other important facts for history class: World War II began with Germany’s invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939. George Washington was the first President of the United States. We learned in math class that 8 + 2 = 10, and 8 x 2 = 16. If you memorized the rules and applied them in your homework assignments and exams, you were ok.

On the surface, it would seem that law school should work the same way: Memorize the law and apply it on exams. After all, laws are really rules. Why shouldn’t you be able to approach law school in the same way that you approached those multiplication tables in elementary school or the periodic table of elements in Chemistry class? Although you will have to memorize a lot of rules in law school (legal tests, elements of legal claims, definitions of legal terms, etc.), law school learning doesn’t end there. Instead, the rules are merely the starting point to answering questions in law school. You will learn that the rules that you are memorizing apply in certain circumstances—unless they don’t. The result: As you immerse yourself in your studies, you will discover that one of the most common phrases in law school is “it depends.”

For example, in your Torts class you will soon learn about the tort of battery. Black’s Law Dictionary (9th ed. 2009) defines the tort of battery as “[a]n intentional and offensive touching of another without lawful justification.” This definition seems pretty straightforward. A new law student might assume that, if she applies this definition on the exam, she will be able to answer the question: Did Bob (the defendant in the hypothetical) commit the tort of battery? In reality, the answer is not as simple as it seems. A seasoned law student will know from experience that the real answer is, “It depends.” Specific facts in the hypothetical will have an effect on a law student’s analysis. For example, what if Bob intended instead to commit an assault (another type of tort), but caused a battery—will he be liable for battery when he didn’t intend that act? What if we don’t know what Bob’s intent was? What if Bob only touched the plaintiff’s purse, which was hanging from her arm, rather than part of her body? These types of facts may have an effect on your answer.

Your answer may also depend on whether there are other legal rules that intersect with the rules regarding battery. You will learn that Bob’s actions may not be a tort if he is able to assert a defense. For example, Bob may argue that he is not liable for battery because the plaintiff consented to his actions. Or maybe Bob is a police officer, acting under authority of law. Maybe Bob will argue that he was acting in self-defense. There are numerous possible defenses that Bob may attempt to assert, and those defenses may change your analysis.

The lack of absolute answers in law is one of the reasons why law students tend to find their first-year experience so stressful. Every time that you feel like you are beginning to understand a legal rule, your professor will introduce another possible exception to that rule. The law sometimes feels like a moving target—and you are trying to hit it while wearing a blindfold!

In reality, mastering the “it depends” moments in law school is one of the keys to academic success. The uncertainties create opportunities for a more in-depth exploration of the law. Wrestling with the ambiguities will improve your legal reasoning skills, making you a better law student and, ultimately, a better lawyer. It is also important to understand that those areas where you can identify uncertainties are prime areas for testing—if you identify them and plan for them as you study, you will be better prepared for your law school exams.

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Flashcards and Bar Prep

By now, those of you who are studying for the July bar exam should be settling into a regular study routine. As you discovered during your time in law school, there are some legal concepts that you just have to memorize to be successful on an exam, whether it is the final exam in Torts or the bar exam. As a result, you may want to pull an old tool out of the study toolbox—flashcards. Flashcards can help you memorize important rules, tests, and definitions that you will need to recall during the bar exam. They can be especially helpful as you juggle learning and reviewing material from numerous bar subjects. Flashcards can also help you assess what you know versus what concepts you need to spend more time on, allowing you to make efficient use of limited time.

There are two possible approaches to flashcards: (1) the old school, index card type of flashcard that is either handwritten or typed (the “traditional” flashcard); or (2) digital flashcards that can be viewed on a computer, smartphone, iPad, or other digital reader. Each type has its benefits and drawbacks, as discussed below. You just have to decide which type will work best for you.

Traditional Flashcards:

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

First, let’s talk about the traditional flashcard. For those of you who do not like to study from a digital screen or aren’t as comfortable using technology, the traditional flashcard may be your default approach. One of the benefits of the traditional flashcard is that many students find that the process of writing out each card actually helps them to remember concepts better, even before they actually start studying from the cards. For people who like a visual reference of what has been accomplished and what is left to learn, stacks of flashcards satisfy that need. It is possible to carry around a small number of traditional flashcards regardless of where you go, and you don’t have to worry about low batteries, loss of internet connectivity, etc.

On the flip side, making handwritten flashcards can be a tedious process, especially when you are creating them for every bar subject. They are easily lost or ruined (such as when your elbow catches that cup of coffee and knocks it over). And if you are one of those people who tries to reduce the entire BarBri outline to a comprehensive series of flashcards, you may take so much time on one subject that nothing else gets done before it’s time to take the bar.

Digital Flashcards:

So what about digital flashcards? Digital flashcards also have their benefits and drawbacks. One of the benefits of digital flashcards is their portability. If you have a smartphone with a flashcard app, you literally can carry your flashcards with you everywhere you go. As I’ve talked about before, there are any number of basic flashcard apps available on the internet for free or at a low cost, such as Flashcard Machine and Quizlet. You may have already discovered a program that works really well for you. Depending on the program, there may be limitations though. It may be difficult to separate out cards that you want to concentrate on for a single study session, or the ability to temporarily combine particular subjects together in a random way (how it will be on the MBE) may be limited. Not all apps work on all devices either. Some only work on Apple devices, while others work with android platforms. Very few seem to work with Blackberries, if you happen to have one of those.

Another benefit—and drawback—to many digital flashcard programs is that they allow you to share your flashcards with others. On the plus side, this means that you and two of your best friends could divide and conquer the flashcard creation process . . . if you trust those people’s judgment calls about what is flashcard-worthy. On the negative side, most people end up knowing best the cards that they created themselves.

A New Type of Digital Flashcard for Law Students and Bar Takers: SeRiouS:

There is also a new digital flashcard program specifically for law students and bar takers called SeRiouS.

Here’s a video explaining how SeRiouS works:

From my exploration of the SeRiouS platform, there are two different ways that you can use it. First, you can utilize flashcards, created by law professors, on a variety of bar subjects. As it stands right now, there are over 600 different flashcards on mostly MBE topics, but it appears that more will be added over time. Second, you and your friends can create your own cards as well. The benefit to SeRiouS is that it draws upon scientific research regarding memory. As you go through each flashcard, you rate how confident you felt about your answer. Based upon your level of confidence, SeRiouS applies an algorithm to determine how often you see that flashcard as you study—a process called spaced repetition. The principle is that, as you start studying a topic, you need to review it frequently in order for it to be stored in your memory. As you continue to review that same topic over time, however, you need to see it less and less often to maintain it in your long-term memory. (I’m not an expert on the subject, but this is how I understand it.) One of the drawbacks to this program is that the website is a little hard to navigate at first until you figure out where everything is located, but it shows a lot of promise. A plus is your ability to chart your mastery of the cards (it gives you an update about your status) as well as gentle reminder emails to get back to reviewing your flashcard deck. At this point, SeRiouS is in the beta stage and available without cost to law students and bar takers at least through the July bar exam period.

**This blog post is not an endorsement of any product mentioned herein; I am just providing some suggestions of resources that are available for you to explore.

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Filed under Bar Exam, General, Study Tips, Technology

Making Flash Cards Work Harder for You

There are some legal concepts that law students just must memorize–there is no way around it! Once you have outlined a topic for a class, you will identify specific rules, tests, etc. that you want to know backwards and forwards. For example, think of how you would analyze a fact pattern for “adverse possession” on your property exam. Although your professor may have worded the elements slightly differently than I have here, you know that adverse possession requires that the person: (1) actually enter; (2) have exclusive possession; (3) have continuous possession; (4) have adverse or hostile possession (without the owner’s permission); and (5) possession must be for the period of time defined by the statute. During the exam you will be feeling a lot of stress because of the amount of information you have studied and the limited amount of time you have to complete the exam. If you do not have the elements memorized, you may forget one of them when you are writing your essay. The result: fewer points, a lower grade.

Many students use flash cards to memorize the elements of rules, key definitions that they want to know word for word, and other important legal information that they want to be able to recall with little effort. Of course you can always write out your flash cards on index cards, but there are also a number of programs and apps available on the internet for free or at a low cost, such as Flashcard Machine, available at www.flashcardmachine.com, and Quizlet, available at quizlet.com

You can make flash cards work even harder for you by using them as checklists for legal issues. A checklist flashcard has the legal issue listed on one side and a list of the possible related topics you might need to address if you identify facts related to that legal topic in an exam question. So, for example, if the legal topic was negligence, you might include on the flip side of the flash card the following related topics, among others: (1) comparative/contributory negligence; (2) vicarious liability; (3) joint and several liability; and (4) the types of damages available. This type of flashcard can remind you to look for related legal issues and maximize the number of points you get on your essay.

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Filed under General, Study Tips