Image courtesy of iosphere/FreeDigitalPhotos.net
This may seem like an obvious statement, but your professor is the most important source of information for what will be tested in law school essay exams and how your essays will be graded. As exams approach, you may be tempted to bury yourself in purchased products, including outlines, hornbooks, and other commercial study aids. Except in rare circumstances, those resources were not created by your professor, and they haven’t been tailored to your specific class. These types of resources should only be used as supplements, not your primary source of information—instead, keep your focus on assigned course readings and what your professor tells you.
Make sure that you listen closely to your professor—not just in the days and weeks leading up to the exam, but also throughout the semester. Professors often give clues about what they will test, how they will test it, and how they will grade. With that advice in mind, if your professor spends a lot of time stressing policy arguments in class, you should look for opportunities to include those policy arguments in your essay. If you professor uses terminology or terms of art that vary from what the assigned readings use, make sure you use the terms that your professor has used. If you don’t see a topic on the exam that your professor spent a significant amount of time on in class or stressed as particularly important, look close to make sure you aren’t missing that issue. There is no guarantee that the exam covers that topic, but it is likely to be tested.
You also want to familiarize yourself with your professor’s approach to testing. If your professor provides access to past exams, take the time to look them over. Use them as practice exams to test your ability to answer essay questions in the amount of time allowed. (And, as I explained in a previous post, there are many other benefits to practice exams as well!)
The best way to make efficient use of your study time is to use what your professor has assigned or discussed in class as a guide. You’re less likely to focus your energies on information that won’t be tested, and you will be able to better anticipate the types of questions you will see on the exam.
Study aids come in a variety of forms, such as treatises, hornbooks, commercial outlines, and study guides. Sometimes your professors will assign study aids as either required or suggested reading for a course. Often, the professor has selected this additional material because it supplements the reading from the casebook in some way. Many law students also purchase study aids on their own, without a professor’s recommendation, or they may check them out of the law school library.
So what is the value of a study aid? If used properly, study aids can enhance your understanding of what you are studying. The key is to do your assigned reading first, and then, after you have created your case brief, refer to any supplemental materials to clarify things that you didn’t understand. Or, if you are in the process of synthesizing course materials and creating an outline, you might use a study aid as a way of checking your understanding of the law. Some study aids contain practice multiple choice and essay questions that can be used as you are studying for your exams.
Where problems arise is when law students attempt to rely upon study aids as their primary way of learning new material. Keep in mind that you need to know what your professor expects you to know. Exams are based upon assigned course materials, and the study aids will have information that is presented differently or has not even been covered in your course. Learning is a process in law school—you gain more and more understanding of the law by going through various layers of studying and learning—reading cases, creating case briefs, taking notes in class, reviewing and updating your case briefs and notes, and synthesizing course materials by outlining or some equivalent process. If you skip multiple steps in the learning process, you will not know the law at the level that you need to know it for your law school exams or the bar exam. As with other areas of the law school experience, attempts to take shortcuts will backfire.
Another problem that law students have is that they are overwhelmed by the number of study aids out there and don’t know which one(s) to choose for each class. Costs add up and, for many law students, purchasing very many study aids is just not an option. Not all study aids will be equally valuable—they vary in format, and what works for one class may not work for another. Before buying any study aids, talk to your law professors and see what they recommend for your classes. If your law school library has study aids, look through them first to see what you find most helpful. Academic Support offices also often have study aids that you can look through or borrow.
The bottom line is that study aids can complement your other study efforts, but they can’t be a substitute for doing the hard work.