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Yesterday, we explored some of the dos and don’ts for effective law school study groups. Today, I want to take that discussion a step further and explain how the members of your study group can develop your own hypothetical practice questions as you prepare for final exams.
One way to test your understanding of course material in law school is to go through hypothetical questions, but your casebooks and commercial study aids often have a limited number of practice questions. Students often ask me where they can find more practice questions, and I always explain that it is possible to create your own hypotheticals. This approach is particularly effective if you participate in a study group. For the best results, you should first complete your outline of the legal issue(s) you want to practice.
Here are 5 steps for creating hypothetical practice questions:
Identify specific legal issues that you want to practice. The best issues for this purpose are complex issues—the kind that you might have some difficulty with on an exam. For example, in Civil Procedure you might want to practice how you would apply the law to fact patterns where the Erie Doctrine or Subject Matter Jurisdiction was at issue. For Constitutional Law, you might choose to focus on Equal Protection or Due Process issues. For Evidence, maybe you want to explore some of the hearsay exceptions.
Assign each member of your study group a time period or jurisdiction for their hypotheticals. Taking this approach ensures that two people do not bring the same hypothetical to the next group meeting. For example, if your group is going to study the Erie Doctrine, maybe one person looks for Erie cases from the Second Circuit, another looks for cases from the First Circuit, and the third looks for cases from the Third Circuit. Just make sure that, if the law has changed in recent years, you do not assign time periods prior to any changes in the law.
Each person will look for cases on Westlaw, LexisNexis, or other legal search platforms that focus on the legal issue your group has chosen. You may choose to create your own search terms or may look to see what other cases have cited the cases you studied in class. Just make sure that any cases you choose are still good law! (An added benefit to this process is that you practice your research skills as well!)
Look for cases that have a well-developed but concisely worded set of facts and good explanations of the legal outcomes. The statements of facts from your cases will become the foundation for your hypotheticals, and the court’s explanations are your answer keys for the hypotheticals.
Have each member of the study group bring 3 to 5 hypotheticals to your group’s next meeting. Take turns having each person present one of their hypotheticals. The other members of the group should talk through their legal analysis for that hypothetical, based upon their outlining and studying prior to the group meeting. After the group’s analysis is complete, the person who brought the hypothetical should explain how the court actually resolved the legal issue(s) in the underlying case.
Taking this approach, your study group can create an endless number of hypothetical questions. The process of talking through the legal analysis for these hypotheticals, as well as explaining how the court actually resolved the legal issues in this case, will improve your understanding of important legal issues and provide practice for how you should analyze similar fact patterns in your exams.
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With final exams coming up soon, I’ve had a number of law students ask me about how to use study groups to study for final exams. Study groups can be very helpful as you are preparing for finals—if you take the right approach. But it’s important to avoid some common pitfalls associated with study groups if you want to maximize their value in the upcoming weeks. Today, we will explore some of the Dos and Don’ts associated with law school study groups.
Don’t use study groups to divide up the work. Sometimes law students think that study groups can provide a shortcut for creating an outline. They will divide up the course materials among the members of the group, with each person only creating one part of the outline. The problem with this approach is that outlining is about synthesis. Some of the most important parts of law school learning take place as you weave together the course materials and figure out how everything fits together. Students who take the “divide and conquer” approach to outlining only fully understand the material that they have outlined on their own—if they are tested on the legal issues that others outlined, they do not tend to perform as well.
Instead,do use the study group to reinforce your own outlining. Some of the best study group meetings take place when everyone in the group has already tackled his or her own outline. Set a specific goal for what legal issues everyone must outline prior to the study group meeting. When the group comes together, you can compare what each person has done. If you have identified something you don’t understand, maybe another member of the group has figured that issue out and can explain it to you. You will be better off as you begin to see how others have interpreted the course materials, and you can clarify your own understanding of the legal issues. Even students who are teaching other members of the group benefit in this environment, as the process of teaching the material helps the teacher to understand it even better as well.
Don’t let study groups become a time drain. Sometimes study groups meet for long periods of time without really accomplishing anything. Law students usually have limited time available to study, and it’s important that your group study sessions do not degenerate into a gossip fest or otherwise not accomplish its goals.
Instead, do create an agenda for each study group meeting. Get the members of your study group to set goals for what you want to accomplish at each meeting, and create a plan for how you will accomplish those goals. Make sure that the study group stays on track at each meeting so that your goals are accomplished and your time is used effectively.
Don’t schedule so many study group meetings that you don’t have time to study on your own. Study groups can be one effective way to study, but as I talked about before, it is important to have the time to work on your own outlines as well.
Instead, do schedule study group meetings to ensure that you maximize both your personal study time and the benefits of the group. If properly spaced out, study group meetings can provide additional motivation for your studies and a system of accountability. There is nothing like knowing that someone else expects you to have something done to help you stay on track with your personal study plans.
Stay tuned for tomorrow’s blog post, when I will explain how a study group can be used to create and explore hypothetical practice questions! And happy studying!
Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/FreeDigitalPhotos.net
There’s something about the start of a new year that signals a new beginning, a chance to make your life better or get things right. That’s why so many people decide to make New Year’s resolutions. For law students, the new calendar year means that grades from last semester are coming in and another semester will soon begin. It’s an opportunity to set new goals in law school as well—this is true regardless of what grades you’ve earned previously or what your class rank is.
So whether you are a 1L or an upper-level student, have received good grades or are on academic probation, I challenge you to set some New Year’s law school resolutions. Be intentional in what you do this semester—don’t just sit back and wait for things to happen to you. Assess the areas of your life as a law student that you want to improve, and set out some specific actions you will take to make those improvements. I’ve provided some suggestions for law school resolutions below, but don’t be limited by these ideas.
Possible resolutions for students who want to improve academically:
Taking more practice exams (You can sometimes get these from your professors, but also don’t forget about the academic support professionals at your law school)
Outlining each major topic as you finish it in class
Volunteering as a tutor (or seeking a tutor to help you with your studies)
Trying new approaches to studying or outlining
Getting up earlier to get assigned reading done before each day’s classes
Complete a legal externship or internship
Possible career planning resolutions:
Finding more networking opportunities
Revising your legal resume and cover letter
Reaching out to alumni of your law school to learn more about what they do as lawyers
Revising past writing assignments to create strong writing samples
Other possible law school-related resolutions:
Joining a mentoring program
Getting involved in a law student organization
Volunteering for pro bono opportunities
Not missing class except for emergencies
Being on time to class
As you assess where you are in law school and where you want to go with your studies this year, you will likely think of other resolutions that make sense for you. The key is to take action—don’t wait on the sidelines for good things to happen to you!
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Final exams can be a stressful time for law students. Much, if not all, of your grade for each course hinges upon how you do on the exam. There’s a lot of pressure, and it can be easy to become distracted by what is going on around you. If you study at the law school (or even follow your law school friends on Twitter, Facebook, or other forms of social media), you will hear students talking about how stressed they are. The more you listen to them, the more stressed you find yourself as well!
One of the things that law students often do is compare what they are doing to prepare for exams to what others are doing. One student will talk about how he is studying so hard that he has quit taking showers—basic hygiene simply takes too much time! Another student claims that she is surviving on gallons of coffee, candy bars, and four hours of sleep a night. You hear two others arguing over who has more supplements for Torts, or Evidence, or Secured Transactions . . . and when you look at their table in the library, it looks like they have accumulated an entire bookstore of supplements! You begin to feel that, in comparison to these other students, you just aren’t putting enough effort into your studies.
Or maybe you are still trying to study with your study group, and you find that the study sessions quickly deteriorate from a productive environment to a gossip session or gripe fest. Or, when you finish an exam, some of your classmates immediately start going through each part of the exam, trying to figure out what they got right and what issues they might have missed. Listening to them, you convince yourself that you must have failed—it doesn’t seem like they are even talking about the same exam as the one you just completed! Rather than turning your attention to studying for the next exam, you spend your time wondering if you should use the holiday break to come up with an alternative career plan.
If you resemble any of the students I’ve described above, you’re not alone in your feelings. Each semester, law students go through the same experiences, and it can be particularly stressful for students just finishing their first semester. But it is important not to let the stress, the comparisons, and the other distractions prevent you from accomplishing what you are capable of on exams. As you make your way through your finals this semester, keep in mind the following tips for staying true to the course:
Surround yourself with the right environment. If the law school is becoming too distracting, find a coffee bar, public library, or other location to study. If your law school friends are complaining about exams too much on social media, limit the time you spend reading their tweets and posts. If the study group isn’t working for you any more, take a leave of absence from it until next semester.
Don’t compare yourself to other students. Everyone has a different approach to outlining, studying, and memorizing information, and what works for someone else may not work for you. Furthermore, what you hear other students talking about may not be working for them either! A lot of times students get caught up in comparisons that are more related to quantity rather than quality—those types of comparisons are rarely accurate or helpful.
Don’t relive each exam as soon as it’s over. Resist the urge to revisit the exam immediately after you’ve left the classroom. Students rarely remember the exam accurately in its aftermath, and that type of discussion only leads to increased stressed and distraction. Close the door on that exam, and focus forward on what comes next—whether it is another exam or a well-deserved holiday break. You’ll have time enough next semester to meet with your professor to review how you did on that exam, and that review will be much more beneficial than any speculation about exam results right now.
Take care of yourself. Law school final exams are a marathon, not a sprint. It is important to eat well, get exercise, get a good night’s sleep each night, and build small breaks into your study so that your brain comes back to things refreshed.
Stay true to the course, and good luck on the rest of your exams!
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At this point in the semester, I often have overwhelmed law students come to my office, worried or upset about the conversations they hear going on around them in the law school. Based on what they have heard other students say, these students are concerned that they:
aren’t studying hard enough,
are studying too hard,
are being too generous in sharing study materials with friends,
should have created a traditional outline instead of a mind map,
should have created flow charts instead of a traditional outline, or
have the wrong study strategy altogether.
You get the point—it’s easy to listen to what other students are talking about and let self-doubt creep in. You hear the person who sits next to you in Contracts or Evidence talking about how she hasn’t gone to bed until at least 2:00 am for the past two weeks because she wants to make sure her outline for the class is perfect. You begin to ask yourself if you are being irresponsible, throwing away your dreams of becoming a lawyer because you’ve been going to bed at 10:30 pm instead. Or maybe you have had another student warn you that law students should never study together because law school is competitive, and you might be giving that other person an advantage that will result in him receiving a higher grade than you. As final exams approach and you feel stressed about doing your best, you may be tempted to take what other students are staying much too seriously.
The problem with listening to what everyone else is saying around you is that a strategy for academic success in law school is not one-size-fits-all. Another student’s approach to his or her studies may not work as well for you, and comparisons between your approach and someone else’s is likely to be imperfect. The woman who stays up until 2:00 am studying may not get up in the morning until 9:00 or 10:00 am, just in time to make it to class. Maybe you get up early and do much of your studying in the morning, before class, while your brain is fresher. The fact that you go to bed 3 ½ hours before her then is irrelevant. Or maybe you are an auditory learner and remember information better if you talk through your study materials with a friend. The fact that you may be helping your friend do better on the exam becomes less of an issue because you’ve benefited from that process as well.
That is not to say that you shouldn’t periodically reevaluate your study strategies—all students should periodically assess their approach to their studies, trying new techniques and making sure that the time put in to their studies is used efficiently and effectively. In the process, you may realize that your study group is not really working for you any more, or you are spending too much time surfing the internet and not enough time outlining. You may decide you need to add flashcards to your study strategy, or that creating a flow chart for the Erie Doctrine will help you visualize how to address that legal issue on your Civil Procedure exam. Just make sure that the changes in your study strategy are based upon what you need to do to be successful on your exams, rather than just a reaction to what your fellow students are saying.
The fall semester is flying by at a rapid pace, and final exams are quickly approaching. Whether this is your first set of exams or you are an upper-level student with experience taking law school exams, practice exams can be a valuable study tool. Here are some ways that you can use practice exams to improve your preparation for exams:
(1) Practice exams can provide insight into your professor’s expectations. Many professors release at least some of their past exams. Those past exams may be handed out in class, posted to the course website, or put on reserve at the law school library. You miss an important opportunity to understand your professor’s approach to exams if you do not review available past exams. As you look at the exams, ask yourself: Are the essay questions constructed in a way that gives you plenty of time to analyze all legal issues, or are there more legal issues than it is possible to cover in the allotted time? Do multiple choice questions resemble the types of questions that are on the bar exam, and you have to apply the law to hypothetical fact patterns? Or do the multiple choice questions just test your basic understanding of the black letter law? Do they ask for the best answer, or just the correct answer?
(2) Practice exams can help you gauge the effectiveness of your outlining and study strategies. Taking practice exams can help you determine whether your outline includes the information that you need for ultimate success in your final exams. After you take a practice exam, you should note the areas in the practice essays where you either missed legal issues or didn’t fully develop them, and you should also make note of legal issues that were tested in the multiple choice questions you missed. Go back and reevaluate your outline at that point, making sure that you have included everything you needed to answer those types of questions. You may need to add additional detail to your outline, or maybe you discover that reorganizing it will be more helpful. Use the practice exam as a ruler to measure your pre-exam preparations.
When you evaluate your outlines, you may discover that everything that you needed is actually in your outline, but you just don’t know that information well enough to use it on an exam. If that’s the case, set aside more time to review your outlines on a regular basis, and consider whether it would be helpful to create flashcards to help you memorize important legal tests and definitions.
(3) Practice exams can reduce anxiety about testing. Another way practice exams can be helpful is by making you feel more comfortable with the testing process. Many students struggle with anxiety on exam days, and that anxiety can interfere with their ability to be successful in their exams. The more practice exams you take, the more prepared you will feel for that experience. Your brain will be used to thinking about the material in the way that it will be tested, and it should help to reduce your stress. You can come up with strategies for how you will approach different types of questions in advance—there should be no real surprises on exam day.
(4) Practice exams can provide focus for study group meetings. Members of your study group can take practice exams prior to meeting, and then use the meeting to go over those exams. Or your group may take either essay questions or multiple choice questions and answer them together during your meeting. Sometimes talking through practice exams with someone else, who may have a different perspective and identify different legal issues than you have, can be helpful.
Everyone’s heard that slogan, “Practice makes perfect.” Although practice does not guarantee perfect scores on your law school exams, it can help you hone your study strategies, focus your attention on what your professor expects you to know, and reduce test-taking anxiety. Practice exams can help put you on the path to academic success in law school.
Over the past few days, we’ve explored a lot of important information about law school outlines. First, I explained what a law school outline actually is and answered some of the most frequently asked questions about outlining. Then I addressed the key things to consider as you are creating an outline. Most recently, we talked about different forms that an outline might take, depending on your learning preferences and what feels most comfortable to you. Today, I want to discuss how law students can effectively collaborate on their outlines.
Law students often ask me if they can work with others in creating an outline. After all, time is at a premium in law school. It often feels like there are not enough hours in a day. After you get done reading and briefing cases for all of your classes each week and completing your assignments for Legal Writing, what time is really left for outlining?
Often, when students are thinking about collaborating on outlines, what they are really thinking about is dividing up the outlining duties. In other words, each member of the study group will complete one section of the outline and disseminate it to the other members. If there are four members of the study group, each person only has to create one quarter of the outline. Students especially are tempted to take this approach when they wait until the last few weeks of the semester to start outlining. I want to caution you about using this strategy—it may seem to make your life easier in the short term, but in the long term it will hurt you. As I’ve explained before, outlining is synthesis—it is learning. It is personal, and there are no shortcuts. You should not divide up the outline among members of your study group, with each person only creating one small part of it. The result of that approach will be that no one will know the material very well, except for the part that that person actually created. (A better way to cope with the time constraints is to outline each section of your outline as soon as you have finished learning about it in class. It can also help to tweak your approach to time management—revisit your study schedule to determine how best to incorporate outlining into your day.)
I don’t want you to think that you should never work with other students on your outline though. Collaboration can be effective if you approach it in the right way. For example, your study group could agree that each person will complete the same section of his or her outline by a particular date. Then, once those outlines are completed, the study group could meet to talk through the outline, with members asking questions about things that they didn’t understand. With this approach, each member of the group will leave the meeting with a better understanding of the material because of the discussion. A study group can help students to feel accountable for completing their studies, keeping them on schedule when there are other distractions.
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Yesterday, we explored some of the benefits of study groups in law school, as well as some techniques to make your study group more effective. One of the challenges that study groups face is the difficulty of getting everyone in one place at the same time. This is especially true if members of the study group have a job, live further away from the law school, have to arrange for child care, or otherwise find it hard to come back to the law school outside of class times. When your study group has these kinds of challenges, you can find solutions by thinking outside the box—try harnessing technology to make your study group mobile and more effective. Here are three types of technology that may aid your study group:
(1) Video chat platforms: There are any number of free video chat platforms out there, such as Skype, Google Hangouts, and FaceTime, and many of them allow you to have several people participating in the same conversation. With a video chat, it doesn’t matter where the members of the study group are located—all each person needs is a good internet connection and a smart phone, tablet, or computer.
(2) Collaborative study platforms: There are also quite a number of free or low-cost collaborative study platforms that could be easily utilized by law school study groups. Some of these programs have some really good components. A non-exclusive list of platforms to explore includes mind42 (a collaborative mind mapping platform), Simple Surface (allows real-time collaboration and includes a digital whiteboard; can download what you’ve created to pdf), ThinkBinder (a free platform for study groups that includes text discussion, video chat, shared folders, whiteboard, etc.), and Scribblar (another collaborative platform with text chat, live audio, whiteboard, etc.).
(3) Study Apps: A number of study apps allow multiple people to collaborate in creating study tools and share what has been created. I’ve previously talked about some of the apps available for creating flash cards. There are also some programs that let you develop games that you could use to review material, such as FlipQuiz.
The key is to think more broadly about how you can use technology to maximize your study group’s efforts. Not only may these tools increase the opportunities for your group to work together, but they can capitalize on group members’ learning preferences and make studying more productive and enjoyable.
*Nothing in this blog post is meant to be an advertisement or endorsement of any of the referenced products.
First-year law students always ask me if they should join a study group, and the answer that I always give them is “It depends.” What works best for one student may not work as well for another. For example, your preferred learning style may influence your decision to join a study group. Some students may find study groups particularly beneficial if the study group talks through legal issues or acts them out, while a study group that creates diagrams or outlines on a whiteboard may be more appealing to others. How members of a study group approach their group studies may also affect how productive it is.
Here are some tips for making a study group a successful part of your learning strategy in law school:
(1)Accountability: The best study groups create a system of accountability for participants. Have members of the group create a set of ground rules at the first meeting. For example, what happens if someone is not prepared for the meeting? How will the group handle disagreements? Each member of the group will know what is expected, and there will be a predetermined way to handle any disagreements.
(2) Make a Plan: Also related to accountability, it is important for the study group to have a plan. If the group does not set goals for what it wants to accomplish and has no plan for each meeting, group meetings are likely to be less productive—in fact, a group meeting without a plan is often a complete waste of time. There’s nothing more frustrating than showing up for a group study session and having it turn into a social occasion instead, especially if time is at a premium (as it so often is in law school!).
(3) Optimum Size: Not every study group will be the same size, but it is important not to let a group get too large. A study group is not a workshop or seminar, but an opportunity for every member to actively participate and contribute. Some study groups only have two members; others may have as many as four or five. Much more than that and it will be difficult for everyone to benefit from the group. You will start having private conversations taking place on the periphery of the group, detracting from the study group’s larger purpose.
(4) Diversity of Membership: Law students often are drawn to people like themselves, but it is good to have diversity in a study group. What do I mean by diversity? Consider studying with people who are different than you—when people come at their studies from different perspectives and experiences, it benefits everyone involved. Invite people of different races, ethnicities, religious backgrounds, or sexes to join the group. If you are from a rural area, study with someone from a city. Invite a law student with a disability to join your group. It can be good to have group members of different ages, with different work experiences. Even recruiting students with different learning preferences can be good—sometimes it helps to change up the way that you study periodically. If you study with a diverse group of students, their perspectives may help you to have a better understanding of legal issues than you would have had on your own.
(5) No Shortcuts!: Finally, a cautionary word about study groups. Students sometimes view study groups as a shortcut. They may try to divide up the work among members of the group in an attempt to reduce their individual study loads. For example, a group might decide that its members will take turns creating case briefs for class reading assignments or will each create part of an outline for one of their courses. This approach is a recipe for disaster. If you take this approach, you will not understand the course material at the level that you need to know it for success in class discussion, the final exam, or the bar exam. Resist any temptation to turn your study group into a shortcut, as you will regret it in the end.