Amy L. Jarmon, assistant dean for academic success programs at Texas Tech University School of Law, is a professor and coeditor of the Law School Academic Support Blog. She has practiced law in the United States and the United Kingdom.
Realize that everyone’s grades can improve each semester by honing study strategies. Students who did well can do even better. Students who ended up in the middle of the class can improve. And students whose grades placed them on academic probation can turn things around.
Changes in study habits can mean not only higher grades in May, but also less stress during the semester and greater retention of material. Ask yourself the following questions to evaluate your study habits.
Did you make law school a priority in your life? Were you too involved in organizations, employed too many hours, or focused more on your social life? Law students need to be intentional in their studying. Doing well is directly related to bar passage and being a competent attorney. The course material is denser, and the competition is greater than in past studies. Without making law school a priority, you are unlikely to live up to your academic potential.
Did you have a routine time management schedule? Law students often make ad hoc decisions throughout the day rather than have a structured time management schedule. You will complete more tasks in less time if you have a weekly routine and aim to complete the same task on the same day and at the time each week. You will not waste time deciding what to do next. You will not allow tasks to bleed over into more time than necessary. You will ensure that you complete all tasks every week: read and brief, outline, work on papers, finish other assignments, review for exams, and complete practice questions.
Did you waste valuable study time between classes? Be careful about time that you lose socializing in the student lounge, spending time on social media, talking on your cell phone, or running random errands. Students often waste time by traveling home for meals or eating out rather than packing their meals. Some students waste time on naps instead of sleeping at least seven hours a night so that naps become unnecessary.
Did you read and brief for depth of understanding? It is tempting to scan cases and skip briefs—especially if you will not be called on in class. However, if you only know the gist of a case, you will get less out of the class discussion. You want to read in-depth and ask yourself questions as you read. Then consider how the case is similar or different from the other cases you read for the day and how the case fits into the topic. Review the material again for one half-hour before class to refresh your memory so you can take better notes and feel more confident if called on.
Did you review your class notes within 24 hours? By going back over your notes as soon as possible, you can fill in gaps where you missed points, reorganize the notes if the professor jumped around, note any questions that you have, and condense your notes into a pre-outline summary of the essentials. If you do not review your notes until you outline, you may no longer remember the details that you needed to add or be able to translate an abbreviation you used.
Did you outline regularly throughout the semester—preferably every week? Outlining each week pulls together the material while it is still relatively fresh in your mind. You are able to condense your briefs and notes with minimal effort. You do not have to relearn material before you can consider what is important for your outline. Your outline is the master document for exam review. Once an outline is begun, exam review can also begin.
Did you study throughout the semester for exams or did you cram? Cramming does not work in law school because there is too much difficult material to learn in a few weeks. By distributing one’s learning throughout the semester, you gain a deeper understanding of the concepts, memorize the rules more precisely, and have time to complete more practice questions. You also take advantage of long-term memory, which increases your retention and recall. Your stress level will be lower because you are more confident about the material throughout the semester. Distributed review increases your chances for getting A and B grades instead of performing in the middle of the class.
Did you spend time on practice questions throughout the semester? Practice questions are critical to success in law school. You can monitor whether you really understand the law well enough to apply it to new legal scenarios. You also gain the opportunity to have your exam strategies on auto-pilot: how to approach a question, how to organize an answer, how to write a concise answer that still connects the dots for the reader, how to use policy arguments adroitly, and more. If you have multiple-choice exams, you become more adept at spotting the nuances in the answer options. By practicing throughout the semester, you can increase the difficulty of questions for each topic over time and have opportunities to complete many more questions to monitor your understanding. If your professors are willing, you can write out answers to several practice fact-pattern essay questions and ask them for feedback. You can then use that feedback to correct exam-writing issues that you may have before classes end.
Consider which study habits gave you the best results for the time you put in. If the results were minimal for the time, then consider modifying or discontinuing that study strategy. Begin your review as soon as possible during the semester rather than delaying. You want to reinforce the concepts and practice application of the law in new legal scenarios for as many of the 15 weeks as possible.