The beginning of a new semester is always promising. No matter what fall semester grades were, students are certain they can improve this semester. Hope is in the air!
However, in a few weeks, students may become discouraged when they realize they are uncertain as to which strategies will produce better exam results. Are there certain ways to maximize memory and learning? Absolutely! There are techniques to improve your exam results in May [or December…this article originally appeared in a Spring issue of Student Lawyer]. If you implement them diligently, your grades can increase with any exam format.
Use memory and learning strategies matched to law school study. Law students are often destined to average grades because they depend on undergraduate study techniques that are unsuited to law school. The density of legal material, the test formats focused on application, and the one-exam assessment in law school all change the learning and test-taking landscape.
The undergraduate curriculum included courses for general education or for non-career majors—courses that did not relate to any future plans. In contrast, law school is about skills and retention of information for future use—on the bar exam and in legal practice. Thus, long-term memory rather than mere working memory for information is essential.
Long-term memory is the “filing cabinet” of your brain; deeply learned material is retained for later use. Long-term memory allows you to recall information from prior law school courses more quickly during your bar review. Working memory retains information for you only long enough to use it for a specific, short-term purpose. With working memory, you would regurgitate information on an exam but promptly forget it afterward.
Research shows that we forget 80 percent of what we learn within two weeks if we do not review regularly. Consequently, the longer law students wait to outline during the semester, the more material they will forget and need to re-learn before they can outline. Students who outline regularly but then fail to review their outlines will also forget information and have to re-learn it prior to their exams.
The best way to learn and retain material for masterful application on an exam is to distribute both the learning and the review throughout the semester. Regular review leads to deeper understanding of the law rather than mere memorization. It also provides more time for practice questions that monitor understanding of the concepts and the ability to apply them.
Condense your briefs and class notes into outlines every week. By outlining while material is still fresh, you avoid having to re-learn information. Greater understanding of concepts, inter-relationships among concepts, supporting examples and details, and the fit of cases and subtopics within the whole topic are some of the benefits of regular outlining. Outlines consolidate the essential tools to solve the new legal problems you will see on the exam.
Begin exam review as soon as your outline is started. Your outline is your master exam document. If you have outlined carefully, you will not review your notes, briefs, or cases again. By distributing your exam review throughout the semester, you gain all of the memory and learning benefits mentioned above. In addition, as exams approach, your confidence level will be higher, and your stress level will decrease.
You want to complete the following review steps each week for each course:
Study a “slice” of your outline intensely. This step is the actual learning of the material for deep understanding. You want to know the material so well that you could walk into the exam the next day. The size of the slice will depend on the length and complexity of the material; you may do one or several subtopics or an entire topic. Your goal is to complete your intense review of 13 weeks of a 15-week semester before classes end. Very little material will be left to learn for the first time during the reading and exam periods.
Read your outline cover to cover at least once. This reading from first to last page refreshes the material no matter how long it has been since it was intensely covered in your exam review.
Complete multiple practice questions to test your understanding and application of the law. By waiting several days after your intense review to complete questions, you will know if you truly retained the material or just got it right because of your review session.
Complete memory drills on the rules, methodologies, policies, and other essential tools for solving legal problems. Choose memory techniques that work for you: quizzing with flashcards, writing rules 15 times, reciting out loud, drawing mind maps. Memory drills are often more productive several times a week in 30-minute time blocks.
Meet with professors to discuss any questions you have on the material. After outlining, visit your professor during office hours to clarify any confusing points. By filling in gaps frequently, you will have a better foundation before moving on to the next topic in the course.
Use study aids selectively to assist in your exam review. If you are struggling with material, read one study aid commentary to clarify the topic or subtopic. Only read a second study aid if you are still confused. If you have completely understood a topic from your cases and classes, you may decide not to read any study aid.
Reading an entire study aid for a course at the end of the semester is usually ineffective. You are trying to absorb too much material without enough time. Comparing the study aid with your outline will be difficult when you are rushed. Unless the study aid is written by your professor, it may not match your professor’s presentation of the topics; you will be tested on your professor’s version.
If you review consistently throughout the semester, you will see the benefits on your exams. You will spot the fact pattern issues readily, see the nuances in multiple-choice options, and analyze with more depth. Your increased preparation time through practice questions will result in tightly written essay answers and fewer error patterns on multiple-choice questions.