Determining Your Study Priorities and Strategies for Exam Preparation

Vol. 42 No. 7

By

Amy L. Jarmon (amy.jarmon@ttu.edu), 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 is the author of Time and Workplace Management for Lawyers which is published by the American Bar Association.

The semester’s halfway point is fast approaching. Students need to take stock now and begin serious exam preparation. First, analyze three aspects of your academics to gather information for planning your studies. Then, determine the study priorities for each course and choose appropriate study strategies to accomplish those priorities.

Analyze your professor’s view of the course.

You need to understand what your professor wants you to learn and how your professor thinks about the course. Professors provide a multitude of clues about how students can be successful, if students are observant. Ask the following questions to focus on your professor’s viewpoint:

  • What information does the syllabus include on learning objectives, recommended study aids, exam format and coverage, grade percentages for different assignments, and insights into the professor’s expectations?
  • Does your professor’s teaching style match how you prefer to learn or require you to modify your own approach?
  • Does your professor use assigned readings as the main course focus or as a jumping off point for additional ideas?
  • What lines of questioning does the professor pursue in class: case analysis, arguments for each party, hypotheticals, policy discussion, critique of the courts’ decisions, themes in the course, trends emerging in the law?
  • What are the professor’s main emphases for each topic in the course?
  • What insights are provided by the professor’s handouts, PowerPoint slides, problem sets, or other supplemental materials?
  • What are the professor’s expectations for assignments, class participation, exams, and papers?

By carefully considering the professor’s viewpoint, a student can wisely decide appropriate study priorities and strategies rather than treat the course as an unknown quantity.

Analyze your status in each course.

Honestly compare your current level of preparation with what will be required for success on your semester exams.

  • Are you behind in your reading or outlining for a course?
  • Do you have a deep understanding of the material or just a gist of it?
  • Have you memorized the rules?
  • Have you made any supplemental study materials: flashcards, checklists, flowcharts?
  • Could you thoroughly answer practice questions on the topics already covered?
  • Have you gone to your professor with questions on any material that confuses you?
  • Are you on schedule to submit high-quality work by all deadlines?
  • If class participation is a component of the grade, are you earning those points?

A realistic assessment of your progress will improve your decisions about study priorities and strategies for the coming weeks.

Analyze your general study strengths and weaknesses.

Use your strengths effectively while minimizing your weaknesses. Meet with your law school’s academic success professional, if necessary. Improved study habits will provide greater results for your study priorities.

  • Have you been preparing for class to gain a deep understanding of the material?
  • Are you actively engaged in class without distractions such as web surfing?
  • Have you reviewed your notes daily to fill in gaps and note any questions you have?
  • Do you create your own outlines to gain deeper understanding by processing the material yourself?
  • Do you add to your outlines regularly to pull the material together and prevent confusion due to forgotten concepts?
  • Do you review your outlines regularly to take advantage of long-term memory?
  • Are you better at some test formats than others (e.g., essay, short answer, true-false, multiple-choice)?
  • Do you complete practice questions regularly to test your understanding and to hone your exam-taking techniques?

Use the information from your three-step analysis to choose study priorities and strategies for maximum results from your time. Consider the following as you make your decisions.

Keep your professor’s version of the course at the forefront.

Focus on your professor’s learning objectives and emphases in the course. Prepare for class by matching your reading and briefing to your professor’s typical lines of questioning. Determine your professor’s preferred structure for the material, phrasing of rules, methodologies to approach legal problems, and format for exam answers. Carefully study all supplemental materials that the professor provides, including problem sets or study questions. Listen closely in class for clues to possible exam questions.

Plan your study strategies for distributive learning and long-term memory.

Because of the quantity and complexity of material in law school courses, cramming promotes only rote memorization and superficial understanding. Students who distribute their review of material regularly throughout the semester increase their depth of understanding, improve their analysis of legal issues, and increase long-term memory. Long-term memory decreases the likelihood of forgetting material during the exam and supports greater retention of material for later bar exam review.

outlines are your main vehicles for learning and understanding.

Outlines are the master review documents that condense your case briefs and class notes into the essential tools for solving new legal problems on exams. Unlike class notes that focus on daily discussions, outlines synthesize cases and subtopics into the larger topics. Regular outlining allows consolidation of concepts while they are still fresh rather than laborious relearning. Outlining can indicate questions the student needs to clarify with the professor to avoid continuing confusion. As soon as a topic has been outlined, it is ready to be reviewed regularly for exam preparation.

Include regular practice questions in your schedule.

Once you have reviewed material thoroughly, you want to complete practice questions. Practice questions assist you in multiple ways: checking to see if you fully understood material, increasing your ability to apply material to new legal problems, allowing you to practice exam-taking strategies. Practice questions provide you with more information about your concept retention if you complete them several days after your review rather than immediately. Writing out essay answers is more effective than merely thinking about them or discussing them with a study group. The extra effort forces one to craft concise but thorough answers and confront the questions individually without assistance. Complete some questions under test conditions to practice your test-taking strategies and time management. If possible, have your professor review several answers to practice questions and provide feedback on what you are doing well and what needs improvement.

Determine strategies for each course to learn the basic black letter law.

Different courses may need different strategies. Many students rely on flashcards for courses with rules, variations on rules, and exceptions to rules. For a course where students must learn multiple rule sources (e.g., example, common law rules, model rules, and state-specific rules), a chart showing the variations of the same rule for the different sources may be more helpful. Some students prefer to learn visually by making graphic organizers that depict complex rules or interrelationships among rules. Other students recite rules aloud or handwrite rules repeatedly. Courses that have open-book exams need careful organization of the materials allowed in the exam—though students should never make the mistake of thinking they will have time to look everything up during the exam.

By carefully analyzing your professor’s views, your current progress in each course, and your own study habits, you will have valuable information with which to plan your studying. You will be able to decide your priorities for exam preparation and choose strategies appropriate for each course. 

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