Study aids exist for two main reasons: 1) to clear up your confusion about a topic; 2) to provide you with scenarios to test your application of the concepts. Commentaries explain the main topics for a particular course and come in many formats: hornbooks, commercial
outlines, or explanatory checklists. Practice question books include a variety of question formats: short answers, multiple-choice, and essays.
Typically you will select one commentary and one practice question book for each of your courses. Before making your selections, consider the following:
Review the available options for each course before purchasing. Your academic success office may have copies you can browse and compare.
Review each syllabus for recommendations by the professors. A professor’s recommendation usually indicates that the study aid matches the course content and the professor’s perspective.
If your professor has no recommendations, compare a study aid’s table of contents to the syllabus topics. You want a study aid that covers most, if not all, of the course material.
Ask upper-division students who had that professor for recommendations on study aids. Multiple opinions may lead you to several good options.
Check the author and publication date. A study aid written by an acknowledged expert is more likely to be accurate. Beware purchasing earlier editions or publications written prior to major legal reforms.
For practice question books, consider whether the question formats match your professor’s exam formats. Check the model answers or answer explanations for thoroughness.
What do I do if my professor tells us that we should not use study aids? Law professors know their subject matters so well that sometimes they may not appreciate a student’s need for additional instruction. Quality of study aids has improved in recent years. Study aids are often written by experts and published by major legal publishers.
If you study hard and cannot understand the material after asking your professor questions, you probably need a study aid. Unless your professor provides you with practice questions to prepare for the final exam, a study aid will be necessary. Even if your professor doesn’t or won’t recommend an aid, you should seek one. Without a professor’s recommendation, you must use your judgment. The tips here should give you guidance for selecting the right study aid for you.
When should I use study aids? The best approach is to use study aids throughout the semester. Reading an entire commentary two weeks before the exam will not give you time to understand the concepts well and apply the material to practice questions. By completing practice questions throughout the semester after reviewing specific topics, you will have the opportunity to receive feedback and improve your exam-writing skills with later practice questions.
Some students use study aids every week before adding to their course outlines. Other students read a study aid at the end of each topic. If you fully understand a topic, you may not read anything extra and only turn to a study aid for material you find difficult.
Complete practice questions after you have carefully reviewed a topic. Otherwise, you will waste time, gain little feedback on your actual knowledge level, and excuse poor performance on lack of study. Begin with one-issue questions to check your basic understanding of material. Move on to intermediate-level questions with multiple issues as you gain confidence with the concepts. Exam-level questions should be completed near the end of the semester. Complete some questions under timed exam conditions.
What should students beware of when using study aids? These examples show how students lose sight of what they want to accomplish by using study aids:
Learn your professor’s version of the course: rule statements, steps of analysis, buzz phrases, and answer format. Study aids that provide a different version will make it harder for the professor to find points when grading your exam.
Do not waste time reading chapters in study aids that are not covered by your professor’s syllabus. Your focus should be limited to the material for the exam.
Beware substituting commercial outlines for your own outlines or canned briefs for your own reading and briefing. You will forfeit the depth of understanding that self-study generates. Canned briefs and commercial outlines may be wrong or take a different slant on the material than your professor.
Reading multiple commentaries on the same topic rarely provides enough additional learning to justify the time. If you understand the material after reading one commentary, stop.
Are there any ways to save money on study aids? Try the following tips to lower your study aid costs:
Check out online retailers which are often cheaper than local bookstores. However, make sure that you are buying the latest edition of the study aid.
Consider used copies of study aids if the editions are current. Choose used copies with few markings in them—it will be less confusing when reading and adding your own notations.
Ask other students who have taken the professor’s course if they are willing to lend their study aids to you.
Search for what study aids you may have available to you through a legal research subscription like Westlaw or Lexis Nexis.
Check to see if the academic success office or the law library lends study aids on a short-term basis. However, purchase a personal copy instead if you want immediate access on a regular basis or want to mark in it.
Make your own study aids: outlines, flashcards, spider maps, or checklists. Write practice questions and swap them with friends for courses without practice question books available.
Search web pages at other law schools for professors’ public course materials and exam databases that are not password protected.
Remember to use professor office hours, teaching assistants provided for courses, and classmates as free sources for clearing up areas of confusion and discussing practice-question scenarios.
Study aids are essential to law school learning. With the many available options, you can find ones that match your learning styles and provide the assistance you need. n