Saint Louis University

Reviewing Exams and Other Hints for Success

Ever wonder why some students just seem to naturally "get it?" They understand entailed fees as if they were born to the noble manor. They understand the process of rule explanation in Legal Research and Writing, and can put together a civil procedure outline from scratch. More importantly, they seem to be able to read and understand class briefs and can take notes in class that establish the proper analysis in the topic being discussed. Who are these people? Well, they may have an innate ability to do legal analysis and problem solving that not everyone else shares. Or maybe they are so organized and study so efficiently that the hard work of law school bears extraordinarily productive results. Thus, their law school experience may not be as stressful or overwhelming. For that reason, however, their advice regarding the ways to study effectively may not be as helpful to the rest of the class who struggle to understand what the professor is talking about - or where the topic is heading.

So what should you do to avoid needing to turn it around? Perhaps this advice might help:

Vent. See Academic Advising, a close friend, a study buddy or even your mom and tell them about your stress over law school. Sometimes a stiff upper lip isn't going to help the situation; in fact, it may only increase the pressure you already feel. If you are concerned about grades, midterms, outlines, etc., try to talk it out. You are then better able to face the reality of the situation.

But you must face the reality of the situation because you need to know your strengths and weaknesses. So ask yourself if you have to read the cases three times just to figure out what the issue is. Do you have to take verbatim notes - and then spend an hour a night reviewing in order to figure out what the professor is talking about? Do you find yourself wasting too much time between classes? You need to know how you study and when you study best.

Moreover, not facing that reality can cause you to rely upon unworkable solutions for your situation. Students who do not succeed often have plans - it's just that those plans aren't solving their problems in answering law exams. One preliminary thing you might want to consider is to take the Meyer-Briggs test in Career Services. The test will help you identify your learning style - a first step in learning how to make necessary changes.

But you will also need to review those semester exams - especially the bad ones. Figure out what you did wrong - and what you did right. Talk to the professor - get his or her input. This is especially true if you are in a two-semester course - you do not want to repeat the same mistakes. Use the handout at the end of this article to spark the discussion and pinpoint where you went wrong. Remember, you can't fix it unless you know what you did incorrectly.

Then, get back to basics. Remember that law school is a continuum;

  • first you brief properly
  • then you take good notes
  • then you review and synthesize every day/week
  • moreover, you start learning the chunks of information that the professor has completed and
  • outline to create a whole, while you
  • learn the relationships and parts
  • which will help you develop a checklist and strategy for answering factual issues which you can use
  • to practice and further learn
  • so that you will do well on the exam

So first keep up with your reading. Brief - do all the stuff that you are supposed to do. Not every student is given the same ability to read complicated material and properly analyze it, so you must do what is necessary. Getting behind will never help. Start with your four hours course, followed by the alternatively spaced classes. Stop by Academic Advising for handouts and advice regarding changing your briefing technique to make it more efficient and focused. But try to refrain from minimal book-briefing which will not give you the necessary analytic preparation for class.

What else? Use tutors and/or study groups whenever you find that you are lost regarding an issue. Sometimes the "light" isn't going to go on without help. Look around and try to find a fellow student who seems to follow the class. Don't be afraid to ask him/her to meet with you on a regular basis. Surprisingly, many will say "yes" - after all, it is also a way for them to review and test their knowledge. However, always be ready to offer pay - although generally none is accepted. As an alternative, ask your professor if he/she knows any second year students who were particularly successful in that class. However, as a word of caution, don't use people who think exactly like you. If you are a detail person, look for someone who can see the big picture (and vice versa). Try to utilize your skills while getting something from the group. More importantly, make the study group time count - this is not a gossip session.

In addition, be ready to rely on other sources to get the idea of what you are talking about. Think about understanding the general stuff - what does Marbury mean despite many readings? If you get the general ideas explained to you, you can then begin to start developing your analysis from there. However, this does not mean that you can rely on some secondary study aid as the key to everything. You need to participate in the process, or you will simply be memorizing without context or understanding. So the moral is - use study aids for the general understanding; never rely upon these books as the source of all wisdom.

More importantly, get away from the "one size fits all" notion. All professors view things differently. They are not going to all teach the course identically, nor are they equally interested in policy or a breakdown of the different judges' philosophies. So don't make the mistake of thinking that mastering one professor in one class means that you have mastered the rest.

You also need to use your time well. Use weekends to your advantage. Read ahead over weekends if possible. You will find that if the daily pressure of reading for the next day's assignment is somewhat diminished, your lessened stress level will allow for more concentrated learning. Use the time between classes for the final read of the next class assignment - not the first read! This will help you focus on what the professor will be talking about in class.

You need to be prepared for class because you should participate. You also become directly involved in the thinking process when you contribute in class. Most professors will agree that beyond learning the substantive law, the Socratic method also requires that you learn to do legal analysis - which requires both inductive thinking (gleaning the rule from a number of cases) and deductive thinking (applying that rule to a new set of facts). By participating in class, you will gain experience in "thinking like a lawyer." After all, you don't want your first experience of analytical thinking to be during your examinations.

Never miss class - obvious but true. Skipping classes that you don't follow will never help you see the light. If you do miss class, make sure you get good notes from a fellow classmate. If possible, ask someone who tends to take verbatim notes. Then you will have a better sense of what was going on during that class.

Work with teachers. Ask questions if you need help. Try to use teachers as your second source after discussing trouble areas with your fellow students. Professors have office hours - use them.

As you start to outline, come up with strategies on how to approach problems involving those rules. A former medical person, now law student, noted that in medicine one starts by elimination - "it's not that or that." Here, you want to begin by what it is - but what it is must be in order. Think of finding the rules as listing the ingredients and following a recipe: you need to start with step one; do this stuff first, then add that, and then finally bring it all together. When you outline, don't just list the rules of law; try to come up with a way you would analyze a problem. Ask yourself what facts play into the general principles because rules only apply under certain circumstances. Think of personal jurisdiction or a motion to dismiss - stating a rule is not enough. You need to know when it's applicable - under what set of facts. So figure that out in your outline. Visualize concepts that are not clear to you. Not everyone can "see" the law from an outline. If you don't understand what makes minimum contacts in a civil procedure long-arm statute, diagram or draw the elements. Make a chart listing the different points. Use what you can do help yourself "think" the law.

Eat well/exercise/sleep enough. Stress intensifies if your basic needs are not met. If you are having problems, see someone. SLU has health services that include psychological testing.

Finally, practice, practice and practice. Ask yourself hypotheticals when you have a few spare minutes. Review the rules as you drive to school. Practice taking old examinations after your outline is finished. The more you utilize analytic skills and memorize the laws and rules to be applied, the more adept you will be during the actual examinations.

Again, don't be discouraged if your grades are not up to your expectations. Be willing to work consistently, be willing to change and you can have a much more satisfying second semester.