Recalling Concepts

Law often requires that a student learn an enormous amount of information. Certain definitions and rules must be learned verbatim. Exact words in the definition are vital to the subsequent legal discussion and a student may be required to memorize that specific language. Moreover, many professors expect students to be able to recall elements of various rules, the relationships between them and the exceptions that exist. Law school exams are filled with instances when quick recall of the rules and definitions are vitally important to answering the exam questions.


Perhaps, even more significantly, students need to recall large portions of their outlines, remembering not only the basic elements of the rules and exceptions, but also (on occasion) illustrative cases and pertinent relationships between these rules. Law is not a simple set of words to recall. Rather you will need to concentrate and retain information that can be quickly applied to a professor's hypothetical, a study group's questions, and ultimately, the exam questions in the course. To help in the process of memorizing, follow the hints below:

  • When dealing with complex notions, it is important to understand first, memorize second. Trying to simply recall a string of words when you don't understand the relationships is a waste of time - and likely to be quickly forgotten. So before you begin, make sure you have a clear picture of the rules and the relationships among them. For example, if you don't understand what all the various entailed estates are, you won't even be able to recognize anything but a fee simple, even if you learn the definitions by rote.
  • When reviewing your notes - even before you outline - mark the parts that need to be memorized verbatim. Devise a symbol and use it consistently to cue you to when the exact language must be learned. In addition, a good rule of thumb is to always memorize the specifics of any rule. Moreover, try to memorize the relationships between various rules. ("If this, then this...").
  • Try to memorize/learn a complete concept: don't start and stop as this unnecessarily fragments your learning. Moreover, you will spend more time reviewing and relearning if the concept has interrelated parts.
  • Equally important is to learn the general concepts first. Understand the big picture, and then fill in the details.
  • Use cases or hypotheticals as concrete examples of the concepts and their exceptions. Note particularly which courses require knowledge of lead cases; ask your professors if you are unsure. Work through the facts and reasons why the rule was applied as it was. Note any policy reasons for the decisions.
  • Use flow charts or other visual aids to assist in learning the relationships and links between rules and concepts.
  • Link concepts so that you recognize the relationships between the various rules. Do this by recalling that when you considered rule X, you also must think of rule Y. Remind yourself of theses relationships by creating symbols to designate these connections - and review your notes consistently so that you don't miss any new ones.
  • Test your knowledge by explaining to a classmate or your study group.
  • When studying a particular subject, try to use the same location at the same time and hopefully, like the Pavlovian dogs, you will more quickly get into a "contract" or "tort" mood to memorize.
  • Actively memorize - don't just read your notes. Recite, write, answer own hypos, visualize, have conversations with others or in your head, make flowcharts: all those are ways to recall.
  • Try not to memorize on an empty stomach or insufficient sleep. Balance your study with a healthy lifestyle.
  • Don't get too comfy - study where you won't be tempted to fall asleep (i.e. your bed, on the couch).
  • Find a place that minimizes distraction, both auditory and visual. The library or a study really is the best place to concentrate because it prevents accidental diversions, such as listening to people talk as they walk by.
  • Use logical times to study - i.e., in between classes. However, if you have only a small period of time, try to use those moments to accomplish other tasks that will take away from later study periods.
  • Don't schedule heavy reviews or study during your natural "down times." Think about when you are most efficient (are you an early bird? Night owl?) and utilize that time. It's important to know yourself.
  • Use CALI to test yourself on specific concepts.
  • Take practice examinations only after you have studied your entire outline; otherwise you may be missing several issues.
  • Over learn to be sure. Review often to avoid relearning. Simplify your outline to keywords that will then trigger more details and information.
  • Be sensible - don't think you can study for 12 hour periods without breaks. Most people need breaks to avoid inefficiency. More importantly, cramming does not result in maximum results. information that you learn while cramming is forgotten quicker. If you are panicked while studying (and cramming often causes panic), your studying will be ineffective.

Studying in law school is a process you need to learn, along with the doctrinal courses. Remember, you don't want to learn the entire semester during the exam period. Study consistently, and you will find that studying for final exams is not the dreadful experience you thought it would be.

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