6.2 – Goals of Studying


Goals of Studying

Let's talk about your goals when you're studying for exams. I think you've got a few. One, at the most superficial level, your goal is getting stuff in your memory, so you do want to have some stuff in your head. You want to have memorized the basic structure of the class with the key legal issues, the key rules.

Memorize basics even in open-book exams; know, understand, and relate aspects of your syllabus

You want to do that even if you're taking an open-book exam, because having that stuff in your head is going to make it a lot easier for you to spot issues, to think through problems, to move quickly in a particularly tight time-limit exam, and things like that, but memorization is really, I think, a pretty small slice of it. A much more important thing is what I'd say is understanding, so it's not just having a photographic memory and committing a bunch of stuff in your head and just being able to respond with buzzwords and so forth. That's not really what it's about.

I think the people that are going to perform the best on law school exams, and especially essay exams, but really any type of law school exams, are people who know the rules, but really understand the rules, they understand how they fit together, they understand, they can see connections between different areas of the course, they can see similarities, they can say, "Oh, this rule operates in the same way as this other rule we read later in the class."

Maybe if you're asked to provide on a policy question or asked to provide, let's say you have a criminal law class and your professor says, "Where's an example, three examples where the Model Penal Code opts for more subjective standards than traditional common law rules?" Someone who has a really deep understanding is going to be able to think through that and think, "Oh, I can think of different areas that look like that and they're discrete doctrinal questions, but they all look similar." Ideally, you want to get to that point.

I think understanding involves a lot of what we talked about in the last class, which is this process of outlining where you're not just trying to go topic by topic, you're trying to put them all in this larger structure. You're trying to build something and see how if you change one thing over here on this issue, that's going to affect something else on a different issue, and really put those puzzle pieces together.

A really well-designed law school exam, and I certainly try to write exams that meet the standard, and I think a lot of professors do, is one that's going to test you on, do you know the rules, but do you understand them at a slightly deeper level? Another way you can really understand rules is, you understand maybe why we have the rules. You understand the rationales for the rules, and that's why that's something that law professors often talk about.

Understanding law in very particular context helps ace exams

They're not just saying, "Okay, I want you to memorize this set of arbitrary rules." No, to understand, you actually understand why the legal system might have chosen this rule rather than some alternative rule. You can at least go through the relevant arguments. If you have the first part of knowledge, just knowing the rules, having them in your head, second part, understanding, really seeing how it all fits together, you're in very good shape. But that's not everything you're trying to do. The other thing you're really trying to do when you study for exams is, you're trying to study for an exam.

That is, you're trying to prepare yourself to have your knowledge and your understanding evaluated in a very particular kind of context. What that means is, a certain amount of your studying has to be aimed at preparation for the exact exercise in which you're going to be evaluated. We'll talk about exactly what that looks like. There's going to be different ways to do that, depending on the kind of exam you're going to have. The idea is, you can't just spend 100% of your time developing the deepest understanding.

You actually have to direct some of your studying at actually practicing how to take an exam itself, because the first time you sit down to take a law school exam, if you haven't done any of that kind of prep work, you're going to be a little bit flustered and not exactly know how to operate. My goal is to help you figure out how to get there. Try to learn the rules, try to understand the rules, but then beyond that, you also need to do some work to understand how exactly to take a law school exam and how exactly to take the specific kind of exam you're going to take in a specific class.

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