Imagine you’re preparing for a marathon. But instead of training by running, you decide to tackle this challenging endeavor by developing an intellectual understanding of it. You read numerous books on marathon running and learn all about the trials and tribulations of a marathon runner.
You then run the marathon without doing any actual running yourself.
Recipe for disaster, right?
Well, most law students are like our intellectual marathon runner.
They walk into a final exam having developed a basic understanding of the material, but with zero to little practice of actually taking an exam.
For many law students, their first encounter with a law school test is during final exams.
Think about that for a minute.
If your law school grade depends on your final, wouldn’t it serve you well toactually practice before the exam itself?
It’s tempting to hope that your understanding of the material will take care of itself and that the final exam will write itself based on your knowledge alone.
But understanding is only part of the game. To do well on final exams, you have to retain the material and apply it to an exam question. The application is where the vast majority of the points on a typical law school exam lie.
And if you can’t apply your understanding, none of that hard work you’ve put into understanding the material is going to translate into a good grade—regardless of how much you actually learned.
What’s more, taking a final exam can be an unnerving experience for many students, which means they end up making mistakes they otherwise would not make. There are time pressures, and being in a classroom filled with other law students who are typing in a frenzy can shake even the most collected students. In addition, exam questions will be posed to you in ways that you may not anticipate. Most law finals don’t ask students to recite the facts and holding of the cases they learned in class. Rather, they require the students to apply that understanding to new facts they have not encountered before.
This is why practice is so important.
Let me clarify what I mean by “practice.”
Practice does not mean re-reading your notes or your casebook to bolster your understanding of the material.
Practice also does not mean reading a practice question and chatting about the answer with your classmates to see if your thinking is right.
Practice means targeted practice of actually doing what you will do on the final exam.
To practice, you should find and answer practice questions under the same conditions as the final exam. Take the exam alone. Stick to the allotted time. If your final exam is open book, take the practice exam with an open book. If your final exam is closed book, don’t look at your notes or outlines.
Practicing exam-taking under real exam conditions serves a number of purposes. Applying your knowledge to actual problems will enhance your understanding and retention of the material. You will find and correct any problems in your outline and exam-taking approach. And having taken several practice questions, you will walk into the exam room with more confidence.
This preparation process needs to happen well before the actual exam. Your time during final exams is precious and can’t be wasted on correcting problems that could have been addressed before the final exam period itself.
Some of you may be thinking: “This sounds great. I’ll get started AFTER I learn everything and outline everything.”
Think about it: Did you read numerous books on bicycles before getting on a bike for the first time? Of course not. You got on the bike yourself, you tried, you fell off, and you did it again and again. And before you knew it, you were riding the bike.
It’s the same idea with practicing exam taking. Don’t wait. Begin taking practice exams as soon as possible.
How do you find practice questions?
1. Ask your professor if they can share a previous exam or exam question with the class.
2. Go the law school library. There may be exam questions and answers on file there.
3. Google. You’ll find many, many law school exams online, and some even come with model answers.
4. Write exam questions yourself. Everyone in your study group should write one question, share them with the group, and everyone in the group can answer everybody else’s question. I received this advice in law school, and I was very skeptical it would do any good. But I tried it and ended up learning more from writing practice exam questions than I did from most other study methods. Not only does this approach generate questions for everyone in your study group to practice with, but the very act of writing a final exam question is a tremendous learning experience. In writing a question that draws together several cases or doctrines that you learned in class, you’ll develop a more nuanced understanding of the material that will serve you well on the exam.