Is studying the key to getting good grades, or is it possible that terrible test results might actually be the best way to study? This probably sounds counterintuitive. How could failing an exam possibly raise your score? Well, that’s exactly what UCLA psychologists recently sought to determine in an interesting new study about memory and exam performance.
Here are the basics: For some lectures, student participants were administered pre-tests which covered material they had never seen before. Directly following the practice test, which they hopelessly bombed, by the way, they sat through a relevant lecture. This feedback essentially supplied them with the correct answers to the test they had just taken. The students were then evaluated later on in the semester on many subjects, including some that were related (but not identical) to those they taken pre-tests for. When their final exams came back, the students who had taken practice tests throughout the semester scored, on average, 10 percent higher, but (interestingly!) only on the material they had pre-tested earlier in the semester.
What Does This Mean?
Remember, the practice tests were given before the students could even make heads or tails of the material, and before they had ever read about it or covered it in class. So, how could this possibly have helped them? The psychologists in charge of the study determined that by merely attempting to answer a question, even if our response is dead wrong, we can change the way we think about and store the information contained in that question. By just wagering a guess — by giving it a shot — our brains begin to link the question to possible answers, and the information is driven home in a more memorable way. Wrong answers can actually prime our brain for how to formulate right answers. Receiving prompt feedback and correct answers to the unfamiliar questions was a key component. The next time the students saw similar questions, they didn’t seem so unfamiliar. Their neural networks fired up and they performed better because there was already a context in place in their minds.
We may fail the practice test. We may fail it miserably. In fact, students taking the pre-tests in the experiment scored no better than if they had guessed at random! The important thing is to fail forward. Failing forward is what we do when we fail as a means to an end (e.g. giving ourselves more chances to practice), rather than as the end result (e.g. flunking a class). This forward-failing process may be the secret to better final grades. Next time we see the material we pre-tested and got wrong answers on, our comprehension and memory are better and we have a keener understanding of what the right answer is supposed to look like.
How Does This Relate to Law School?
As many of you have probably already discovered, law students aren’t afforded many opportunities to take pre-tests (or get feedback of any kind!). Often times, if you want to do well in law school, you have to carve out extra time from your already hectic schedule, locate mock or past exam materials, and then force yourself to actually sit down and write out hypos, which can be horribly challenging (and easy to procrastinate about). It’s no surprise that many law students put off writing hypos until reading week. We know from similar experiments, though, that practicing as you learn is where the magic happens. The best way to assimilate material is to spend the first part of your time memorizing it and the remaining bulk of the time applying the concepts, or testing yourself on how well you know it. So, why is being left to our own devices so problematic?
Fluency Illusion #1: Misjudging Depth
We see so many well-meaning students who have learned the hard way that rote memorization isn’t nearly enough to actually learn law school material in a way that will allow them to apply it on an exam. Why? Because law students, like the students in the experiments, may suffer from what are called fluency illusions. They may misjudge the depth of their knowledge. For example, you may think you know the difference between intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress or first and second degree murder because you’ve seen it before. Maybe you’ve read some cases or discussed these concepts in a study group. In reality, though, you may have barely scraped the surface.
You might be woefully unprepared to take an exam on those topics — despite feeling familiar with them. Sometimes students think that teaching themselves legal trivia and getting bogged down in mini-briefs of all of the cases they have read is a great way to prepare for finals. In actuality, though, memorizing the concepts and then taking the added step of spending time grappling with that material on a practice exam or hypo is much more important to doing well on the exam.
Fluency Illusion #2: Dismissing the Need to Review
Another problem related to misjudging our own fluency levels relates to reviewing material after we have learned it. Sometimes law students think they have mastered a topic because they have read about it and covered it in class and that they, therefore, do not need to look at it again until finals.
I read the International Shoe case, I listened to a lecture about minimum contacts, I don’t need to revisit this topic again later on when I am learning about something else, right? Wrong!
Just because you think you understand a topic now (which may not be enough anyway, see above) does not mean you are free to ignore it for the rest of the semester. Therefore, in addition to practicing hypos early, law students should also continue to practice them.
How to Fix the Problem Before It Starts
You need to test the holes in your knowledge. You can’t do that unless you put yourself in the incredibly uncomfortable position taking an honest look at what you’ve really retained. You’ve got to struggle through writing out practice essays, and then review those essays, get feedback from someone else, or read them critically yourself. Maybe you even need to practice them again. In this way, pre-testing can serve as a sort of “vaccine” to fluency misperceptions. It’s pretty hard to convince ourselves we have conquered intentional torts once and for all if we have just bombed a hypo about assault and transferred intent. But at the end of the day, wouldn’t you rather get square with all the shortcomings in your understanding now than figure them out for the first time during finals? At least now you still have time to take action!
So what’s the bottom line, folks?
Round up some hypos today. Stop making excuses. If you’re a few weeks into your semester, you’re probably as ready as you’ll ever be! Get fact patterns from your case book, your Professors’ past exams on file at the law library or on a shared drive at your school. If you have nothing else, you can even make them up yourself!
Then, get some prompt feedback about what points you hit and, more importantly, what you missed. Ruthlessly critique (or have a classmate, tutor, or Professor) evaluate your writing, and then take notes on what you did wrong. You might be amazed to find you actually remembered only two of the elements of adverse possession, or how concepts like negligence that seem pretty straightforward in the abstract (e.g. during lecture) can actually get incredibly complicated when you start trying to IRAC them on your own.
Start your outlines early and don’t be afraid to use them as you practice! Even with your notes in front of you, your first hypo might be terrible. No, the first one will absolutely be terrible. Everyone’s first hypo (including mine) was most likely abysmal. But, starting at ground zero and teaching yourself to fail forward, pick up the pieces, regroup, and try again may just be the best route to exam success!
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And check out these helpful posts:
- 4 Evidence-Backed Law School Study Tips
- More Evidence-Backed Law School Study Tips
- So You Didn’t Get an A: How to Deal with Your First Law School Grades
- Unhappy with Your Law School Grades? Get Real
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