Working with students this semester, I’ve noticed a pattern: strong outlines but weak practice exam answers. An exam answer may miss an issue, fail to state the applicable rule, or state a rule incorrectly, perhaps by missing elements or exceptions. I review the student’s outline and find the rule in all its complete, precisely phrased glory. What’s going on? Why is there so often a disconnect between the outline and the exam answer? After all, the purpose of the outline is to help you study for exams and, ultimately, to answer questions effectively. Here are some tips for using your outline to prepare for exams – even if you haven’t finished your outlines yet.
Understand the rules.
When an outline includes perfectly phrased, comprehensive rules but an exam answer doesn’t, I suspect the student has typed the rules into the outline without much thought. Outlining is personal. The process is more important than the product. But the process has to involve more than simply copying rules. It requires decision-making, prioritizing, and synthesizing. For common law subjects, like torts, the rule may be derived from the accretion of several cases. When you type that rule into your outline, as you must, you should be thinking about where it came from, why it matters, and how it applies. The process of outlining should help you understand and learn the rules. If you’ve just cut and pasted rules into a neat outline, you haven’t learned much. The rules are forgettable, and you may not be able to summon them when needed during an exam. You can guard against this by finishing your outlines thoughtfully and by thinking deeply about the rules you’ve already included.
Memorize the rules.
Legal education is mostly about learning to think like a lawyer. It’s about analyzing and reasoning, analogizing and distinguishing. But when it comes to exams, whether finals or the bar, you have to memorize the rules so you can restate and apply them properly in an exam answer. If you’ve prepared for class, taken good notes, reflected on your notes, and created a thoughtful outline, you may have memorized the most important rules without even trying. For the others, there’s no way around it: memorize them. For many students, this should be the easiest part of law school.
Study the triggering facts.
On a typical issue-spotting exam, you’ll need to identify the issues triggered by the facts presented so you can apply the appropriate rules. That’s why you should include triggering facts in your outline: so you’ll recognize similar or analogous facts on the exam. But, just like the rules, you need to study the triggering facts. It’s not enough to list them in your outline. Study them and consider how the facts that trigger one issue differ from facts that trigger a different issue. Identify the distinguishing facts that underlie each rule or theory.
Studying the facts will also help you avoid the problem of “brain dumping” — writing about every rule you’ve studied even if it doesn’t apply to the facts presented. For example, if you know that the triggering facts for strict liability in torts include wild or dangerous animals, abnormally dangerous activities, and defective products, you won’t be tempted to apply strict liability to a garden-variety car accident fact pattern.
Connect the dots.
Your outline is an opportunity to view the course as a cohesive whole. You may have worked on it bit by bit during the semester, but now you should be able to see how the components fit together. For example, discovery and summary judgment are closely related; under Rule 56, a party can show that “there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact” by “citing to particular parts of materials in the record,” including discovery materials such as depositions and interrogatory answers. If you studied discovery before summary judgment, you did not yet know how discovery materials could impact a pretrial disposition; if you studied motions before discovery, you probably lacked a clear idea of how the “materials in the record” got there. To use another example, certain defenses are available for certain torts. You probably learned the torts first, then the defenses. Your cases and class discussion may not have matched each tort with each of its available defenses – but an exam may expect you to do so.
Look for connections throughout your outline, and draw on these connections when writing exam answers. By identifying connections, you can be prepared to answer broad questions, like “assess all pretrial motions that could reasonably be filed” or “identify all claims and defenses.”
Good luck on your final exams!
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And check out these helpful posts:
- Top Three Mistakes on Final Exams and How to Fix Them Now
- How to Practice For Exams in Law School
- Tips for Using Facts on Final Exams
- Need Help Outlining for Law School Finals?
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