- The Next Semester
Of course, immediately after a semester’s exams, you are best to simply try to forget the entire experience. The costs in anxiety, competition, and lost confidence from post-exam comparisons with others are rarely worth the gains. However, after the exams are graded, be sure to continue to learn from the process. Students often neglect to use this outstanding tool for improving their exam performance -- a review of their prior semester’s work and exam performance.
Reviewing your past semester’s learning
Look back over your past semester’s work and inventory
your learning. Don’t automatically
assume that your grades tell you what you’ve learned (they are a clue,
but there’s many a person who has gotten a bad grade on an exam in a
subject they learned well and others who have gotten good grades on subjects
they have retained only long enough to get the grade). Since one of your purposes in law school is
to acquire the skills and knowledge necessary for a successful lifetime of
lawyering, stop and reflect on what you have learned. Consider your past semester’s study
approaches in light of that reflection. Some question to consider:
Reviewing your past semester’s grades
Now, consider your exam performance. Get a copy of your final exam, if permitted, and read over the questions and your answer carefully. If the professor has a grading rubric or answer key for the exam, you should ask if you can review that as well. To the extent you can, answer these questions about your exam answer:
Meeting with your professor
Make an appointment with all your professors to talk about your exam performance (regardless of your grades). Prepare yourself for this meeting to get the most out of it. First, prepare your attitude. This is your opportunity to get some very specific feedback on your exam performance. You should approach this meeting with an attitude of detached curiosity. Think of yourself as an anthropologist, trying to understand some curious native ritual. This is NOT an opportunity to try to get your grade changed (it won’t happen and if it does it won’t be because you tried to make it happen). Nor is this a time to apologize for or defend your performance – the professor is not judging you as a person based on your exam. Professors know all too well that an exam is one brief period of time. They know people have good days and bad. They will not suddenly consider you brilliant or brainless depending on the grade you got on the exam.
Second, decide what you need to learn. What kinds of questions might you ask that will help you improve your exam performance in the future? If the professor does not have a grading rubric or has no written clues to where you did well and where you did poorly, you will need to start by simply going through the exam and having the professor highlight the exam’s hits and misses. If you have a pretty good idea from having reviewed the exam and any grading feedback the professor provided, you may still have questions about what more you could have done. If your preliminary review doesn’t tell you what issues or analysis you missed, ask about the kinds of arguments you could have made but didn’t. Ask the professor to point out any areas where you wasted your time on the exam. If you are concerned that your writing or organization of an answer could be improved, try doing that. Re-write one question and ask the professor whether you have improved it. Be sure to let the professor know that you are not doing this to try to secure a grade change!
Meet with your colleagues
Perhaps one of the most powerful ways to learn from your past exam performance is to compare your exam answers with others. If you were disappointed in your exam performance, ask a colleague who did well whether you can compare your answer with theirs (assuming the professor allows this use of past exams). If you did well, be open to sharing your answer with your peers.
Plan your new semester
Don’t assume that the learning tasks you were presented in the prior semester will be the same each semester. Each professor is different and each semester of law school presents new challenges. With each semester your professors are likely to expect your skills of judgment and precision to increase. A first semester exam might score very well by generating numerous arguments on either side of an issue - no matter how unlikely or impractical those arguments might be in practice. The same answer to the same question in an advanced course in your third year will be unlikely to be as successful. Your workloads will often increase each semester as well. Professors will assume more prior knowledge, that you may or may not actually have. They will assume greater skill in reading and analyzing the law. They will have new skills and knowledge that may require new approaches to study. Even if the classes do not change one iota from the first semester, your own schedules will fill more – with the social life of the law school, with job searches or work, with bar preparation, with extracurricular learning activities, etc. Take these new and additional demands into account as you consider your study methods.
If you feel like you’ve failed
The experience of failure (real or perceived) is one that requires some separate attention. You may be feeling ashamed and hurt that your grades were not what you wanted. If your grades have placed you in academic jeopardy, you are likely feeling fearful or hopeless. Needless to say, these emotions will provide sufficient distraction to your learning that you must find a way to move past the last semester and turn the experience in your favor. Here are a few thoughts to help you with that process.
First, remember that all is not lost. Some students take longer to “catch on” than others. It is not uncommon for a student’s first semester to be their worst semester in law school. Have confidence that you can improve. Think of it this way. The law school has little incentive to retain students who will not be able to graduate and pass the bar examination. A faculty has a choice about the grade point at which it dismisses students and the number of semesters they will allow students to remedy deficient grades. If we did not believe that a student could raise their grades after falling below the required grade point, we would not give you that extra time. We would simply dismiss you and admit a transfer student to take your place. Our experience tells us that students can and do recover from a bad semester’s grades. Some of us had a bad semester’s grades.
Second, you don’t have to change much to get ahead. Don’t presume that your grades have accurately predicted your ability. Maybe you just had crummy luck this time. Maybe you had crummy teachers. Very likely, you just missed one piece of the puzzle that may be obvious to you when you take the time to look through your exams and work with your professors to find the problem. Often the difference between a C- and a B is really quite small. Sometimes all you have to do is learn to argue the other side of every issue and BINGO! You’re in the game! For first semester students, a number simply didn’t “get it” until they experienced exams. You might be one of those. Now that you know what you are preparing for because you’ve experienced it, you are in a position to better assess what works and what doesn’t in your study habits. It’s not uncommon, for example, for students to spend all semester thinking about the “big picture” of doctrines – what is intent? Why does the law favor predictability in this area? Etc. – and fail to memorize and master the details of the black-letter law. Sometimes students are so focused on the details (the individual cases they’ve read) they don’t pull back and learn the generalized doctrine. Well you need the big picture and you need the cases, but you need the law too. On the other hand, sometimes students become so intent on memorizing the black-letter law that they don’t look for the grey areas and learn to make arguments in the grey areas. Exams in which all you do is recite the law are not passing exams (or just barely pass). So it may be some really basic part of the law school exam picture you’ve simply missed to this point. Look for it. It’s there. Once you find it, you’re back in the game. Perhaps you had something happen in one or more exams that could explain your performance. Exam anxiety hit? Go to the counseling center and get tested and learn how to deal with this common but significant cause of poor grades.
Sometimes you’ve simply had a bad semester for non-academic reasons and you haven’t really taken stock of the other pressures that are getting in your way. Maybe you are quite ambivalent about law school – it’s what your family wants for you, but you really aren’t sure it’s what you want. (That doesn’t mean you need to know what you want to do with the degree, but you do have to want to degree itself!) Address your issues outside of law school and you’re back in the game!
Third, get some help. I don’t know any student who have ever successfully completed law school alone. Get some effective study help through the academic support program and by finding effective study partners. If you suspect the study partners or social circle you’ve been relying on up until now is part of the problem, move on. Of equal importance is getting some help with your confidence and motivation. That might require a couple of visits to the counseling center. No shame here – half of the clientele of any University’s counseling center is likely to be law students (the other half is med students ;-) Enlist all the cheerleaders in your life. Revisit your prior successes. They weren’t flukes. This experience of academic failure was the fluke. Get some help to get past it, and you will once again experience success.