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Academic Support Program

Academic Support

In the Fall, Professor Jessica Simon presents five lectures and workshops discussing various studying techniques. In the Spring semester, students meet with the Director to review individual studying techniques and schedules, prior exams, and practice exams.

You are welcome to browse this helpful tips section of this site to view content on stress management, time management, and note- and exam-taking skills. You will also find a list of resources for understanding your course materials, understanding law school, exams, or legal analysis, taking practice questions for exams, memorizing material, and studying for the bar. The University of Pennsylvania Law School does not endorse any of the resources listed. You should review each resource to see if it fulfills your individualized needs. You will also find links to the Academic Success Lecture and Workshop Series.

If you are having difficulties with your academic studies, please email Jessica Simon, Associate Director of the Legal Practice Skills Program and Director of the Academic Support Program, or phone (215.898.0167), to set up an appointment.

Helpful Tips

Better Case Briefing

Here are some tips for avoiding common mistakes in briefing your cases:

  • Think about the pattern of your professor’s typical class. What questions does your professor usually ask about the cases? In reading and briefing the cases, use these questions as a guide.
  • At the end of reading, spend time analyzing the case as a whole before you write your brief. Why did you ultimately need to read the case? What did it teach you about the major topic you are discussing in class?
  • Most professors use hypotheticals with changed facts to get students to think about applying the law in situations that are different from the case. If your professor does so, then spend some time thinking about how variations of the facts would change the outcome. Include your thoughts at the end of your brief.
  • Include in your brief the essentials, not everything in the case.
  • Synthesize cases on the same sub-topic after you read them. Why did you have to read each case? How are the cases in the series similar or different? How does each case fit into the sub-topic and larger topic? Include the synthesis insights in your brief.
  • Use bullet points, numbered lists, abbreviations, and symbols to save time in writing your briefs. Use phrases instead of sentences when possible. Avoid including long quotes from the case in your briefs.
  • Try to put the brief into your own words. Do not look at the language of the opinion to write your brief if at all possible. If you cannot put the gist of the case into your own words, then you did not understand the case.
  • Remember that briefs are usually for your eyes only. Therefore, brief in a method that is most useful to you. You may need to vary your briefing for different professors’ classes.
  • Recognize that your professor may have a different slant on a case than the casebook editor, a study aid, or editorial notes from a case reporter. If you have a pattern of missing your professor’s perspective, ask your professor for some guidance.
  • Use canned briefs only to check your own briefs. You need to learn the legal analysis skills yourself rather than depend on a canned brief. Canned briefs can be wrong, may not cover all of the points in the case, or may miss your professor’s view of the case.

Anxiety over being called on in class

I vividly remember the first time I was called on in law school. It was Contracts class. I do not remember anything about it other than which class it was, and the fact that my anxiety was so sky-rocket high, that it seemed like I was called on for the entire class. The reality? He probably asked me two questions at the most.

But the anxiety of being called on in class and the stress over “sounding stupid” in class can take on a life of its own and literally take over your purpose in preparing for class. Now that almost all of you have been called on in at least one of your classes, remember this: you survived. Let go of the anxiety about being called on in class. Replace as your purpose for preparing for class learning the meaning of the subject matter.

Here are some tips to help you become more confident in class:

  • After reading and briefing (or taking notes if material other than cases is assigned), take a few minutes to synthesize your reading. Then out loud explain the reading to an empty chair, your pet, or an understanding friend. Think of the professor’s usual questions and answer them out loud. You can practice your answers and gain confidence by this recitation step.
  • When the professor asks a question in class, answer silently in your head. Then compare your answer to what another student says. Listen to the professor’s feedback. You will probably find that you would have answered the question well. Again, your self-confidence should get a boost from this exercise.
  • Gain additional practice voicing your opinions, questions, and answers by talking in your study group more than usual, talking with a classmate about the material, participating in student organization meetings, or asking the professor questions in office hours. The more you talk, the less apprehensive you will be.

Are You Afraid of Test Anxiety?

Because anxiety limits working memory, learning how to manage nerves during an exam is key to performing well. Here are some tips courtesy of the New York Times Education Life Supplement , from University of Chicago psychology professor Sian Beilock.

Faced with a high-stakes situation, almost everyone has some physical symptoms of stress: sweaty palms, a racing heartbeat. But people interpret these cues differently, with important consequences for their performance. Some interpret these cues by thinking they are really nervous and that they will fail. Others will interpret the cues by telling themselves that they are really psyched up for the test.

If you fall into the former group, consciously adopt positive self-talk. Remind yourself that damp palms and a pounding heart accompany all kinds of enjoyable experiences: riding a roller coaster, winning a sports match, talking to someone you have a crush on.

A second approach may be easier for you. It involves a simple exercise just before a test. For 10 minutes, write about your feelings regarding the exam to clear your mind of test-related concerns, freeing working memory that can be applied to the exam. In a study published last year in the journal Science, Dr. Beilock and her co-author, Gerardo Ramirez, said the technique worked both in the lab and in classrooms. Used by a group of ninth graders facing a biology final, the expressive writing task effectively eliminated the relationship between test anxiety and poor test performance: even highly anxious students performed just as well as non-anxious classmates. Although the study involved ninth graders, the theory remains the same for any test-taker.

The smartest thing I did while preparing for my 1L first-semester exams was ______.

Courtesy of the Wall Street Journal:

After posting the thoughts on what makes a good exam from law professors around the country, the Wall Street Journal thought it prudent to post a sampling of students around the country answering the question: The smartest thing I did while preparing for my 1L first-semester exams was ______.

Of course, some of these responses might strike you as obvious, others as insightful, others a combination of both. The Wall Street Journal allowed folks to give names or submit anonymously if they so chose.

In no particular order, here are a cross-section of responses:

Rogan Nunn, 3L at UVA and an editor on the Virginia Law Review: By far the most useful thing I did when preparing for 1L exams was to round up a few people from the class and take old exams. Don’t just go through them, take them — pretend it’s the real thing, time limits and all. Then discuss answers. You’d be amazed how much you miss the first time. It can be time-consuming, but all the outlining in the world won’t save you if you can’t spot the issues on the fly.

Anonymous 3L at Vanderbilt and a member of the Vanderbilt Law Review: For me, the smartest thing I did while studying for exams 1L year was to go through each entire course in successively shorter periods of time… . By successively shortening the amount of time spent thinking through the entire course, the goal was to be able to go quickly through and understand all the material in a couple of minutes — to see both the forest and the trees quickly for the entire course.

Max Shifrin, 3L at Brooklyn and a member of Brooklyn Law Review: The most crucial thing to do as a 1L, in my opinion, is start outlining early in the semester and finish [your outlines] early enough to take as many practice exams as possible in real time… . [P]rofessors test the exact same things year in and year out. If you do enough exams, you’ll begin to see a pattern, which will give you a huge advantage on exam day.

Anonymous 2L at Columbia, member of the Columbia Law Review: The first time I saw what my Civil Procedure professor expected us to be able to do in three hours I almost had a nervous breakdown. But by taking practice exams and going over answers in a study group, I was able to get a better sense of the material that is frequently tested … . By test day I wasn’t intimidated anymore and could take comfort knowing there weren’t going to be any surprises.

Anonymous 3L at Vanderbilt, member of the Vanderbilt Law Review: I made sure to get 7-8 hours of sleep every night. The finals period is already an extremely stressful time, and it is most stressful as a 1L. There is no reason to add to this stress by staying up every night until 3 a.m. working; not only does it add to your stress level, it is not as if the extra hours “studying” are actually beneficial, given that your mind can only take so much studying per day before shutting down.

Megan Murray, 2L at Iowa, member of the Iowa Law Review: [I wrote] out all the “rules” by hand. The act of writing slows your brain down enough to absorb the legal rules, and it gives you time to consider their implication. This is an especially helpful technique when legal rules come in the form of multi-part, or divergent tests. When you read these rules in your notes or type them out on your computer, the words come so quickly across the page that you don’t have time to really absorb and understand them. Writing them out gives your mind a chance to catch up with your keystrokes.

Anonymous 3L at Berkeley, editor on the California Law Review: Perhaps the most important (and most difficult) advice is that you need to move on when the exam is over, either to prepping for your next exam, having a beer, or just generally getting on with your life. You might feel tempted to talk to your classmates about the exam, perhaps because you have nothing else to talk about (as your life of late was probably consumed with studying). Avoid this at all costs; at best you get affirmation in your answers (which could still be wrong), but at worst your start worrying that you missed something, which at this point is totally out of your control… . From my own experience and my friends, taking a law school exam can be defeating and leave students with the feeling that their days of studying were not properly translated to the answer they cranked out in three hours. Try your best not to dwell on those feelings.

Dealing with negativity

Stress and anxiety are increasing as the semester reaches the halfway point. Some of you may not be sleeping well, feel that you cannot focus, procrastinate and feel guilty about our academics. You may feel that everyone else “gets it” when you don’t. Or you are so behind in your reading that you cannot catch up. Or that you are not paying enough attention to those outside of law school. Or that you’ll simply never understand the subjects.

Instead of accepting this negativity, rebut it and refuse to blindly accept it as true. The rebuttal should take a more positive position and determine a strategy to resolve any problem. Examples of rebuttals to the negative self-talk above might be:

  • Realistically, I am not the only person who is confused. I can get clarification from my professor/Littleton Fellow, Morris Fellow/study group by asking questions.
  • I am behind in my reading andhave a strategy for catching up. I’ll stay current with my new reading and slip in back reading one case at a time next week.
  • I am not a bad person. I am balancing my time between school and personal obligations. My family members and friends understand the importance of school.
  • This course is hard, but I can learn it. I will spend some time today writing down my questions and talking to my professor.

There are other actions that can also assist in dealing with negativity in one’s outlook. By following some simple steps, life begins to look less stressful:

  • Get enough sleep. At least 7 hours. With appropriate rest, our brains are more alert and productive. And problems do not seem as overwhelming.
  • Exercise is one of the best stress busters.
  • Eat nutritious meals. Our bodies and brains perform better when we include more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean meat or fish in our diets. Junk food, sugary snacks and drinks, caffeine, and processed foods provide less nutrition. And skipping meals is total no-no!
  • Surround yourself with positive people. Avoid fellow students who are complaining, moaning, and groaning. You can take on their negativity if you are not careful.
  • Break larger tasks into very small steps. You will feel more motivated and confident about completing a small step when the larger task seems too overwhelming.
  • Remember that you are the same very bright and capable person who entered law school. You are dealing with challenging material and are among others who are equally bright. If you use the many resources available to you, you can learn more efficient and effective strategies for your studies that will help you succeed.
  • Seek medical advice if necessary. If the negativity makes you ill or turns into depression, go to a doctor or counselor for assistance.

Taking Stock and Outlining

By now, many of you attended the session on outlining. But just as reminder, here are some tips for taking stock and outlining.

At this point, you may find yourself hurtling through the semester without any conscious thought about what you should be doing next in your studies. Many of you may be merely reading for class and doing no additional thinking about the law. Most of you probably have not looked at your class notes since taking them. Some of you may have started to outline your classes; others may not have begun.

It is critical that you take stock now. Here are some tips for students who have not yet focused beyond survival:

  • The point of outlining is not to have an outline. It is to learn the vast amount of material. You will not have time on your exams to read through your outline. If you find yourself reading through an outline during an exam, you likely are missing out on opportunities to analyze the exam problem.
  • If the entire outline for a course seems too difficult of a task, then focus on the first sub-topic. Move on to the next sub-topic and so forth. The trick is to BEGIN.
  • If your professor does not provide a syllabus that is structured by topics and sub-topics, the general table of contents of the casebook can provide the structure. Do not structure the outline by case briefs.
  • If at all possible, condense material BEFORE it goes into your outline. Wholesale inclusion of every brief and every word in class results in overwhelming detail and obscuring the bigger picture of the course.
  • If an outline is constructed properly, it will include all of the essential information from your briefs, casebook, and class notes. In short, you should not have to go back to those materials again. The outline is truly the master document for exam study.
  • The outline should be formatted to give you a 360-degree view of the course: what is the big picture of the course; what are the main concepts and interrelationships among concepts as well as any relevant policy; what are the steps/rules/tests/questions to ask for analysis; and what are the details/fact examples/case names to flesh out the outline.
  • The outline is building a toolkit to solve new legal scenarios that will show up on the exam. Include the essential tools (each course may have different types of tools): rules, exceptions to rules, variations on rules, definitions, steps of analysis, questions to ask, bright line tests, policy arguments, etc.
  • After you have intensely reviewed a major topic in the outline and you have done practice questions, condense that portion of the outline by at least half. Start a second document that is the condensed outline so that the longer version is never lost.
  • Approximately one - two weeks before the exam, condense the entire outline to 5-10 pages of essentials for the material so far. The essentials will bring back the more detailed information if the material has been studied properly. Use the condensed outline to recall the information.
  • Condense the shorter outline again to the front and back of a sheet of paper. This condensed version can be memorized as a checklist for a closed-book exam. When the proctor in the exam tells you to begin, quickly write your checklist on scrap paper and use it as a guide throughout the exam.
  • The outline should flip your thinking from individual cases and minutia to synthesis of the material and the solving of new legal scenarios with the law that is learned through the cases. Except for major cases, cases should become illustrations rather than the focus of the outline.
  • Where appropriate, condense material by using graphics. For visual learners, a picture is truly worth a thousand words.
  • Avoid the shortcut of using another student’s outline or a commercial outline instead of making your own. You gain deeper understanding and greater retention by processing the material yourself. Other outlines are useful to suggest a format or to check completeness after you have finished your outline - but match your outline to your professor’s course.
  • Have a goal of outlining new material every week once your outlines are current. You will not have to re-learn material to outline if you do it regularly and you can begin your exam review earlier.

 

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