Thursday, March 25, 2010

How and When to Use Practice Exams

About mid-semester, if I'm being smart, I start busting out some practice exams. But why now? Why would I start doing that before I have a full course's worth of materials to incorporate?

I'll tell you why:

Doing practice exams over a prolonged period of time makes your thinking and analysis on the day of the exam go very smoothly because, after all, you've done it before. Personally, the more I do, the better I tend to perform. However, this doesn't hold up as well if I wait until the last few days before the exam. I think one reason for this is because doing the exams creates a more holistic approach in terms of everyday learning in class. By the time you take the real exam, you've been so used to analyzing problems for your class a certain way that it becomes a cinch.

Note: I have a very specific way that I use practice exams. I only take exams that have either model answers (by the top scoring student) or model outlines (by the professor who gave the exam).

I do this for two very simple reasons: to know when I'm wrong and to learn hidden issues.

The first couple of exams that I take I do untimed. I do this to save my sanity and because I know that it will take time for me to try and pull together the half-semester's worth of information that the professor has already gone over.

If you decide to follow my method, do not grow disheartened if (and often when) you realize upon reading the model answer that you have totally failed and wasted your time. In fact, you have not. Reading about all the ways in which you messed up is one of the best ways, I think, for law students to learn because we're so hard on ourselves and will thus drive the point home even harder the next time we take a practice exam. Further, rest assured that at least you practiced and did not perform that way on the real exam.

You're bound to not have covered some issues if you start doing this mid-semester. But you will master what most students will wait until the very last minute to do. More importantly, you will do so along the way, so the transition from practice to real-deal will, hopefully, be seamless.

As soon as I get about 2 or 3 exams under my belt, I start timing myself. This, again, is key because... well, simply put, you will be timed on the day of your actual exam. No shocker there. So, timing yourself will, again, get you used to performing not only in the proper manner but also within the same time constraints as the final.

DO NOT CHEAT YOURSELF by looking at the model answers to these practice exams before you take them! It's just not the same learning tool as doing it yourself and then grading yourself according to the model. If you read the model answer first, you might pick up on some things, but the exercise will be more passive. Make practice exams work for you. That's the whole point.

Where do you get these practice exams? Most importantly, where do you find exams with answers?

Well, there are a few ways:

1) Your law school's library or website. Some professors that make past exams available also have model answers that accompany the exams. Just check.

2) Ask your professor. One student did this my first year in law school. She simply asked the professor to provide students with the model answer. Surprisingly (or perhaps not... I don't know), she did! It was great.

3) I always think that the exams from your professors are the best source. After all, different strokes for different folks. However, if you don't have access to past exams with model answers from your professor, here you go: There, you can search classes from 1L to 3L in alphabetical order. Then simply search around for the professors who post model answers along with the exam.

CAUTION!: The website comes from a CALIFORNIA law school, so the laws in your state (and hence exam info) might differ, depending on the class that you're taking.

4) Google is your friend. How do you think I found that website up there? It didn't come floating to me; I Google-ed it. I used to have more in my arsenal, but many of those sites have taken down public access. Take some initiative, and if you find a gem, please post it here via a comment. :)

After you've done all of the above, if you're heading toward the final weeks of class, take one of your professor's old exams, EVEN IF there's no accompanying model answer. Make an appointment with the prof, and ask whether he or she would be willing to review your answer to an old exam. I've never had a professor turn me down on this. Of course, I come prepared; I provide the professor with his or her old exam that I worked off of in order to remind the prof of the content.

I hope that this advice will help you. I should listen to my own advice more than I have recently. Whenever I've implemented practice exams early on in the semester, I've always done very well.

Until next time...