Make Semester’s End Meaningful

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By Jeremiah Ho from Washburn University School of Law

The arrival of December can be a portentous month for students, particularly as they start to count down the days to the semester’s very last classes, which inevitably means that they will be left with nothing else but preparation for their final exams – a task that can seem utterly daunting and often devoid of critical guidance. For law teachers, the shift towards the final section of a course can mean more lectures that wrap-up or summarize the semester-long subject matter of the course. However, in addition to doctrinal summary, the final trajectory of the course could afford law teachers the opportunity to help students reflect upon how they have learned throughout the semester and how they might want to approach their finals preparations. While students are becoming increasingly aware that their final exams are inching across the horizon and, as a result, keeping their ears attuned to any small “nuggets” of insight that they hope their professors might drop or reveal about exams, instructional care can be taken in ending the semester in a way that allows students to better strategize for the period of self-regulated finals studying. Here is a three-part suggestion to make the end of a semester more meaningful for students:

(1) For review, have students periodically present in-class summaries of smaller key issues or doctrinal topics that were covered earlier in the course: Instead of the instructor doing the summarizing, this exercise asks a particular student or group of students to prepare and present a certain topic covered during the semester and to retrace some key points by summarizing what they have learned or read – the doctrine, the cases, the policies, etc. – that will be crucial to master for exams. Students can walk through a brief concept – whether it’s seasonal use in adverse possession in Property or parol evidence rule in Contracts or battery in Torts – and show how they have outlined topic or their own understanding and mastery. After the presentation, the instructor then can facilitate a quick discussion and critique, adding finer points if needed or answering student questions that could help reinforce learning of the material and help students think about organizing an analytical response on an exam.

(2) Knowing the law is merely one part of an adequate attempt to prepare for finals. Law school examinations not only test knowledge of the law but more often also test the ability to juxtapose or graft the law against specific factual circumstances to reach a legal result. A law teacher can enhance this reflective exercise about the level of student knowledge on a legal topic with the use of short exam-type hypotheticals covering the topic just presented to demonstrate how effective organization and mastery of a concept must then be put to use in application and analysis. Asking the class to then apply onlywhat the students have presented on the law to fact patterns that resemble questions on an instructor’s particular exam can be a great on-the-spot opportunity to show students how to use their mastery of material to issue spot or practice analytical reasoning or some other legal analysis skill needed for success in the course. In addition, this kind of an exercise can show possible deficiencies in preparation and help students refine their approach to exam preparation – for instance, by creating specific goals in their exam preparation to shore up deficiencies or to show them effective organizational strategies to help analyze fact patterns more thoroughly.

(3) But wait, there’s more: An alternative to using an instructor’s own hypotheticals might be to ask students to not only present their knowledge on a legal topic but to also draft their own fact hypotheticals for testing, not only themselves, but also the rest of the class. Asking students to present a summary on a topic and then provide a hypothetical of their own based on the same topic is another way to critique the ability of students to recognize the law against specific factual circumstances to effectively resolve legal conflicts. This variation might ask them to be more fact-sensitive as they realize by creating their own hypos that a resolution or analysis might easily turn on a choice or a withholding of a specific fact. Furthermore, a humorous way to personalize this exercise is to allow a contest between different presenting student groups to see which one group can best craft a hypothetical that most resembles those written by the class instructor.

All humor aside, however, having students participate more actively during the final wrapping-up stages of a semester-long course can offer them a direct and targeted opportunity for thinking ahead about their study strategies before they finish the course, and are then left on their own to master the materials and skills to excel on their exams. This multi-part exercise might offer a few helpful options for some students who otherwise might have been at a loss for knowing strategically how to better prepare for their law school finals.

Institute for Law Teaching and Learning