Finding my flow: how I developed an exam preparation strategy that worked for me —guest post by Katie Clarke

Today, we’re excited to bring you our first guest post written by a current law student! Katie Clarke is a rising 3L at Carolina Law, and Rachel was lucky enough to teach her during Katie’s very first semester at Carolina. Additional biographical details appear below.

Growing up, I excelled in school because I tried harder than most and had figured out the best way to study to perform well on exams: rote memorization. That changed when I started law school. During the first semester of my 1L year, I spent hours each night reading and briefing cases, ensuring I memorized every last detail. To my dismay, I soon learned that those exact details, like whether a car was red or blue, really didn’t matter to the professor. As a very detail-oriented person (in fact, one of my law school professors gave me the superlative of “most detail-oriented”), I struggled to grasp the idea that the details didn’t matter as much as understanding the big picture (i.e., the holding) and the ability to apply the law moving forward.

In October, with midterms around the corner, most students had already begun outlining, or at least familiarizing themselves with outlines provided by 2Ls and 3Ls. I saw classmates with 100+ page outlines and heard about how they had spent hours outlining, but weren’t even halfway through the material. Needless to say, this was overwhelming. Although I appreciate details, I am also aware I can get bogged down by them and was fearful that I would freeze up during an exam if I tried to using a 100+ page outline. This led me to decide that the “traditional” Microsoft Word, bulleted, Times-New-Roman outline would not be for me.

Once I had identified what wouldn’t work for me, I had to figure out what would. Because the vast majority of my classmates opted for the “traditional” outline, this meant I had to do some brainstorming and reflecting on my own to figure out what would work best.

Even though I didn’t know exactly what I wanted, I knew that it needed to provide a high-level overview of the law and be able to guide me through the necessary elements during an exam, with the least amount of information to comb through. I didn’t want to be flipping through pages or distracting myself with minute details. This forced me to extract the basic rules and elements from each course I was enrolled in.

To understand how I landed on flowcharts, it might help to know a bit about my background.

I graduated from Florida State University in 2014 with a Bachelor of Science in Communications, with an emphasis on Public Relations. In the spring of my junior year, I took a speech-writing course, and on the first day, the professor asked us to prepare and present an introductory speech. My opening line was “I thrive on structure and comfort.” These two concepts describe the way I operate in an academic setting.

After graduation, I became a Teach for America corps member and was charged with teaching Common Core Math I to ninth grade students. With my background, most people were surprised I chose to teach math rather than something in the language arts realm. I chose math because there is an inherent structure, and a relatively consistent method that students must use to find the value of X.

As I mentioned, I had my own set learning style growing up—I was an auditory learner and was often able to memorize concepts, at least long enough for exams. While teaching, I learned this was not the case for every student, and definitely did not represent the learning style of the majority of my students. As you likely could have guessed, math was far from my students’ favorite subject. In fact, most were very comfortable telling me how much they hated and didn’t understand math.

This was the first time I was confronted with different learning styles and the realization that I would need to modify my approach. I began speaking to students in terms of “steps” and showing them how each step connected to another concept or step with an arrow. My aim was to show that getting to an answer was a fluid process, rather than simply instinct or implicit knowledge. Over time, this idea seemed to work and students were able to move through problems with less and less instruction.

During my first semester of law school, I quickly found myself identifying with the students in my math class. I was experiencing information overload and couldn’t hone in on a starting point. It seemed like every time I started to review, I needed to back-track and learn something else that somehow connected to the material I had initially started reviewing. I felt like the ever-popular meme of the child drinking from a firehose (a meme I believe Professor Gurvich actually showed us in our legal writing class). I decided it was time to do something and take a proactive approach rather than allowing myself to continue to drown in the irrelevant details of case-briefs.

At 25, I realized I needed to learn a new way to learn. I reflected on my teaching experience and thought about all of my visual learners, remembering how helpful graphic and visuals had been to them as they learned to break down concepts. The example that immediately came to mind was from the lesson on statistics. This lesson was very calculator heavy. Since most students did not have personal graphing calculators they could practice on at home, it made working with the calculators at school an uphill battle. To aid this learning curve, I created a worksheet outlining spaces for students to fill in with the proper calculator steps in the appropriate order. This was something that wasn’t especially challenging—after all, it just involved clicking buttons—but it took some practice to get comfortable with all of the buttons and the proper order. This is where the idea for flowcharts was born.

At this point, I had my structure. I would boil down my law school material to the most rudimentary information and create flowcharts consisting of elements or next steps, depending on the class. Next, I needed to figure out what would suffice for the “comfort” element I needed. In high school, I became very familiar with Adobe InDesign and eventually got it on my personal computer. InDesign became almost a hobby as it gave me a forum to express (structured) creativity. Since working in InDesign was enjoyable for me, creating these flowcharts was actually fun and relaxed me during an otherwise stressful time: exam season.

My goals for the flowcharts were simple: have the correct law, only put as much information as I truly needed, use color to draw attention, and make a product that would allow me to move through the process quickly. You can see a few examples of my completed flowcharts here.

During exams, the flowcharts served their purpose. They kept me grounded and only had me flipping through a larger “traditional” outline if there was an obscure concept raised on the exam that I had determined wasn’t worth including in one of my charts. They allowed me to work efficiently and spend minimal time outlining the appropriate elements on the exam and gave me more time to fill in my analysis of why or how relevant law applied to the facts of the exam question.

While it’s sometimes easy to think that innovation has no place in law school due to the ingrained tradition of the Socratic method, the very large classes, and the copious amounts of material that must be covered, I encourage law students to think outside of the box when it comes to absorbing the material. Yes, there is a “standard” and “traditional” way of preparing for exams, but that does not mean it is the only way to do well. Instead, try to find what works best for you—even if it’s not what might work best for other people. If you’re a law student, I encourage you to explore learning styles that may best fit your needs.

 

Katie Clarke is a third-year law student at the University of North Carolina School of Law. She earned a B.S. in Communications from Florida State University. Between undergrad and law school, Katie taught Common Core Math I to ninth graders with Teach for America. , Katie spent her 1L summer interning with the Honorable Richard L. Voorhees in the United States District Court for the Western District of North Carolina as well as with the Honorable Paul M. Newby in the North Carolina Supreme Court; during her 2L summer she split her time between two firms in Charlotte. This year, she will serve as a Notes and Articles Editor on the North Carolina Banking Institute Journal.

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