October 18, 2013

What are law students doing to protect themselves from the horror of a law school exam that lawprofs could easily write following the advice I am giving in this post?

Do law professors realize how much law students are relying on Wikipedia for summaries and insights into the cases we are assigning? In the old days, students spent a lot of money on commercial outlines, stuff like this. I've never looked at any of those books, not as a student and not as a teacher, though over the years, I've had many students ask me to recommend one.

Back when I was a law student — I graduated in 1981 — you wouldn't want the professor to know you were the sort of person who'd need or want to use a study guide, so it always surprised me that students would ask me, and I had no answer to the question other than to be careful: These things can be out of date, they may contain errors, and you can be wasting time on a lot of detail that I am not including and missing things that I will develop in class.

The best view of what will be on the exam is what we're talking about in class, which is based on the assigned readings, so why would you put time into reading some questionable alternative material instead of reading the casebook, taking notes on that book, paying attention in class, and condensing your reading and class notes into an outline that forces you to understand precisely those things that the exam will be about?

These days, from what I've heard, students have shifted to Wikipedia, which has lots of great entries for the cases that we read.

I love Wikipedia. I think it is one of the greatest things that has happened in the history of mankind. But you've got to know what it is and what it is not. Who is writing and tweaking those articles on important Supreme Court cases? They're quite well done, but that means they are done by lawyers, law students, and law academics. These contributors offset each other and enforce Wikipedia norms of neutrality, but, of course, law folk are expert at embedding political and policy preferences in seemingly neutral material. (That's what makes the cases so hard to read and understand.)

The first time a student in my class referred openly to Wikipedia, he quoted something that was a bit off. Perhaps it described a state constitutional law provision as banning racial discrimination when what it banned was using race as factor in affirmative action. It was something that needed better editing in Wikipedia.

It immediately occurred to me that a very efficient way to write an exam in this course would be to quote the Wikipedia entry on various cases and, for each, ask whether it is inaccurate. One could pick 10 statements about 10 cases — or 20 statements about 20 case — and ask the student to pick the 3 — or 5 or 6 — that you believe to be most inaccurate and explain why.

It's fine to use Wikipedia. I love it. But you've got to know what you are dealing with.

40 comments:

themightypuck said...

According to Malcolm Gladwell's new book David Boies can barely read and made it through law school with pretty much nothing but guides and paying attention in class.

Rob McLean said...

Kids these days.

Michelle Dulak Thomson said...

Perhaps it described a state constitutional law provision as banning racial discrimination when what it banned was using race as factor in affirmative action.

But, but ... "affirmative action" was initially about race. That's where the phrase originated. "Banning race as a factor in affirmative action" makes no sense.

What I think you must mean is "banning race as a factor in public university admissions."

Seven Years of College Down the Drain said...

Non-law student. Even so: Back in the day, only ever so slightly after your day, I found taking notes during lectures and outlining as I went invaluable for remembering and organizing. I was less successful at taking notes from reading, mostly a matter of not transferring the habit. But taking notes that way from my eighth-grade social studies teacher was one of the most useful things I ever learned.

Ann Althouse said...

"What I think you must mean is "banning race as a factor in public university admissions.""

That's a good edit.

Imagine this blog with commenters able to edit my posts directly, a la Wikipedia.

Glen Filthie said...

Just say the word Ann. I would be happy to introduce some common sense to your blog - for a reasonable fee...LOL LOL LOL

Christy said...

Nephew's high school English teacher told him rewrite his essay on Beowulf. He was to first read what I would call a child's version, look at Cliff Notes, and check out on-line college essays on Beowulf. Apparently kids are taught to use cheats today.

Ann Althouse said...

"I was less successful at taking notes from reading..."

What I recommend is to do the reading, as slowly as necessary to completely understand it, with underlining and marginalia. Then, without looking back, write down a summary of it, in your own words. If you can do that, go back and reread and try again. This builds your reading skill and is a way to prove to yourself that you understood. You didn't just "do the reading."

Then in class, get confirmation of your reading powers by seeing that your paraphrase of the reading was good. Class notes should reinforce the understanding and focus on what the teacher thinks is important.

When I was a first-year law student, I wrote my reading notes on the right side of the page in a spiral notebook, then in class annotated those notes and wrote additional notes on the left side. I made a thing out of keeping the class notes on the left side and not needing more than one page.

After first year, I used a yellow legal pad in a folder and had my reading notes in a flap on the left and wrote on the fresh pad on the right. I always had the reading notes right next to the class notes. I wanted these things to match up well. The ultimate goal was compression into the shortest possible outline that included everything that was said in the class.

This method was very effective.

Of course, today I would use a laptop, and that would create the temptation to type constantly at near transcription speed. Then the outlining would be done by editing the text. You don't have to rewrite by hand, which is an effective learning technique. Today, you have all this text, but perhaps a lot of question about whether you have really absorbed it.

Captain Ned said...

Ann:

Your idea of an exam asking students to pick the most wrong Wikipedia descriptions of cases is clever, evil, and the right thing to do to shake 1Ls out of their undergraduate complacency.

Michelle Dulak Thomson said...

Captain Ned,

Your idea of an exam asking students to pick the most wrong Wikipedia descriptions of cases is clever, evil, and the right thing to do to shake 1Ls out of their undergraduate complacency.

If this were a blog whose platform supported up-voting, I would up-vote that.

Michelle Dulak Thomson said...

Ann,

Imagine this blog with commenters able to edit my posts directly, a la Wikipedia.

Um, no. You'd have to police it 24/7, because there'd be malicious damage constantly. The Wiki monitors manage by and large not to go stark ravers, though I don't know how they do it.

jimf said...

To paraphrase Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy...Wikipedia contains much that is apocryphal or at least wildly inaccurate.

Crimso said...

Althouse:
"Imagine this blog with commenters able to edit my posts directly, a la Wikipedia."

MDT:
"Um, no. You'd have to police it 24/7, because there'd be malicious damage constantly."

I suspect the g forces involved in changing course from recently not allowing any comments, to the Wikipedia-like editing of her posts would likely kill off all of the malicious commenters. All of the non-malicious ones as well.

Scott M said...

Speaking of lawyers, from Insta this morning.

“The United States has 5 percent of the world’s people, 25 percent of its incarcerated people, and half of its trained lawyers (who now take about 10 percent of the GDP); the legal system is an embarrassment, and the criminal-justice system is a disgrace, in which prosecutors win 99.5 percent of their cases, 97 percent of them without a trial. The legislators of the country are ultimately responsible for this corruption of what the Constitution and Bill of Rights set up as a just and merciful Society of Laws.”

Is that even close to true?

Jupiter said...

"Is that even close to true?"

Well, he is quoting Conrad Black, who has had some rather dispiriting experiences with the US Criminal Justice System. That said, yes, it is true. The US Criminal Justice System is certainly a system, and it is fairly easy to argue that it is indeed criminal. Two out of three ain't bad, right?

Balfegor said...

Re: Althouse:

"What are law students doing to protect themselves from the horror of a law school exam that lawprofs could easily write following the advice I am giving in this post?"

Seeding Wikipedia with subtle misstatements of caselaw that they think their professors may pick up on?

lorentjd said...

Althouse: "The best view of what will be on the exam is what we're talking about in class, which is based on the assigned readings, so why would you put time into reading some questionable alternative material instead of reading the casebook, taking notes on that book, paying attention in class, and condensing your reading and class notes into an outline that forces you to understand precisely those things that the exam will be about?"

This is exactly what I did in law school. But, I did one additional thing: After condensing my classroom notes and reading notes into an outline (maybe 30-50 pages long), I then made an even more condensed and concise outline for the exams in the week or so before exam time (maybe 10-15 pages long). It was more useful at exam time and, more importantly, it forced me to really "study" my first outline in order to create my second outline.

I also never used supplemental study aids. The issues that my profs focused on were the issues I focused on. Very simple. It was like the bar exam: I never cracked the Bar-Bri books (they were as new after the bar exam as they were when I bought them). Instead, I just went to the Bar-Bri classes and then, two weeks before the bar exam, I focused like a laserbeam on the class outlines (basically memorizing them). Easy-peasy.

So, law students: Save the money you'd otherwise spend on study guides and use it for something really useful: Beer.

The Godfather said...

A problem with using Wikipedia in law school is that you might think it was OK to use it in law practice. Can you imagine the reaction of a judge or client if a lawyer cites Wikipedia as an authority?

Scott M said...

Can you imagine the reaction of a judge or client if a lawyer cites Wikipedia as an authority?

Isn't WP more of an infodump, though, with the actual citations required at the bottom?

Austin said...

Although I admire Graglia, I thought this was very funny. Kids these days....

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0SzJPkwII4o

Skyler said...

Ann, I think you underestimate how many bad teachers are in academia. Many are there for reasons other than teaching and many are simply bad.

I had a property professor that could not complete a sentence. Before she would get to a conclusion in a sentence she would derail and start a new, very long sentence. It was maddening. I would have gotten nowhere without a good guidebook. In the end, I audited another class (attendance was enforced at my school) so that I could get a grasp of what was being taught.

JackOfVA said...

A 1976 law school graduate here, and I used a similar note and case annotation system similar to that described by AA. Worked for me.

I bought a couple of the "X in a Nutshell" books in my first year and didn't find them helpful. On the other hand, the one-volume edition of Prosser on Torts was very helpful.

As far as bar exam review books go, I found them useful for those subjects I did not study in school, such as Wills, Estates and Trusts.

KLDAVIS said...

They should be pouring over the articles for the cases you're discussing in class, and making sure they are as accurate as possible so as to preclude you from using this strategy.

Except, 'accurate' is in the eye of the law professor. So, what you'd really be asking them to do is edit Wikipedia to make it adhere as closely as possible to the interpretations of these cases that you teach.

Ann Althouse said...

"This is exactly what I did in law school. But, I did one additional thing: After condensing my classroom notes and reading notes into an outline (maybe 30-50 pages long), I then made an even more condensed and concise outline for the exams in the week or so before exam time (maybe 10-15 pages long). It was more useful at exam time and, more importantly, it forced me to really "study" my first outline in order to create my second outline."

Actually, I did do that. And at the point when I entered the exam, which was closed book, I had that outline in my head where I could see it and read it. I knew where on each page to "find" whatever I needed, and it was everything we had studied in class.

KLDAVIS said...

And, of course, students of professors who teach different interpretations of these same cases would be counter-editing the Wikipedia entries, and the comment pages would become epic 1L flame wars, but someone might actually learn something.

Balfegor said...

Re: The Godfather:

A problem with using Wikipedia in law school is that you might think it was OK to use it in law practice. Can you imagine the reaction of a judge or client if a lawyer cites Wikipedia as an authority?

Dear fellow, your tut-tutting comes <a href="http://www.nytimes.com/2007/01/29/technology/29wikipedia.html?_r=0</i>too late</a>. As of 2007:

<i>More than 100 judicial rulings have relied on Wikipedia, beginning in 2004, including 13 from circuit courts of appeal, one step below the Supreme Court. (The Supreme Court thus far has never cited Wikipedia.)</i>

Balfegor said...

Blast. Messed up the link. Well you can pull it up.

The Godfather said...

Balfegor, I can't check your cites, but my guess is that courts cite Wikipedia for matters of "common knowledge" -- the kind of thing that used to be said in an opinion (or a brief or memo) without citation because, you know, it's common knowledge. If courts are actually relying on Wikipedia as AUTHORITY as to facts or law, then we're doomed.

FleetUSA said...

Professor,

Your method of reading the cases and writing in your own words a summary of facts and law of the cases in the notebook AND then taking class notes parallel to the case in the same is the very best method of studying.

Remember this exercise as "hands" on and pro-active (read the case before the class!) was the perfect method for me as well. Sadly I didn't realize that until nearer the end of my law school years. It certainly helped me ACE the NYU LLM (tax)--- happily. :--))

Craig Howard said...

I knew where on each page to "find" whatever I needed, and it was everything we had studied in class.

Well, as they say, "OMG"!

It's a brilliant process. I wish I'd been as disciplined when I was in college -- about the same time; not law. Was it something you'd been taught or did you come up with it yourself.

I'm amazed. I was sooooo lazy.

Damon said...

1. Most people are lazy readers. I have had to teach myself not to gloss-over stuff I don't completely understand.

AND

2. I wish Althouse was my Con Law prof. Althouse is intentional about everything she does and I LOVE IT!

betamax3000 said...

Re: "Who is writing and tweaking those articles on important Supreme Court cases? "

Justice Roberts Did Not Teak On Health Care, He Twerked.

Balfegor said...

Re: Godfather:

my guess is that courts cite Wikipedia for matters of "common knowledge" -- the kind of thing that used to be said in an opinion (or a brief or memo) without citation because, you know, it's common knowledge. If courts are actually relying on Wikipedia as AUTHORITY as to facts or law, then we're doomed.

We are, then, on the edge of being doomed (have I got it right this time?):

As opposed to these tangential references, Wikipedia has also been used for more significant facts.

Such cases include a Brooklyn surrogate court’s definition of the Jewish marriage ceremony and the Iowa Court of Appeals’ declaration that French is the official language of the Republic of Guinea. In 2004, the Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, in Georgia, referred to a Wikipedia entry of the Department of Homeland Security’s threat levels in a ruling concerning magnetometer searches of antiwar protesters
.

Of course, that's just unsupported claims by a journalist at the New York Times, so of course, its credibility is about on par with Wikipedia.

Terry said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Douglas said...

Wikipedia is fine for starting a research project, even better than the old Britannica. The bibliography at the end of Wikipedia articles is often very helpful. But I never accept a Wikipedia citation in a student paper, for many reasons, including the fact that Wikipedia articles can change daily - which version are you citing to and can other people find it? And if I were a judge, I wouldn't accept one in a brief let alone put one in an opinion. But I like Prof. Althouse's idea of using Wikipedia articles as the starting points for exam questions.

Left Bank of the Charles said...

I had an econometrics professor in college who when doing math problems on the board would make inadvertent mistakes. Sometimes he wouldn't realize his mistake until he got to the end of the problem, and then would go back and quickly correct all the preceding lines.

When he did that, students verbatim notes would howl with outrage and furiously scribble to correct their notes before he erased the problem. But if you had studied and knew the material, you would see the mistake, and do the problem correctly. Knowing glances would be exchanged among those students, who'd sit back and enjoy the little show.

You could employ that as a teaching technique. Teach from the incorrect Wikipedia entry and see how long it takes your students to catch the mistake.



MB said...

Re: marginalia

According to James Burke in, I believe, “The Day the Universe Changed” series, early university text books contained extremely wide blank margins next to the text for glossing notes; wide enough to have notes about the notes! With my official education occurring prior to the internet, I thought this would have been very useful and an unfortunate lost practice. I imagine cost and weight were factors. Now with eMedia, I am seeing a return to this where notes can be written and linked to text/powerpoint pages by the reader. Soon, just like the Criteria collections for movies, expert commentary or other references shall be linked; such as Feynman lectures in physics textbooks.

Sharkcutie said...

My federal income tax prof did not use a textbook but handed out a tax problem after every class with numbers at the top that he left up to the students to figure out what they referred to. I couldn't have passed that class without a couple of commercial outlines and the tax manuals at the reference desk in the library. In other classes, I memorized the table of contents, which I immediately wrote down on beginning the exam. Then, as I wrote the exam, I checked off the principles in the table. In three years, I missed one issue!

Sharkcutie said...

Oh, and I also pretended that the person I was writing for was a legal idiot.

Bruce Hayden said...

Not much to add, except that one friend who has been teaching law longer than Ann, would ask maybe 20% based on what he said in class that wasn't in the text book, and maybe 10% from the WSJ (it was corporations or something like it). Knew him socially, so wasn't surprised, and aced his class.

On the other hand, my torts prof spent half the second term final on a subject that was barely covered in class and wasn't in the text. To this day, not quite sure where we were supposed to read up on it. There may have been handouts, but I spent most of my time prepping for the final studying the part of torts that you would see on the bar exam - which this wasn't. And, being 1L, you were stuck with the profs you were assigned to.