Study aids: A new look at a once-controversial tool

November 22, 2010

Editor’s Note:  Please welcome guest blogger Ruth Ann McKinney, Clinical Professor of Law and Assistant Dean for Legal Writing & Academic Success at the University of North Carolina School of Law.  Ruth Ann discusses how the use of study aids in law school has gone from frowned-upon, to encouraged.

There was a time when law students were actively discouraged from using study aids of any kind, largely on the belief that the use of study aids was a shortcut that would backfire in the long run.  I remember one of my own professors who used to say, “Using study aids is like reading about lifting weights – takes up time, but it won’t make you any stronger, and it won’t help you reach your goals.”
For today’s generation of students, this tried and true advice may not be as useful as it once was.  There is a whole new generation of materials available to support law students as they learn, and we are teaching a whole new generation of learners.

Study aids today include

  • models of how to organize material, including in traditional outline form, as flow charts, and as succinct one-page summaries;
  • recall tools, including flashcards, practice questions, and audio tapes;
  • summaries of cases and statutes with sophisticated comments and notes;
  • opportunities to apply knowledge in new situations that challenge students to think creatively about facts and the relationship of the law to facts; and
  • deeply thoughtful analyses of the law paralleling  the kinds of issues raised in “Notes & Problems” often found in traditional casebooks.

If used wisely and in the right situation, many modern study aids can be used to trigger deeper thinking about the law, to enhance memorization of the right material, and to develop confidence.

For example, a student who is having difficulty seeing the relationship of common law claims for intentional torts and the common law defenses available might have an epiphany by looking at a commercial outline that presents the relationship in graphic form.  Similarly, a student who methodically reads every word in a case but misses the forest for the trees needs to approach case-reading with a different vision.

There are a variety of modern study aids that model just that: how would an expert read and think about this case? What questions would this case trigger for a strong, experienced reader?  By reframing their approach to three or four challenging cases, students can generalize what they’ve learned, approaching all cases more maturely.

Our traditional advice—“lift your own intellectual weights”—still holds true.  But today’s students, a generation that has grown up integrating coaches, teachers, mentors, and self-instructional materials into their learning, will also benefit from our expert advice about how to choose and how to use the right supplementary materials to enhance their development as effective law students.

Ruth Ann McKinney is a Clinical Professor of Law and Assistant Dean for Legal Writing & Academic Success at the University of North Carolina School of Law in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.  She is the author of Legal Research: A Practical Guide & Self-Instructional Workbook (5th edition 2008) and Reading Like a Lawyer. Professor McKinney  is also the executive editor of, a national website for law school academic support professionals developed by a grant from the Law School Admission Council.

A  few more fun facts about Professor McKinney: Author fun fact

  • Favorite TV show: Modern Family (by far)
  • What she’s reading now: Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri
  • Favorite movie of all time: To Kill a Mockingbird