Here are some words to live by: try never to live anywhere with a season called ‘mud.’ It was a typical late winter weekend in South Western Pennsylvania which means we had nine inches of snow here in the Laurel Mountains on Saturday and Sunday. Now, on Tuesday, it’s close to 80 degrees Fahrenheit. The streams and rivers are gorged with snow melt. Our pasture moved well beyond spongy and water-logged under my feet to something like gooey chocolate pudding. Even the horses and my dog are happy to gaze longingly at the soupy fields from our perches in the barn and tack room where I’ve taken to studying. We’re patiently waiting for mud season to pass and everything to turn summer-green.
For me, mud season, a.k.a. spring time on the Laurel Highland ridges, is also time to set up my study plan for the term. This term I am taking four courses, which is ambitious but with planning perfectly manageable. The key is in my approach to the materials. What materials do you use to study? Give that some thought. It might include the kind of notebooks and organisers you prefer, software choices, reference books like dictionaries and style guides, and how to organise a bibliography along with texts and articles.
For me, our course study guides provide an excellent working outline. I pick four themes or topics for each course to study in depth and work out a preliminary bibliography based on suggested reading and my own research. My interest is religion and law, so it’s been a consistent focus in my courses. After some basic reading, I choose the books that need to be in my library, normally five or six titles per course. Most are readily available and fairly inexpensive on Amazon. Others come from my excellent inter-library loan system and the University of London online law resources. To access other materials, I frequently visit law and university libraries in my area and when I travel. Organizing research and notes requires some thought, too. My preferred method is a hybrid of a note-taking software, my treasured Dragon device for recording oral notes, index cards, highlighters and colored pens, and five three-ring notebooks. I’ve got a notebook to manage my study plan for each class and a master study schedule in the fifth notebook. PDF files are organised on my Kindle.
Sometimes it feels like a good idea to just circle around the great stack of learning materials and tools on my table for a bit, orienting myself to the sheer volume of work. Tell the truth, I love the pressure of learning four modules and absolutely embrace the notion that work expands to fill the time. I learned to prune the time and make the work fit accordingly.
Now that I have assembled and surveyed the mountain of materials, what comes next? When will I get it all done? How do I dig in and start learning in a manner that will be productive for my end goals? What are my end goals? Goals, materials, and time – my study approach trifecta.
Let’s talk about goals for a minute. I like a good thesis statement. Being clear about my study goal is extremely useful. Stating a study goal has helped me form a precise approach to research, note taking, reading, and academic legal writing. What are your study goals? Passing exams? Mastery of a subject? Over time my goals have become more focused which has made studying a complex subject like law much more rewarding and manageable.
This term my goal is argumentation. I read to find the argument presented in every document and identify the counter arguments the author addresses, including those in our study guides. Summarizing these arguments makes it easier for me to develop and present my own legal arguments. It helps me become conversant with details and subtle points of law, and to remember them.
Materials, goals, and time. Time is a key issue in my approach to learning materials. As the saying goes, good time management means doing what has to be done, not doing a little of everything every day. That’s just fine, even comforting. But my job is to bring order out of chaos, so to speak; the chaos in my head while learning and the everyday chaos of jobs, kids, families, and all the things we treasure. My four priorities are not flexible but on a daily basis they might be interchangeable depending on people’s needs: home (kids, the actual infrastructure…), work, exercise, studies. I must exercise daily or transform into a whirling, red-haired, stress ball. Everybody here knows it, and gives their whole-hearted support. Writing is my work, which reinforces law, so cheers to that. Nothing brings order out of chaos like writing. Communicating with family about my time commitments helps everyone get their needs met and set boundaries. I take that very seriously and even completed a personal communication class to improve those skills. It does not hurt that I have totally given up on the 24 hour day. Sometimes I need 30 or 36 or even 48 hours. So be it.
So there we have it – time, materials, and goals. I literally stalk my study materials, churn everything I have to accomplish in my head for a few weeks, review all available and necessary materials, and then get organised with study tools and resources. Soon, the contents of these marvelous books and study guides will feel orderly in my brain, like summer brings order to the chaos of mud season – err, springtime.