By Julie Cummings • February 04, 2016•Ms. JD, Writers in Residence, Law School, Pre-Law, Other Law School Issues, Features, Bar Exam
Flying across the Alabama countryside, just above the treetops, balmy breezes blow into the helicopter cockpit. Puffy white clouds adorn the blue sky. Gently rolling hills and tree-lined river valleys crisscross the landscape. The afternoon is beautiful, the mood peaceful.
Suddenly a shrill warning bell screams into my ears. Painful butterflies alight in my stomach. “Simulated engine failure!” calls the instructor pilot as he rolls off the throttle, cutting the power needed to maintain rotor speed and remain aloft.
I would like to panic, but there is no time. I try to take a deep breath, but barely manage a gasp. The helicopter, which wasn’t flying very high in the first place, is losing altitude. Only immediate emergency actions will put the aircraft into autorotation – the way to safely land a helicopter after engine failure.
Captain America! —I think to myself—and my body instantly responds. Collective adjust; Pedals adjust; Throttle adjust; Airspeed adjust. Soon we are gliding on a controlled, downward path toward a clearing in a farmer’s field. Crisis averted. My heart rate remains elevated, my stomach still twisting, but we will survive, and we are no longer riding a 4,500-pound, two-bladed boulder falling to earth.
Like law students, flight students must commit an incredible amount of information to memory. They must recall precise rules during testing. So how do pilots manage, and what can law students learn from them? And what does Captain America have to do with any of it?!
Checklists, combined with a few mnemonics, offer pilots an organized, abbreviated, systematic way to remember a wealth of critical information. Some emergency situations call for immediate action without affording any time to look-up procedures. In those instances, pilots must instantly respond, executing from memory procedures to deal with the emergency situation.
In the same way, law student exam-takers must quickly recall a semester’s worth of information. Coherently written, correctly analyzed answers flow more easily when the information has been previously mentally organized and memorized.
Unlike flight emergencies, where people may indeed die from a pilot’s slow response, law school exams don’t carry quite the same impact. Students don’t die if they panic and forget things. But, the stomach-squeezing, heart-racing sensations are nevertheless real. And a paralyzing physical response to exam-day stress is avoidable.
Army helicopter flight students use the mnemonic device Captain America, or CPT A (the army abbreviates the rank of captain as CPT). CPT A represents the initial letters of the four critical steps, memorized from a checklist. They signify the immediate actions to take for engine failure:
1. Collective – Adjust as required to maintain rotor RPM (90 to 107%).
2. Pedals – Adjust. Crab or Slip as required.
3. Throttle – Adjust as necessary. Close as required.
4. Airspeed – Adjust as required.
A checklist will be filled with many other such similar entries, each identifying the essential steps to take for various emergencies. Furthermore, a mnemonic device can mean the difference between correctly remembering the steps and not.
Notice three things. First, the steps are linear and crisp. Each line consists of minimal words, the nuances of the steps having been memorized and endlessly practiced. Yet the four steps are enough to jog the memory, and not so detailed as to become overwhelming. Second, the essential information is underlined for emphasis, creating a list of the bare essentials. Third, a person can devise any number of mnemonic devices to remember CPT A. Flight students in my class just happened to choose Captain America, and it worked.
We remembered it. We practiced it. A lot. So by the time we experienced in-flight simulated engine failure, quickly losing precious altitude, we knew how to respond, thus ensuring our safety and the successful passing of our checkride.
Now see how this checklist might look for one area of a semester’s worth of Constitutional Law material— Standing analysis:
1. Constitutional - Courts can’t amend
Injury – Actual or imminent harm
Causation – Fairly traceable to D’s conduct
Redress – Favorable result addresses claimed harm
2. Prudential – Congress can amend
No TP Standing – Must be personal claim
No Generalized Grievances – P must sue solely as a citizen or taxpayer
Close relationship – between P and injured TP; or
Injured TP is unlikely to be able to assert his own
The trick with checklists is two-fold. Make them simple and easy to read. Then relentlessly practice viewing them and saying them aloud. I am not embarrassed to confess that I recite my checklists aloud in the shower and walking to my morning train. I’ve stopped caring if passersby notice me talking to myself. Repetition and out-loud recitation works for me.
Eventually you should be able to delete almost all but your underlined steps. You will have by this time committed to memory everything else that you must know in order to not miss a step.
By doing this, you take charge of your physiologic response to stress when you sit before a blank computer screen, an exam full of surprises staring back at you. Instead of wondering where to begin, you spot an issue, and instantly type out your barebones checklist. It flows from your fingers because you’ve rehearsed it. Now, instead of panicking and wasting valuable time or worse, jumbling-up the analysis, you methodically attack your exam, confidently and coherently.
Captain America, or whatever mnemonic you chose to jog your memory, smiles back at you, helping you land, skids on the ground, ready to fly another day.
Julie Cummings is one of Ms. JD’s 2016 Writers in Residence. Her monthly column, Soldier On: Boot Camp to Law School translates valuable military skills into strategies for succeeding in law school.