The elaborative interrogation technique may sound like a spy how-to manual, but it is used to go beyond simply memorizing difficult concepts to understanding them. For example, you may be able to recite the three elements for res ipsa loquitur, but have no idea what they mean or how to apply them in a fact pattern. This method helps you remember and understand by having you ask how and why questions, thereby allowing you to see connections between the various concepts.
Compare and Contrast
As you use this technique you will compare and contrast ideas by asking how two concepts are similar and how they are different.
Let’s go back to our res ipsa loquitur example. You’ve memorized the three-part test for this concept and that is where most students stop. So when they get to the exam, they don’t do well because they really don’t understand how to apply res ipsa loquitur to get the maximum number of points.
In reality, these students learned how to recite a test that they did not truly understand.
Res Ipsa Loquitur Example
So step one is to connect res ipsa loquitur to what we do know. You might ask yourself, how does it connect to negligence? You then answer: it is connected to breach of duty.
Now go deeper. Ask yourself, how does res ipsa loquitur connect to breach of duty? It helps us determine if somebody breached their duty of care.
Go even deeper. Why do we need res ipsa loquitur? When the evidence against the defendant is circumstantial and not direct.
Don’t stop there; go deeper. What is circumstantial evidence? It is evidence that can be inferred from a fact that I know to be true. What is the effect of using res ipsa loquitur at trial?
Keep interrogating yourself and you will establish connections between interrelated concepts. Soon you will understand the concept better and expose gaps in your knowledge that will encourage you to do more research.
By the way, I strongly recommend that you go through this process in writing. It’s just too easy to skip steps or not see the gaps without writing it down or typing it out on your computer.
This technique will work very nicely with the Feynman technique, which I discussed in the episode “Learn Law Faster: The Feynman Technique.”
International Shoe v. Washington Example
Let’s try another example, this time using everybody’s favorite topic, civil procedure. You just read International Shoe v. Washington.
First questions: what is this case even about? How is it similar to Pennoyer v. Neff? How is it different from Pennoyer v. Neff?
Next questions: in real life, how does this case affect people? Do I still need personal jurisdiction after International Shoe?
More questions you could ask: what is personal jurisdiction? How does this case change personal jurisdiction?
See what we’re doing? We’re making multiple connections that will help you understand all the various aspects of the case.
So why do you even need to use this technique? The reason you need it is because you don’t know what you don’t know. You need a process to move beyond knowledge to comprehension. By creating those connections between different concepts, you won’t be fooled by some strange fact pattern on exam day. Your professor sees those connections and will test you on your ability to see those connections, not on your ability to memorize a rule statement.
Don’t misunderstand me; you still need to memorize the rules–I recommend the Leitner box flashcard method. But law school exams require you to move beyond memorization into analysis—the kind of analysis that is only possible if you truly understand the material. For an interesting article on how students learn, check out this article on how students learn. Also, if you need help, you may want to look into working with a law school tutor.
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