How to Revise for a Law Exam
Just before the exams started, I mentioned that I might release a revision-method type post. I so often make these promises of posts which never subsequently appear so thought I’d make good on my intentions for once. I realise the exam season is pretty much over for everyone now, but I guess it might be of interest to procrastinating students next year looking for inspiration or a boost of motivation. I’m not sure this post will provide either, but the revision method I outline just might be of interest.
Way back during my A-levels, I discovered a method for revising which worked fairly well and which I’ve gone on to tweak over the past few years. I feel I’ve graduated to a revision system which works well for me, though I realise everyone is different. From personal experience, I think many students’ approach to revision is, to put it mildly, less than optimal, though I recognise that we all learn in different ways. Ultimately, though, your method needs to work well for you – and if it does so, who am I to suggest something else? That said, it doesn’t hurt to mix things up occasionally and to try a different approach; what works for me might work well for you also.
I think one of the biggest mistakes students make is to start learning the material before they’ve got a damn good set of consolidated notes. The fact that creating those notes is actually an effective means of ‘breaking you into’ the revision process is an added bonus. Taking your time at this stage can reap huge dividends later on.
The basic objective here is to know the topic backwards - literally. That way, coupled with an effective plan in the exam, you are well placed to answer virtually any essay or problem based question on the topic at hand.
In essence, I create a list of structured points, which form the basis of my revision notes. The order is crucial and spending a fairly long time on perfecting those notes is time very well spent. If the exam is open book, think about using the natural structure of the casebook as a pointer for the order of the notes. When under the pressure of an exam, this might just save your skin and anything which means you worry less about the order of the material has got to be good – particularly when pulling out the relevant content for answering a problem question. The idea is simple: you then learn those notes inside out, being able to dip into them at any point, picking out the relevant parts for a problem question or being able to follow it through coherently for discursive essay question.
I’ve always referred to these notes as ‘hardcore notes’ – and please, don’t look at me like that! The ‘Key Facts’ books published by Hodder Education form an excellent structure for hardcore notes; in fact, for many of my subjects I used those as the basis which I complimented with my own notes. The better organised you are throughout the year, the easier it is to compliment the structured notes with your own content, of course.
Each point is usually supported by authority. Connecting case names to a particular legal principle is one of the more fun parts of the revision process where you can inject some creativity into what is often a boring and monotonous process. For instance, if there is a batch of successive cases and associated principles connected with a sub-topic, using mnemonics and the like can help recall the order.
Certain content lends itself to being tabulated and doing so adds structure around a sub-topic that can aid in recalling it. For instance, I tabulated the legal principles regarding fraudulent and wrongful trading for my recent company law exam and assigned a distinctive colour to each.
Certain legal topics are just killers and incredibly dry – I’m thinking back to contract law in my first year and property law, and equity and trusts, in my last. I found the only way to conquer them was to brute-force the facts into my brain. And the emphasis really is on force here; as Nigella Lawson might say, ‘this is no time for restraint’. The first step in this process involves writing out the hardcore notes by hand and then, taking it section by section, regurgitating it from memory –either through writing and/or repeating them orally. Of course, it’s crucial to pay careful attention to the order. Then, it’s a question of repeating, repeating, repeating. It’s not a method for a faint-hearted: I would go through several hundred pages of A4 paper over the course of the revision process, scrawling out regurgitated content. But seriously, once you get going, it’s not as hard as you might think. Doing so much writing has other benefits too: as you recall the facts faster as the process wears on, you find yourself writing faster – excellent practice for those impending exams. I also feel that it strengthens the writing muscles, meaning you don’t succumb to the dreaded ‘writer’s cramp’ as easily.
To spice things up, I would also practice writing the content out from memory on computer. Later on when you really know your stuff, I found it useful to brainstorm the material, using A3 sheets. I found a white board and dry wipe markers particularly efficient for this, and far less wasteful. I have even created powerpoint presentations on the material I’ve been revising. Quite how you do it doesn’t matter, but the more time you spend immersed in the material and practice reciting it in various ways, the better and more comfortable you will feel applying it in the context of an exam. I have, on occasions, even resorted to pacing around the house recalling it orally from memory. Others I know record the material and listen to it repeatedly. I never found this worked well for me as my brain tended to switch off far too easily.
In addition, I create gap-fill tests as another means of learning the material – even creating the template is a good learning experience. I found this an excellent way of learning the basic order of the notes early on in the process. Finally, as you are nearing the end of the revision process, applying the knowledge you now know very well in practicing past papers is an excellent means of final preparation – providing you don’t get too hung up on the specifics of the question in hand.
Revising the Revision Process
My hardcore notes started out at about 2.5 pages, Times New Roman, 12 point font. Over the years, they were becoming progressively longer – Company Law, Directors’ Duties weighed in at a heavy 7 and a bit pages with a ‘narrow’ margin. Back in 2005/2006 I found the need to consolidate the hardcore notes down in further by making a flowchart printed in landscape mode, in even more succinct language. This serves as a useful exercise in condensing the material down – an excellent means of revising. Making good use of colour at this stage can better improve your chances of recalling the material quickly and accurately in an exam by helping to focus your mind’s eye in recollecting the content on the page. Practicing recalling the content of the flowcharts can be done in writing, orally or through roping a friend into testing you. The flowchart makes this possible as you’re just following simple points on a list but the knowledge is in your head to expand on any point if called to do so in the exam. Don’t try thrusting the hardcore notes in front of them and asking them to test you; I think we’ve all had experience at some point in our academic lives where you’ve roped some poor soul into ‘testing’ you who hasn’t the foggiest of what they’re doing and end up pulling you up if you get a mere word out of place or for explaining something which doesn’t match verbatim what s/he has on the sheet in front of them. A very frustrating experience – for both parties involved.
The flowchart is perfect for ramming the order of the material firmly into your brain – which is so crucial in answering a question in a law exam. You know the general content of the hardcore notes by this point to be able to expand sufficiently on any principle, but with so much material floating around in your head, the flowchart helps to make more sense of the overall structure. I always make sure I stick to the same means of ordering the material in the flowchart – usually left to right rather than clockwise as this makes the structure more fluent if it is (as it almost certainly will be) spread across more than one page.
Generally when revising – by which I mean actually recalling the material - I would always work through a topic to completion rather than setting myself 50 minute chunks of work-time and the like. Whether it’s a perception thing or otherwise, I always seemed much more productive that way.
So there it is: my technique when it comes to law exams and revision. It works for me and works well but it doesn’t come with guarantees. It was good enough to get me a A’s at A level and a First for my LLB but hey, what do I know? Some people revise through postcards or post-it notes stuck on their walls – I’ve always found that a little too much of a ‘soft touch’ approach for my tastes. My technique calls for dedication in spades but then it yields worthwhile results too.
Knowing the topic so well also means you are far less likely to have revised it but avoided answering it in the exam because you ‘didn’t like the look of it’. Using this method as an undergrad and postgrad, I have never prepared for a subject and then not answered it in the exam.
Revision group work can be useful, when used in moderation and at the right stage. In my experience, it should be used quite late on, close to the exams when you know your stuff and you can effectively test each other and straighten out the one or two remaining queries. But the bulk of the work should be done and dusted by then as group sessions can so easily turn into an excuse just to ‘catch up’ socially and wind up being totally unproductive. And a word to the wise: it’s time to socially shun the guy who utters late on in the game, “uhh, I haven’t started revising yet”.