If you are a law student, the chances of you not writing an exam are very minuscule – to succeed in a law degree most universities favour testing their students through coursework, projects/presentations, and exams. In the UK and beyond, taking exams is heavily favoured by universities. I remember in my first year at uni on a 3-year course, I did not look forward to exams, I dreaded taking exams, and I did not do too well. I remember taking two exams and getting a 2:2 and a 2:1 in them. Funny enough, I was fine with those scores. Then something changed during the last quarter of the first year. I got consistent 2:1s. In my second year [as is the usual standard of a British university] we had 4 modules, of which three of them had two exams – the mock and the real one. I got a first-class in each of the three modules’ exams, both the mock and the real one. Through trials and errors, I discovered how to revise and succeed exceptionally in law exams. To show this was no fluke, in my third year, I repeated the same feat – I achieved a first-class in each exam I took; finishing with 8 first classes (I also got first class in modules that had no exams). So am I qualified to give you a bit of wisdom? Yes, you can bet your pound or dollar or whatever currency you may want. So what do you do if you have an exam? How do you revise? Do you want to succeed in your exams? Read on
Step 1 – Divide and Conquer
A lot of the time people don’t revise properly because the law modules may have quite a few topics which may seem overwhelming! In most universities in Britain, the modules are structured in a way that you will be assessed via various methods of assessment: it might be a combination of exams and coursework, or group work project/presentation and exam; it could be project/report and exams, or a combination of all. Whichever way you look at it, most tutors will not set the same topic that they gave you in a different method of assessment in your exam.
Since they are trying to test you on different areas of the module, it makes sense that in each method of assessment, many topics are given to you to see you grapple with them. For example, if you were given coursework that dealt with actus defence, your exam might be on defence available to a crime.
So if we have that in mind, then the first step when facing an exam is to rule out the topics you have been tested on through other modes of assessment. However, you should be careful when applying it to topics that are meshed together. This is what it might look like in real life. Let’s say you have been given 10 topics in a year, you have been tested on two or three through other methods. Going by this step, you will rule out those three topics. You are then left with seven topics. You have divided. But you might say there is still a lot to cover, and I’ll say there is a further part to this step. Way before a law exam – if you have taken one already – you will notice that the amount of questions you will face is released by the module/university. So let’s say that you have seven topics remaining, with you facing five questions, and required to answer three. This is what I suggest you do (what I did for two years plus).
Out of those seven topics, pick five and study in-depth. Let’s do the calculations: if there are seven topics and you get tested on 5 (questions) and you have to answer three, it means that only three topics matter. You won’t study only three topics because you don’t know which ones will come out, so you pick 5.
Why five? When there’s five, you have picked, leaving two, and per adventure those two that you did not study come out, you’ll still have three to fall back on when the chips are down. I have had exams where all the topics I studied came out. Remember I said in the last quarter of the first year something changed. This trick was one of them. I remember my contract law lecturer making this point in lectures. I was sceptical, but I ran with it and it worked.
Step 2 – Prepare/Study
Even if you do not take the first step stated in this blog, you can still excel in your exams if you start preparing on time. There are various tricks to effective studying. After you have been taught a topic in class, try to make out time to revise that topic soon after. I advocate getting a notebook that you will use to revise each topic you are taught until you have finished the module. It’s also important you make notes in this notebook, not just depending on the module handbook.
Go beyond the module handbook, read a textbook and then rephrase what you were taught and you have learnt in your own words, then write those words in your revision notebook; remember to apply the knowledge to test questions before you can be satisfied that you are done with the topic.
The beauty of this technique is that when the exam is around the corner all you have to do is reach for that notebook and go through it, making your revision easier. The other way of revising each topic is to take this same step, but closer to the exam – this was the one I preferred, as I felt whatever I put down was still fresh in my memory. So, maybe three weeks of exams or a month depending on how much time you can dedicate to the cause, you get a revision notebook for each module and study all those topics, going through textbooks, doing test questions before you move on.
Step 3 – Authorities
As a law student, you’re probably aware that in law a lawyer’s argument hinges on authority. Are there precedents, statutes and various laws he can call on to back his argument? Bearing this in mind, tutors want to see authorities: case law, statutes, regulations and the like. Case law in particular is the crowning jewel of a good exam answer, and the more the caselaw the merrier.
Thus, I advocate that for each topic you have studied following the step 2 principle you have a few cases to back each point. For example, using the defence of a crime, you could have 2 cases for each defence.
Do I hear you groaning ‘oh no I have to remember the dates’? The general rule for exams is that when putting down case law, the dates do not matter as they would have if you were submitting coursework. Feel free to ask your tutor about their position on this matter.
Step 4: Choose Your Strength
A typical law exam will contain problem questions and essay questions. Problem questions you are given a scenario with the expectation that you apply the law (topic) on the scenario to arrive at your answer. While in essay questions, you are given a topic and told to do something about it, such as, discuss, evaluate, compare and contrast, give the history, and so on and so forth. You might not have thought about it, but you may prefer dealing with a straightforward essay question, while others may revel in applying themselves to problem questions. Either way, it is advisable that when studying for your exams, while harnessing your strength, whether it’s problems or essay questions, you also test your weakness. Bringing us to the final part – practising previous exam questions.
Step Five – Do Past Questions
For each topic, you study, attempt past questions, at least one problem question and one essay question – or whatever amount you feel, will make you confident. Sometimes your exam question will bear a close resemblance to a previous exam question. It’s my belief that when setting exam questions, tutors go through past questions to get an idea of what they will test you on. Don’t forget to score yourself for each question you test yourself on. With time, you’ll notice great progress fueling confidence.
Now you have taken these steps, you have every right to feel confident on your exam day. What’s the worst that could happen? When you have studied for the topics that will come out, you started on time, you also have authority to back your answers, and you have tested yourself on your strengths and weaknesses. Nothing bad can happen apart from you succeeding. So go smash your exams.
Charles is a writer, practising lawyer and personal trainer who loves learning and developing himself. He graduated from Middlesex University, London with eight first-class grades in the second and third years of his law degree, and received a postgraduate offer from Cambridge University. He loves strength training, boxing and encouraging people to succeed in their pursuits (legal ones)
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