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How to prepare for law exams

This prezi is designed to give you some hints and tips for how to prepare for law exams. It's primarily aimed at those who have not done law exams at university before, but it should contain some useful advice for all law students.

Steven Vaughan

on 18 October 2017

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Transcript of How to prepare for law exams

Dr Steven Vaughan - UCL Faculty of Laws
How to prepare for law exams
This Prezi
Keeping Positive and Coping with Stress
This prezi is designed to give you some advice on how to prepare for law exams. It's particularly aimed at those who have never sat law exams at university before, but it should be helpful to all law students.
Some of your teachers/tutors/lecturers/professors might not like some of this advice. But what I say I say because I know you and I know what the vast majority of you will and won't do when it comes to exam preparation.
I would love to think of you preparing for your exams during the Christmas vacation. But I realise that this is simply not the case for many of you. And I realise that many of you start your preparation for the summer exams once your spring teaching is over and done with. That is, most of you use the Easter vacation for exam preparation. What this means then is that you have limited time in which to get ready. So make a plan.
Make a plan.
Take Topic X in Unit Y. As a starting point, write down every case referred to in your lectures on Topic X and in your reading list for the Topic X tutorial. These are your key cases and must be in your answers.
Once you have a list of cases, put them into order/arrange them. You might break them down into mini-topics or you might put them in date order. Some people like to use mind maps - here's an example of a mind map I made for Contract when I was 18
What to do with Cases, Statutes
and Academics
By this point, you have caught up on what you missed during term, you’ve been active in your summarisation of the law/notes creation and you know what common mistakes people have made in the past. Now you need to practice. Look at your summarised notes and try to get Topic Z in your head. Then, open a past exam paper for the Topic Z unit and find the question on Topic Z. Then answer it in exam conditions. By this, I mean: no notes, in 45 minutes (or however long you will have - 1 hour, 50 mins etc - in the real exam per question), handwritten. Be ruthless with your time keeping and only allow yourself 45 minutes/the set amount of time. Once the time is up, put your pen down and walk away.
Practice Makes Perfect. Or Close to Perfect.
I have found over the years that law students expect a lot of and from themselves. As a consequence of this, many law students suffer from serious stress and anxiety: about their performance, about their exams, about how ‘good’ they are compared to other students.
The Shoulders of Giants
Start from a position of strength
When I was a student, I often found that I didn't have enough time to be perfectly prepared for tutorials or seminars. There are many reasons for this (some better than others...)
So, before you dive into "revision" (note the "re"), make sure you are starting from a position of strength. Work out what you are going to revise (see the next tip) and then make a list of what you didn't have time to do from the reading lists during term. Then do the extra reading. The caveat here is that you shouldn't spend all of your preparation time doing stuff you should have done months and months ago. There is a sensible, zen like balance to be achieved. I'll talk to you later in this Prezi about time management and making plans.
What topics to do?
In a perfect world, as a teacher, I would love you to prepare every topic we have covered for the exam. I would love you to know each topic inside and out. And I would love you to be able to see that law is not about boxes or discrete issues, but is polycentric, overlaps within and without units/modules and is complicated and amazingly fabulous. But this is not a perfect world. And I know that, in the real world, many/most/all? of you limit the number of topics you revise for each exam. So, given you are going to choose no matter what I say to you, how do you choose?
Make two lists. The first list should be every topic you have studied in the unit/module. In some subjects/at some universities, teachers like to blend two or more topics together in one exam question. Other people/in other places, topics are assessed on a discrete basis. If this isn't immediately obvious to you (have you ever read your module/unit handbook? No? I didn't think so...), then ask your teachers. From this first list, highlight those topics you liked/understood best.
Then go and look at past exam papers for the subject. Look at how the exam is structured - some might be only essay questions, some might be a mix of essay and problem questions, some might make you do so many essays and so many PQs etc. There are a whole variety of approaches, but you should know (before you start 'revision') what your exam is going to look like. You will have heard the term 'question spotting' -
This is risky, because the law and examiners and exams change. But you might still discern some sorts of patterns (ish) from past papers. When I was a student, I would then make lists of what I thought might come up on the exam. I would do this by (a) looking at past papers and (b) (and this is MUCH more important/useful) by looking at what I had been taught and how I had been taught it. Let me give you a real life example. In Company Law, we study what's known as "veil piercing", when the rights and liabilities of a company are treated as if they are the rights and liabilities of the shareholders in the company. The tutorial for this topic is spent EXCLUSIVELY working through a problem question. Then, for their formative, my students had another, different PQ on veil piercing. Given this, how likely/fair do you think it would be for me to give them a veil piercing essay question in the exam?
"Oh, defamation is always a problem question, so it will totes DEFINITELY be a PQ this year".
Ok, so now you have two lists. One list of the topics you have studied, with those you liked/understood highlighted. And another list (which is based on supposition) on how you think the exam might look. You then need to marry the two lists together and decide exactly what you are going to revise. There is a big risk here. Let me tell you a true story.
I was 21 and sat in an exam hall for my EU Law paper.
I had studied 7 topics, but had decided that I would only revise
4 of them as I didn't like/understand the others. I had to answer 4 out of 7 questions on the exam. I opened my EU Law paper and I cried. I actually cried. 3 of my topics had "come up" - that is, there were questions on them and I knew what the questions wanted and I could answer them. The 4th topic wasn't here. Or, if it was there, I couldn't work out what it was in the heat/panic/stress of the exam. So I wrote 3 very good answers. And then 1 TOTALLY RUBBISH answer to a question where I remembered very little indeed about the topic. And then I cried some more when I put my pen down. Not good. Please don't find yourselves in this situation with your own exams.
So, to sum up this bit. I know that many/most/all(?) of you will not, in the real world, study every single topic that is on the unit/module. I realise you will choose. My advice to you is simply this: be careful about what you do and don't choose. I can't tell you how many topics is the safe or magic number, but from my own, very painful EU Law experience, I don't think 4 out of 7 is enough.
The purpose of a plan is to set out how much time you have, what you need to get done and when you are going to do it. Yes, yes, I know this sounds basic, but really effective time management is hard to do. Count backwards from the start of the exam period and work out how many days you have. Then list how many exams you have and allocate the days accordingly. My own brain works best when it does little bits of different things on the same day - so my own finals preparation plan had me doing bits of 4 or 5 different units/modules on each day. But your brain and your approach to learning may be different.
I saw one of my personal tutees last week. They told me they were planning on doing 14 hours of "revision" every day over the holidays. This is NOT possible. Or, it's possible, but it won't be very good. For you. For your health. Or for your exam preparation. Give yourselves plenty of scheduled breaks and be reflective about when you work best - are you the sort of person who would be great starting work at 7am or the sort of person who does most late in the evenings?
You might want to split your preparation plan, for each subject, into: (a) catch up time (that is, time spent catching up on lost work; (b) further, independent research time (really important if you want to do well); (c) 'working with my notes time' (see the next tip); and (d) practice writing time (see later).
Finally, a plan is meant to help you. It's meant to let you allocate your time efficiently. It's not meant to be a heavy weight around your neck. If you go off-plan, don’t beat yourself up. Try and stick to it as best as possible but accept you might stray from time to time. There are enough stresses associated with exams to not let "failing to keep to plan stress" stress you out.
What Revision Should Not Be
My eldest niece is 21 and studied Spanish at Sheffield University. She tells me she revises by looking at her tutorial notes. And then by looking at them some more. I ask her if she has some special magical ability for how they stay in her head and how they then translate into good answers. She then gives me a funny/sarcastic look... So, whatever you do, do not do this: stare at your notes and hope they go into your head, stare at them some more and see if you “remember” them. This is the path to failure.
The only (note: ONLY) way to revise well at university is to be active. What I mean by this is that you have to ‘do’ things to get law into your head properly. Don’t be a passive learner. I put some suggestions later on in this Prezi as to what you might do to be active rather than passive. This website also has some really helpful suggestions too:

Whatever you do, be active. Draw flowcharts, diagrams, mind maps, create tables, produce revision cards, do definition charts etc. Once you have done this active preparation in relation to cases, you should do the same for relevant statutes and academics.
Getting the inside info
Many universities produce things called unit reports/module reports/exam feedback reports etc etc. They had them at Oxford when I was at Oxford. And we have them at Bristol. They all do the same thing, whatever their name. They are a summary, by the people who wrote and marked the exam, of common mistakes made by students on past papers and areas where they could have improved. If your university does this sort of thing, then get those reports and DEVOUR them. Make a list of common mistakes. And then don't make them. All teachers know that students make the same silly errors, year in, year out.
If your university or law school does not produce these reports, politely ask your teachers if they would mind giving you a list or telling you of common mistakes made by students. Some of these will be skills based (and I will come on to those later) and some will subject based ("Students never have enough in depth knowledge of the decision of Slade LJ in Adams v Cape").
Some time later, come back to your answer with the marking criteria for your degree programme. You should know how to find these (I am certain your teachers have told you about them/referred you to them many, many times) - if not, politely ask someone. Marking criteria are, as the name would suggest, the criteria we use when we mark your work. It's important you know what they say so that, for example, you walk into the exam with a solid sense of the difference between a 2:2 and a 2:1 answer. Once you have the marking criteria and you know what they say, read what you have produced and mark your work. Be realistic and not overly harsh on yourself. Or, get a friend and ask them to mark it for you. Don't expect to be amazing first time. Preparing for exams is an iterative process. Or, in new age speak, it's a "journey"...
Once you have marked your answer, bring out your notes and then make two lists. The first list is everything “law based” that you missed out (cases, statutes, academics). The second list is everything “skills based” that you need to improve on (structure, argument, clarity, signposting, citations etc). On the skills front, you might want to go over these two prezis that I have produced. One is advice on how to answer problem questions. The other is advice on how to write better law essays.


And then repeat. And then repeat some more. This process will take a good chunk of time. But it’s the best way to revise and prepare for exams. Do one answer in exam conditions. Come back and look at it and work out how to improve it. Then revise another topic and do another answer. Then come back and look at it and work out how to improve it. Then go back to the first topic and do another timed answer (and hopefully this will be better than the first attempt). Etc. Etc
What I think about essay plans
Lots of you like to do essay plans. And they can be a great way for thinking about a topic and for how it is ordered and for how to be structured about approaching essay questions. They're great and they are better than nothing if you do have very limited time to prepare, but they’re no way near as good as the ‘real thing’ (doing past exam questions in exam conditions) in terms of preparation.
Another way (in addition to, not in place of, practice answers) to prepare for exams and to improve is to look at what others have done. Chapters 19-21 of Letters to a Law Student have sample essays and problem questions with comments from Nick McBride, the author. I totally *heart* this book and it's fantastic for lots of different things on your law degree.
We get you to do formative work (work during the course that doesn't 'count' towards your final grade) because we want you to learn about how you can improve. So, as part of your preparation, get out EVERY SINGLE piece of formative work you have ever done and make a list of the ways in which you can do better. I bet many of these things are common to many students and across multiple pieces of work: (i) not enough use of authority; (ii) description rather than evaluation or analysis etc etc.
Other useful things to look at
Some teachers, for some subjects, share examples of student work. So, I show my Company Law students (via their online learning environment) three, anonymised student essays with my detailed comments on them. If you have these sorts of materials available to you, go look at them.
You might also want to look at a series of books called Q&A by Oxford University Press which are collections of full, written up essay question and problem question answers in almost every unit that you study:

But let me clear about these books. I am not saying that they should be your guide or that their answers should be your goal. But if you want to see some examples of how written up PQs and essays look, then they’re good for that. Also, some of their chapters are freely available as samples on the OUP website.
The first thing I would say to you is that you need to approach your preparation/revision and your exams with a level of positivity. If you say to yourself, “I can’t do this”, you won’t do it. If you say, “I am totally capable of doing well in these exams and I will see them as a really valuable learning experience”, that level of positivity will reverberate inside your head.
The second thing is that if you are feeling stressed, talk to someone: other students, your family, loved ones, friends. Don’t hide yourself away. The following NHS website might be a good source of tips for coping with stress. Your university will also have people either in the Law School (personal tutors, student support people etc) or elsewhere who will be happy to listen to you and offer advice.

And finally...
Please try and remember that you are studying law. You are not in "Hunger Games". Having a friend to prepare for exams with will make your life so much more pleasant. They will see things that you do not see. They will understand things you do not understand. And vice versa. And you will be able to share the pain and the joy together. If at all possible, don't prep alone.
Ok, that's it from me. Good luck with the exams!
You also need to decide what you "think". This might sound like an odd thing to say. Because of the complex and contested nature of lots of the laws that we study, there are many debates to be had. And students often let themselves down by not knowing what they think about those debates (either before, during or after their exams). So, for every topic you look at, ask yourself: what is the big question here and what do I think about it? For example, is the contaminated land regime ineffective because of low use by regulators? And, if so, why? By having your own voice, your own opinions come out in your answers, you will look very sophisted.
Finally (finally), have an anthem. Have a song or piece of music that lifts your spirits and energises you. Find something that you can play repeatedly and which will make you happy even when you are really not very happy at all. Here's the one I had for my finals - ah, the summer of 2002...
Destiny's Child had it sorted:

"It's amazing how we don't appreciate our blessings
There's plenty of people who don't like me
But since there are more who love me and I love myself
Sometimes, it gets tough, it gets tough
But I can't give up, can't give up
Just take a deep breath, close my eyes
Feel the love and give a smile..."
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