A Series of Unfortunate Events: Exam Survival Guide

So we’ve just progressed from the most wonderful time of the year…to (arguably) the least.

I should have revised earlier. What on earth is promissory estoppel? How am I going to get through this 30-page judgement without shedding a tear? Stack v Dowden who?

We’ve all been there.

One of the greatest lessons that I have learnt so far throughout my Law degree is that sometimes, and only sometimes, it pays off to work smart, not hard…ish. Exams fall under this exception.

While rewriting 750+ page textbooks on contract law may make you feel like you have accomplished something substantial, it will rarely help you in an exam situation (I learnt this mistake the hard way, my friends).

With that being said, my revision technique has changed drastically since starting my Law degree. In my first year, I found that I was putting in much more work than expected of me, but was simply not getting the same results. Each round of assessment feedback felt like a hurricane that came and whisked away all of my confidence within seconds. Once I finally rebuilt any shreds of confidence that I had left, they would soon shatter again with the next round of assessments. At one point, these hurricanes were beginning to earn themselves pretty notorious names: ‘Prisoner Voting’, ‘Secondary Liability’, and the worst one by far…’Problem Question on Pluto, Minnie and Mickey Mouse’.

Something needed to change.

Before I discuss how I adapted my revision methods to my degree, I would first like to emphasise one thing. Many students try to present themselves to law firms as the perfect candidate. I don’t blame them. After all, law is a notoriously competitive profession. It also comes to no surprise that strong academics (amongst other things, of course) are very important when applying to law firms. While the end result is what really counts, a lot of students tend to gloss over the process of how they achieved these grades. Writing a legal argument is not a skill that comes naturally (unless you are the reincarnation of Lord Denning, then I shall stand corrected). The modern rule of law and everything that follows it is man-made. It is OK to not get it right straight away.

The following revision methods have made an incredible difference to my grades and exam technique. I finally understand where I was going wrong, and have taken positive steps to correct this. More importantly, I am now confident enough in my technique to write this article to help others that are in the position that I was once in.

With that being said, here are a few methods that I have used to help me study during exam season.

Colour Coding Notes:

Prevention is always better than cure, right?

At some point in our degree, we all fall into the trap of making beautiful revision notes which would put Pinterest to shame. While they may look pretty, they would probably be more useful hung in the Saatchi Gallery than as a study tool.

Nevertheless, this doesn’t go to say that we should only create black-letter notes when studying black-letter law. Visual learners like myself still benefit from the odd dash of colour here and there, and a useful way to do this is to colour code notes.

I use this code across all of my written notes:

This system is really effective, but only if you stick to it. While remembering which colour to use can be a bit tedious at first, I assure you that it soon becomes second nature.

The greatest benefit of the colour coding system is that if you have notes on a particular topic and you want to quickly find a piece of information, you don’t even need to read the words on the page. All you have to do is scan the page for the colour that covers this particular piece of information and you will immediately find what you are looking for.

Here is an example of some seminar notes that I wrote for my Criminal Law seminar on property offences (theft, robbery, and burglary).

All image rights belong to According To A Law Student.

As you can see, all relevant legislation is highlighted in green, and the key information which I must know (exceptions) are highlighted in pink. Let’s say that I need a quick reminder of the statutory provision for the exception to the definition of appropriation (in relation to the offence of theft), all I need to do is scan the page for pink highlight to find the exception, and I will immediately find that it is codified in s.3(2) Theft Act 1968. Easy!

Taking it a step further…

Although my colour coding system is quite advanced, you can see that I have been very sparing with my highlighting. I have only highlighted the most important information. This is really important as it draws the fine line between a set of effective notes and a Picasso reinterpretation.

I also take preventative measures in my notes to help me with future assignments such as coursework or essay questions. As you can see, I write down page numbers in the margin for the most important information in case I need to revisit the source at a later point. It is also worth noting down the full citations of these sources. While this may seem a bit pedantic, believe me, it is a million times less time-consuming than later scrambling around my notes to find the name of a lost source and then having to rewrite the citation for a piece of coursework.

The Golden Document:

This is the foundation of my revision technique.

In short, this revision method consists of making ONE ‘cheat sheet’ document for every MODULE, with all the information that you need to know. In my case, I have 3 modules every semester. So, at the end of every semester I will have 3 documents which I revise from.

This revision method is perfect for neat freaks like myself. I personally do not like having flashcards and loose pages of notes lying around everywhere – I prefer to compartmentalise information and know exactly where I need to go to to find information on a particular topic.

However, if you are going to use this revision method then you must first ensure two things:

  1. You already have reliable and clear notes; AND
  2. You do this well ahead of the exam (on average, these documents usually take me about 2-3 days to complete).

It is crucial that you satisfy these requirements – especially the first one. This must be a source that you can rely on – it cannot have any ambiguities whatsoever as this would defeat the whole objective of this revision method.

How do I do this?

The process is simple: I go through my lecture/seminar notes, find the relevant information, and condense it into one document. I might occasionally read up on a few articles if there are any gaps in my knowledge or if my topic will come up as an essay question. The length of my documents range from 2-6 pages.

Here is a segment from my Contract Law document. This particular section is on the elements for formation of a valid contract.

(I am aware that for a valid contract you also need to establish an intention to be legally bound and certainty, but for the purposes of this example, I will leave this out).

  1. Short and bitesize segments of information. I try to keep to 3/4 of a page for each topic but this may depend on the type of examination and the topic itself.
  2. Clear boundaries between topics.
  3. Repetitive structure. Note how in the ‘offer’ section, I started with the definition of an offer and the main rules for the creation of a valid offer. I have repeated this structure in the following sections. This is not necessary, but it can sometimes help to piece separate elements back together.
  4. Additional comments to provide an extra layer of knowledge and understanding.
  5. I occasionally include graphics/images to help me remember key information.

Taking it a step further…

As a trainee, you will often be required to do research tasks for your supervisor. This means being able to sieve through large volumes of information and retrieve only the most relevant and important details. Creating a revision document is a fantastic way of developing this skill!

Another advantage of this revision method is that you can easily personalise it to fit your preferred way of learning. I personally learn best by breaking down a dense topic into small fragments. Therefore, I will reflect this in my cheat sheet. On the other hand, you may find it better to group various elements together, and can also reflect this in the structure of your document.

You can also tailor your cheat sheets according to the type of exam that you will be sitting. For example, my Contract Law exam is 100% problem questions. As a result, I do not need to put as much emphasis on academic opinion and the debates surrounding the topics as I am mainly being assessed on my ability to apply the law. If my exam included an essay, then I would add further information including problems with the current law, academic and judicial opinion, and options for reform. However, this does not go to say that you should not bother looking at additional information if you have a problem question based exam. Academic and judicial opinion can elevate any answer if used correctly!

Finding Twin Cases:

This is a tip that I took from my Contract Law lecturer.

Putting it simply, this method consists of putting two cases together to prove a point. They could support each other, or more interestingly, they could conflict.

A key part of writing a legal essay is having an authority. The more authority your arguments have, the stronger your essay will be. Remembering twin cases will always give you ample authority when making an argument.

Here is an example of twin cases that support each other:

  • Chapelton v Barry Urban District Council [1940] 1 KB 532
  • Thornton v Shoe Lane Parking Ltd [1970] EWCA Civ 2

Both cases concerned the invalid incorporation of exclusion clauses, mutually agreeing on the general principle that the party seeking to rely on the exclusion clause must give the other party notice of the clause before or at the time of contracting for it to be validly incorporated into the contract.

Now, here is an example of twin cases that conflict each other:

  • Bell v Lever Brothers Ltd [1931] UKHL 2
  • Solle v Butcher [1950] 1 KB 671

The House of Lords (now Supreme Court) in Bell held that common mistake can only render a contract void if the mistake concerns ‘an essential and integral element of the subject matter’ of the contract. In contrast, the Court of Appeal in Solle found that mistake can also render a contract voidable in equity. This has caused a heated debate amongst academics and the courts as to whether Solle challenged Bell, or whether the Denning case was simply an extension of the doctrine of mistake. Judicial precedent is also an issue here.

Taking it a step further…

You could also apply this method to academics or judges. For the latter option, it is always interesting to compare dissenting judgments to those of the majority.

Knowing the Debates:

A Law degree is all about learning how to debate.

There is no point learning about a topic if you do not know why you are learning it. Your lecturers do not just cover topics for the sake of it. More often than not, they will cover topics that pose room for discussion and debate. Learn these debates.

At some point in our academic journey, we have all tried to revise ‘strategically’ by playing guessing games about which topics are most likely to come up. This rarely pays off. However, if you learn themes and areas of debate, then this will give you a much better understanding of the topic and you are more likely to provide a better answer. Here is an example of the difference between the two approaches:

Example of revising topics:I am just going to learn about common assault because it came up in the earlier papers so I doubt that we will be expected to know anything else about the OAPA 1861 offences’.

By taking this view, you are narrowly limiting the potential scope of your essay. At most, this approach will allow you to state the law and briefly apply it to the facts…and that’s if you are lucky enough to get a question about common assault!

Example of revising a debate:I am going to learn about why the Offences Against the Persons Act 1861 is widely considered to be outdated and the possible options for reform.

This approach allows much more room for debate. Not only can you state the law and apply it to the facts, but you are also able to discuss why the law is the way it is and whether you agree with it. This will take the depth of your answer a step further.

Knowing the themes and debates that run through particular topics also make it much easier to adapt your knowledge to fit the question. For example, let’s take a big debate in equity: whether judges have too much discretion when awarding equitable remedies. By taking the former approach, you may decide to only revise the bounds of judicial discretion in specific performance because it came up in a previous exam. However, what if the question asked you about the bounds of judicial discretion in the context of injunctions? More importantly, what if the question asked you to look at this debate across the context of equitable remedies as a whole? Would you really be able to answer this question to the level of detail that is expected of you? Probably not. On the other hand, if you look at the issue holistically, you will be able to find patterns which are easily transferrable across a range of questions on the same topic.

Taking it a step further…

Another tip that I have found useful when looking at past exam questions is to formulate an opinion on the debate before the exam. The best way to achieve this method is by reading academic articles. A published academic article will always have an argument. That’s the point of them.

Not only will having an opinion give you a better sense of navigation when reading through articles, but it will also save you time in the exam as you will already know what your argument will be and have concrete evidence to support it.

The Final Words:

Before I leave you to wallow in slightly less self-pity than you did before you read this article, I’d like to remind you to stay positive during exam season. Learning is simply part of the process.

Stack v Dowden? Completed it mate.

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