It’s that time of year again — holiday shopping, festive dinners with family and friends, relaxing in front of a toasty fire. But you’re stuck in the library, furiously studying for those dreaded exams.
Law professor Elizabeth Edinger from the University of British Columbia explains that students are well aware that an exam will be a large part of the course.
“They know they’re going to be writing exams on the first day of classes,” she says. “[They need to] know the subject well.”
Knowing and learning the subject begins in class. Professor Angela Cameron at the University of Ottawa Faculty of Law says preparation for an exam begins when the semester does.
“They should come to class,” she says. “You could give 16 professors the same set of materials and we’ll all come up with a different set of emphasis, a different set of interpretations, so that’s important.”
Professor David Lametti at McGill University claims that simply being present in class isn’t enough. “The single best piece of advice that I give to students is to be mentally present in class,” he says. “The best way to study for an exam is to be constantly following the class, participating if one is so inclined — or required. But even if not, they’ve got to be thinking along.”
When taking notes, the professors agreed that copying what your professor says verbatim isn’t always the best approach. “I like note-taking methods that aren’t verbatim,” Lametti says. “I think students need to process as they’re taking notes.”
Professor David Blaikie at the Schulich School of Law in Halifax adds that paying attention in class helps you understand more than you would if you took stringent notes.
“You’ve got to listen to what’s going on in class and not capture every word, but capture the essence,” he says. “And stay away from the Internet! It’s a prayer that falls on deaf ears.”
However, Cameron says a student’s personal note-taking style is very important.
“I’ve seen students come into an exam with two pieces of looseleaf [paper] with handwriting on it and others come in with a 100-page set of typed-up summaries,” she laughs. “I think whatever works best for you.”
Using those notes all semester long will also come in handy when exams roll around. Blaikie and Cameron agree that studying should be a semester-long event.
“They should . . . be studying all along [and] not get too far behind, stay on top of things,” says Blaikie.
Cameron adds, “In terms of trying to get a picture or see how the whole course knits together, I’d say a minimum of three weeks before [the exam].”
Study groups can also be a powerful tool — if that’s your style.
“Study groups can be a fantastic thing, as long as you’re actually studying,” says Cameron.
“Some people seem to benefit from talking in a group,” Blaikie adds. “At some point, even in a group, you need to study alone to think of things for yourself.”
“The best way to practise for an exam is to understand the primary material on the reading list, which is usually cases,” says Edinger. “They have to get the big picture as well as the details.”
Students need to keep up and go to class, says Lametti.
“They need to reprocess the work on their own . . . digest the material, rethink it, analyze it, and take your own position on it.”
As Blaikie says about his torts students: “They have a pretty good idea of what’s going to be on the exam, so think beforehand how they’re going to answer that question.
“They already know what law they have to apply, just not the facts.”
Cameron explains the value of practising on past exams, which are often available at the law school library or through your law student society. She also emphasizes the importance of keeping your mind in shape.
“They’ll do better if they sleep and eat and exercise,” she says. “Be ready for the physical and mental exertion that they’ll be going through during the exam. So just take care of yourself as much as possible.”
In the end, students each have a study habit that personally works for them. Lametti says since law students have already earned a degree, they often know the study method that best works for them.
“Whatever [study habits] worked to get somebody into law school will usually work once they’re here.”