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The art of studying

|Written By Mark Cardwell
The art of studying

When he was a student a decade ago at the law school where he now teaches, Dalhousie assistant professor Graham Reynolds says his favourite place to study was the library at Dal-affiliated King’s College. “I loved the big tables and the natural light there,” he recalls in a recent phone interview from his campus office in Halifax. “And sometimes it was fun to be around other people.”

He adds, however, that studying effectively in such a busy public place required the ability to shut out ambient noises. That wasn’t a problem for Reynolds, a Winnipeg native who went on to do graduate work at the University of Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship and a clerkship with Chief Justice Lance Finch of the British Columbia Court of Appeal before being called to the bar and joining his alma mater as a faculty member in 2008. Shutting out noise was a challenge for other students, however, like the one Reynolds says always wore giant yellow headphones around the library. “To me that seemed a bit extreme, but studying is such a personal thing. You have to do whatever it is that works best for you.”

Having a good place to study is just one of a potpourri of study tips and strategies law professors and students from across Canada say have helped them prepare for — and in many cases ace — any and all law school exams.

Erin Smith, a top student who graduated in 2012 from Queen’s University Faculty of Law and swept every major academic and achievement award during her time there, believes the essential and key element in the art of studying is rigorous planning. “Begin with an end in mind,” she says from Regina, where she is serving as a judicial law clerk for the Saskatchewan Court of Appeal this year — and the Supreme Court of Canada next year. “Your goal shouldn’t be to make the best summary of your notes, but rather to create the best tool.”

In fact patterns, for example, Smith suggests focusing on crime. “When you finish each section ask yourself the question, ‘Are these notes going to help me to quickly and concisely answer the question?’” She also recommends practising with old exams, which she qualifies as “the best study aids possible.”

To better manage time and sleep, Smith advocates the use of detailed study schedules. “In pencil,” she adds, “because for sure you’ll be making a lot of changes.” She notably divides designated study days into three parts — morning, noon, and night — that are separated by two, two-hour breaks for lunch and dinner, and to see friends and hit the gym. “Law is complicated and understanding is needed,” says Smith. “You’re not very productive or absorbed when you’re forcing yourself to work constantly.”

As for places to study, Smith prefers being at home during exam periods. In the weeks beforehand, however, she enjoys the dynamics of study groups. Second-year University of Toronto law student Sierra Yates Robart is also a fan of study groups — depending on the subject. “They can be a great tool, depending on the subject and the timing and the people involved,” she says.

Robart credits the study and writing skills she honed as an undergraduate in the social sciences — notably history and philosophy — for making the transition to a law school workload easier than she’d imagined. “The biggest challenge has been time management,” she says. “You reach a point when you need to focus on what you can do rather than what you want to do.”

Though she believes hard work is essential, Robart, who is now mentoring a first-year student, recommends being open to trying new ideas and approaches to studying. “You have to keep doing the good things that got you this far, but you can’t sit on your laurels.”

Reynolds, who considers studying and exam writing to be specific sets of skills that require lots of thought, reading, and doing, agrees. “For a lot of students, law school is the first time in their lives they are really intellectually challenged,” he says. “Putting together a paper at the last minute doesn’t cut it anymore.”

In addition to reviewing notes constantly during terms, Reynolds recommends law students sit down a month before exams in December and April and begin setting aside mornings and afternoons to study. “You need to take the time to know where you are and what you need help with. Don’t wait until two weeks before your exams to find out. Being prepared in advance relieves a lot of the anxiety.”

Reynolds also strongly recommends students back up their computer files before and after they study. “It is an essential safeguard,” he says. “Use an external hard drive or something. Don’t put yourself in a precarious position.”

He puts similar emphasis on the need to sleep, eat well, and exercise during the exam period. Even the night before an exam, Reynolds recommends making sure you have pens, power cords, and any other materials you might need the next day. “And set a number of alarms, not just one,” he says. “Approach it like you were leaving on a trip.”

10 tips for successful studying

• find a comfortable place to study

• plan, plan, plan

• start studying early

• practise with old exams

• create a study schedule

• join/create a study group

• try new study methods

• review your notes constantly during the term

• eat and sleep properly

• set more than one alarm on exam day