Profs’ top tips for passing exams

University of British Columbia faculty of law professor Robin Elliot recalls the disaster that was his first-ever law school exam.


He was fresh off an undergraduate science degree at UBC, where exams never fazed him. “I almost enjoyed them,” he reluctantly admits. “I prepared, I had full nights sleeps, I went in and I felt perfectly comfortable. It was not a daunting experience for me.”

That all changed when he shifted to the university’s law school in 1970. His December exam period consisted of a series of practice exams, and one final exam. Of course by some twist of fate the final exam was scheduled before the practice exams.

“It was the one and only one that counted, and I froze,” recalls Elliot. “I remember thinking, ‘Boy, I guess this isn’t for me. I’m not going to be able to come close to completing this exam.’”

After the test he even contemplated quitting law school, questioning whether he was up for the challenge. But he stuck with it, and didn’t freeze during the other exams, and now offers some tips to help current law students avoid a similar meltdown.

Firstly, Elliot says it’s crucial to avoid the “anxiety virus” that can spread in communal studying spaces, such as libraries. It is more calming, and productive, to study alone or with one or two close friends, he says.

Students can also get thrown off when they change their living habits during exam time, says Elliot.

Maintaining your eating, exercising, and sleeping routine is a necessity if you hope to stay balanced and make the most of your prep time, he says.

Enjoying a relaxing activity the night before an exam, whether it be taking in a movie, unwinding in a sauna, or heading out to an outdoor hockey rink for some shinny, is also a good idea.

“It is important to clear the mind,” he says.

University of Ottawa common law section associate professor Adam Dodek agrees that quality, not quantity, of study time is key.

Students who break their studying up with a little bit of me-time is likely better able to focus on the books when they return to their work, he suggests. It’s all about maximizing your level of engagement with the material, rather than reading aimlessly for days on end.

Turning to the substantive side of studying, Dodek says students need to keep in mind that their instructors are not trying to trick them on exams.

That means students will already be in a strong position come exam time if they have attended and paid attention in class, completed reading material, and become engaged in the subject matter. They can use that knowledge base to start pulling the material together, he says.

But Dodek cautions that many students confuse the course summarization and review process — which might involve things like compiling an outline — with the exam-writing process.

“They think that if they’ve just prepared their summary, then they’re ready for the exam,” he says.

“The big step is once they’ve completed doing their summary, to actually see if they know the material, and to try and simulate the exam environment by doing practice exams under the time limits, by talking with their colleagues about the different concepts in that course, by actively engaging with the materials rather than just reading over the cases, or reading over their summary.”

Elliott agrees that many students — mainly first-years — treat the different areas of law they are studying as “discrete silos.” That can make it even harder to master the subjects, he says.

While law school students are forced to navigate a massive body of knowledge, Elliot urges them to identify the “connecting threads” that exist in different areas of the law when studying.

He says first-year students in particular should “step back from the trees and try and get a sense of the forests that are out there.”

One often overlooked technique to bring course material together when studying is reviewing the table of contents in relevant textbooks, says University of New Brunswick law professor Carissima Mathen. That exercise provides a glimpse at how the material has been organized and what the overarching structure and approach has been, she says.

“It’s an extremely simple thing, but if you just take a moment to read it and get a sense of that, it can actually help in trying to get that bigger picture,” says Mathen.

Dodek also urges students to avoid “short-circuiting” their studying by relying too heavily on the work of others.
He says personal summaries create both reference materials for open-book exams and serve as a review of course material.

Students can also better determine what material they are struggling with by doing the work themselves.

More importantly, however, they can sleep easy knowing the material they’re studying is accurate.

“At the end of the day, there’s no easy way out of doing the work yourself,” says Dodek.

If, despite all this useful advice, you’re still terrified of failing, take comfort in the outcome of Elliot’s disastrous first exam. He actually received a pretty good mark, and learned an important lesson.

“It’s not about how you do against some absolute standard, it’s how you do in comparison with your peers,” he says.

“Clearly, the majority of the other students in that class, whether they froze or not, struggled more than I did. That made things quite a bit easier for me.”

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