If you've been taking exams all your life you probably think you have this revision thing pretty much sorted already. After all these years you've internalised all the techniques in the book. You have a study plan. You have the perfect memorisation technique. You know not to cheat. You know exactly what you need to do to get top grades.
However, in this article I'm going to tell you to throw all of that information out of the window. The best revision techniques involve no study plans, no memorisation, and a tiny bit of cheating (kinda).
Most people begin their revision by carefully crafting a revision or study plan. They will block out their days with designated study sessions in the hope that they will know everything come exam time. For example, between 9am and 10am they would study land law, then between 10am and 11am they would study commercial law, and so on.
At first glance, there doesn't seem to be much wrong with this. It ensures you give every module equal attention and know, in advance, precisely how you will be spending your time. As Benjamin Franklin once said, "by failing to prepare you are preparing to fail". By creating a study plan you are seemingly doing everything you can to mitigate the possibility of failure.
The truth is, a study plan doesn't work.
The main reason for this is that it forces you to predict the areas where you are going to struggle. For example, if I had to revise family law and trusts, it may not be best for me to spend 50% of my time studying each topic. If I find trusts harder than family law then I should be spending more of my time on that module. A study plan is inflexible and doesn't easily allow for you to work around your strengths and weaknesses.
The workaround is to use, what I call, an ex post facto timetable. In other words, a study timetable that doesn't look forward to what you need to do but, rather, backwards to what you have already done. This involves writing down all the individual topics you need to learn then when as you revise each of them (in any order you see fit) you make a mark signifying your relative comprehension.
For example, when I studied criminal law, I would make a note of each of the topics (e.g. actus reus, theft, assault & battery, etc.) and as I revised each topic I would use a traffic light system to determine how easy or hard it was for me to recall. If I found the topic difficult I would mark it red. If I found it easy I would mark it green. If my comprehension was somewhere in between I would mark it orange. Ultimately, this provided me with a simple system where I could quickly visualise what I knew well and what I knew less so. I could then focus my attention more on the topics I struggled with, rather than wasting my time revision those areas I already understood well (as would have been the case with a standard study plan).
The key point is that memorisation and remembering are two slightly different things. Memorisation, to me, is a process of forcing information into your head until it sticks. Remembering, on the other hand, is about understanding the information first and then connecting that knowledge to other pieces of information already stored in our brain. Memorisation relies on your short-term memory, whereas remembering is about entrenching information into your long-term memory. It's a fundamental difference if you want to learn the law well.
So how do we remember information? An interesting concept that has worked well for me in recent years is a concept known as rubber ducking. Put simply, rubber ducking involves explaining difficult topics to a rubber duck (or some other chosen inanimate object) and if you struggle to explain it coherently, then you quickly identify those areas where you need to solidify your understanding of the fundamentals.
For instance, if you were trying to explain the topic of 'murder' to your rubber duck it may go something like this:
"The actus reus of murder is the unlawful killing of another person in the Queen’s peace. The mens rea of murder is an intention to kill or cause grievous bodily harm. The meaning of intention is.... erm.... I think the meaning is that intention is given its ordinary meaning... but I'm not sure how I know that?"
From this I know that I should probably do a little bit more reading on the meaning of intention and what the supporting case law or statutory law is. By simply trying to verbalise what I know I can efficiently spot what I need to go back and study. Your not just forcing facts into your head, your being methodical and building your understanding from the roots of each and evert topic.
If there is one thing that is drilled into all students from day one it is that you must NEVER cheat. We are told horror stories about all the nasty things that will happen to us if we bring our mobile phones into the exam hall or plagiarise something we read online. Even the word 'cheating' stirs up some visceral fear of its potential consequences.
But, perhaps surprisingly, cheating isn't always bad. Let me introduce you to what I call 'ethical cheating'.
Ethical cheating is the process of finding out what is in your exam without doing anything that is actually against the rules. This mainly involves doing three things: topic selection, careful listening, and adopting the marker mindset.
Firstly, topic selection encourages you to not learn every single topic. Unless you have an abnormal ability to recall a vast amount of information, you're going to struggle to learn everything. If you have three essays to answer in your exam from a choice of 5 topics, and have learnt 7 topics throughout the year, then it makes little sense to revise all 7 topics. I would drop the topics that you dislike and focus on the four or five topics that you know you will do really well in.
Secondly, your lecturers will likely drop large hints about the content of your exams during lecturs and seminars. This is why it is crucial to carefully listen to what they say. One example I remember went as follows: a student, in one of my lectures at university, asked the lecturer about how they should tackle a particular question in an exam. The lecturer’s response was that “they didn’t set that question” so don’t know the answer, and that the student should ask the responsible lecturer. In short, many of my fellow students probably let this information slip over their head, but I interpreted this as “this question is in the exam, but I can’t answer your question”. Inadvertently, I had discovered one of the questions that was going to come up in my exam.
Lastly, find out who is marking each exam you sit. By doing this you will have an idea of the sorts of questions the lecturer thinks are interesting, the sorts of ways of thinking and writing that the lecturer likes, and also the questions and ideas that the lecturer thinks are worthless. This is useful information that you can use to your advantage.
Revising for exams isn't simply a matter of picking up your textbook, underlining a few things, and cramming that information in your head. The good law student will take their time to craft an approach that works for them. And I encourage you to do the same. There are a lot of myths surrounding the best way to learn, so take the time to think about what actually works well for you and don't blindly accept the status quo.