Exam notes are tricky. I remember for my first law subject I carried in a binder folder the size of a brick. Then, in the exam, I couldn’t find what I needed fast enough and it really slowed me down. Finding exam notes that work for you and enable you to do your best and showcase your knowledge (or hide your lack of knowledge) is a challenge. I have found that speaking to successful friends and peers who have managed to achieve those elusive High Distinctions is extremely beneficial. Others’ insights and approaches can be illuminating. Here are some below:
Michael – Arts/Law III
Being in my third year, I have developed different techniques over time and discovered what works best for me. While there is no formula to achieving HDs, I hope that sharing some of my tips might be helpful.
I try to divide my notes into two areas:
General information about a subject (for example: what is a trust?), and;
Over my time at law school I have developed a method of note taking that involves use of a table format:
This format of note taking allows me to take my notes in the right hand column. I personally think that often highlighting notes is counter-productive as you end up highlighting more than you need to and it defeats the purpose. I use the left hand column to include and emphasise any vital information that will be helpful in an exam. By separating out small summaries of the law as well as basic legal principles it makes finding information in the exam a lot easier. The table format also allows you to write in any personal positions of the law that might be useful in an essay question.
When reading cases it is also crucial to note the position taken by each judge. Who was in majority, who dissented. I find it useful to create a small summary of each judge’s judgment as this will allow you to demonstrate that you have a nuanced understanding of the case.
All this being said, there is no formula to achieving HDs in law school. I hope that sharing some of the tips I find useful can be of help.
Erol Law/International Studies II
I try to write notes that are easy to scan and pick up, which means often not writing in full sentences and leaving space around the page. I find it good to use graphics, flow-charts, mind-maps etc. but it’s sometimes difficult to work out how to do them well if you don’t have enough time to make notes.
Instead of having everything in one place (case summaries, statutes), I find it better to separate them out and then link them by page numbers.
Using heading levels that are clearly distinguishable and easy to find is useful, as well as phrasing them as questions so you can see exactly what the issue is. I also like using all caps/small caps to make important words stick out.
Colour-coding is good, I use it to distinguish cases/statutes/important things. Instead of printing it out in colour which is like $1pp, it’s much more economical to go over it in highlighters after printing.
Overall, keep in mind that you’re writing for exam conditions and things like in depth/lengthy quotes by judges may not be your best aid for clear, concise writing. A simple overview of the tests, with more complexity where needed, is best.
Amelia Arts/Law IV
How to synthesise class notes into exam notes?
1.Read the cases!!! Fill in gaps in knowledge/ask questions NOW
2.Less case facts: summarise into a sentence or 2
Not strictly ‘material’ facts: distinguishing purposes
Don’t need ‘cl 6 prescribed the length of crayfish to be 105mm’
Principle/outcome: what does it stand for in one sentence?
3.Organise cases into logical theme/principles: not necessarily by class structure: do you know where that case fits in?
4.Organise policy notes
5.Prepare index and schema of the course
Notes are not just for exam but a study tool: preparing mindmaps, organising cases is itself studying
Try to condense class notes as much as possible: have synthesised and master copy if you need to
No ‘right’ way: focus on what makes the material comprehensible/logical to you
You could organise notes by mind map or flow chart:
Notes can also be organised by ratio:
For policy questions:
Collate policy points and ideas into a cohesive document.
Organise according to theme/principle and then by the author or theorist.
Note controversial dissents and what they represent
Laura Arts/Law II
The easiest way to ensure you’ll do well in exams is to make sure your notes align with what you’re going to be asked to do. There is little point in producing a 200 page document that notes all of the nuanced theory of the textbook in preparation for a problem question. For most law exams in your early years, the structure is a problem question and an essay. In this case, two sets of notes often work best
These should contain the relevant statute and case law, and the sequence in which they should be applied. No theory or analysis of what the law should be will get you marks. By all means, note any ambiguity/areas where the law is unclear but going into an in depth analysis of policy is not an appropriate use of time. For example:
This is your opportunity to discuss the existing status of the law, and whether it is meeting its policy targets. The best way I find to prepare my notes for these questions is to first make a list of course themes (e.g. overcriminalisation, the process as punishment, the fault standard). Following, I start writing brief notes on each topic covered with those themes in mind (e.g. the theory surrounding association) and structure them in a mini essay format, i.e. what would be in an introduction; what could be a body paragraph. To practice before the exam I draw a theme like overcriminalisation and an issue area, like association, and begin those practice essays. This means I go into exams with clear scaffolds, and a good understanding of the theory behind each area we’ve studied.
Most importantly, stay calm and do your best. It seems very obvious advice but the reality is that you’ll never have enough time to answer everything as fully as you’d like to, so law exams are as much an exercise in time management as in knowing and applying the law. Also, what works for some people (such as what I’ve recommended) may not work for you, so remember to practice different strategies to find which works best for you!!
Exams are extremely stressful, so never hesitate to reach out to the people around you, and remember that support networks are always available:
Click any of the images below to be directed to support services:
Thanks to Michael Tanazefti, Laura Bachelor-Sharp, Erol Gorur and Amelia Loughland for their insights in this article.