Approaches to Studying for Law Exams – Part I; Personal Study

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Nothing reawakens the awareness of being a student like the publication of the examination timetable for a semester. Everything else, including extracurricular obligations, religious activities, and even personal development goals, pale into insignificance after a student sights the timetable. At this time, the only thing that rings through is the advice most students often get from their parents/guardians – face your studies! As much as most students would rather go through tertiary education without having to bother about exams, Nigerian universities consider in-class, closed book exams as the best method of testing aptitude and learning.

This article is the first in a series that focuses on aspects, approaches, and tips for successful examination preparation. This article discusses three approaches to personal studying and suggests practical ways of making personal studying a habit or making the best of limited time when one inadvertently fails to keep up to his/her study schedule.

Other parts of this series will explore the role that review of past questions; consultation with senior colleagues, lecturers, and practitioners; class attendance, participation, assignments and continuous assessment; note-taking and reading beyond the syllabus; as well as, keeping abreast with the goings on in the national and international spheres, plays in successful examination preparation.

Personal Study

Personal study is a discipline that every student should strive to acquire and practice in the university. If the tales from the Nigerian Law School (NLS) are anything to go by, the skill and discipline of personal study will come in handy at the NLS. From the outset, its useful to state that the reference to personal studying in this article is not just reading textbooks, handouts or notes in preparation for classes or tests but also to any commitment of time to learning or researching a topic in the syllabus for a given semester. Therefore, apart forms time spent on studying the materials that professors recommend for their classes, desktop research, reading law reports, summarizing cases, catching up on news reports, etc. also fall into the category of activities that make up personal study.

There are prerequisites that make personal study possible for a student. First, a student must be aware of the topics that constitute the syllabus for the semester, and the textbook(s) and other reference material that the Professor recommends. It follows logically that knowledge of the materials is not enough, purchasing or borrowing the reference materials is also essential. This means that students must also make a habit of visiting the library.

Second, a student must design a flexible timetable for personal studying and do the best to allocate more time than necessary to every studying session so that it is possible to make up for any missed studying schedules. Third, there must be a comfortable location for studying. This place must be accessible, preferably, close to home or the student’s hostel, and devoid of distractions.

After one sorts out these prerequisites, it is important to adopt an approach for studying. The section the follows, discusses two approaches – the day to day and crash approaches. There is also the midway review method which is not covered in this part of the series.

The Day to Day Approach

The day to day approach requires students to have the end (exam) in mind from the first day of the semester. This method, in my thinking, is the best and should be the goal of every law student. Though relative to many other factors, a student that studies least 2-3 hours every day of a semester will likely not feel so much pressure when the exams draw near. It will feel like a revision exercise. For students that adopt this method, the primary task during the examination period will be to memorize some quotes, case titles and sections of the law, and to simulate writing under exam conditions. The beauty of this approach is that when accompanied with regular class attendance, the daily study sessions give an opportunity to review the day’s work and get personal insight that aid recollection during examinations. There is always the possibility that concentration will waver, especially when the course is abstract. To keep this minimal, you can make your notes, in your own words, based on your understanding of the lecturer’s notes, relevant textbooks, and reference materials. Since they are written in your own words, they will be easier to remember and study from time to time.

To succeed in this approach, a student must understand himself/herself – his strengths, and weaknesses. Some questions to help this self-diagnosis include: do I like to study in places with graveyard silence, like the library or, do I prefer some liveliness in the background, maybe some music in the background? Do I study more when I see others studying or do I thrive better when I am by myself? Also, what period of the day am I at my best? As is popularly said, there are different strokes for different folks, and in Nigerian parlance, one man’s meat is another’s poison.

There’s no reason to feel bad if the library isn’t your place. In the past, I was unhappy anytime I went to the library to study and ended up sleeping. After my first two years in the university, I understood that I thrive in a lively study atmosphere with people walking around and some music in the background. None of these would be allowed in a library. As inferred above, another issue to consider is the time frame that works best for you. Many people study excellently at night. I prefer reading during the first four hours of the day (except weekends) that is, within 12-4 am, whenever I can. This is the only period of my day shielded from distractions, and nothing or no one can come in the way of my books. Once the day officially starts with classes, meetings and personal chores, whatever time left would most likely be snatched by sleep.

Make the most of any block of two or three hours you can get every day. Don’t let those who brag about studying for long hours intimidate you. I’ve tried it before and found that I spent only half the time reading. I couldn’t account for the other half.

The Crash Method

I guess this approach needs no introduction as many students, including me, adopt this method more than the former.  The Crash method entails preparation for exams just after the release of the timetable. Crash students attempt to memorize a lot of course content for the sole purpose of pouring it onto a test booklet.

Except you have a photographic memory, such as Kyle or Mike from the series Kyle XY and Suits respectively, this approach is not advisable. I had to do this in Law of Contract in my second year. I started preparing twenty-four hours before the exam. I missed most of the classes, so I had no memory and scanty notes of the class discussions. I depended on Sagay’s “Law of Contract” to pull through.  Anyone familiar with the sheer volume of the textbook and the small print will know this was not a walk in the park. Not even the strong black coffee I drank through the night helped. I still slept halfway and woke up with a migraine. To sum it all, the result was a D.

But that notwithstanding, there is still a right way (though risky) to crash read and get the most out of it, and it doesn’t involve trying to read an entire semester’s work in one night, like I earlier did. Instead, you have to read smart. Because I know I will not always be able to read consistently, I try to record every class I attend. During the exam time, all these audio notes become my official music playlist. Get past questions and study which topics recur the most. For my school, an average past question has around 8 – 10 questions based on topics taken by different lecturers. So in choosing topics, try to achieve an equitable spread across the lecturers, instead of focusing on only one of them.

If you’ve been missing classes, inquire from colleagues those things that the lecturers harped on or issues that were unresolved in class that may be included in the exams. Not everything in the course outline gets the same attention from the professors. At times, the teacher may hint at the aspects of the syllabus students should focus on for the exams. Such information will help someone who could not prepare adequately for the exams.

But take note, this method is not without risk, and should only be a last resort. A question you were banking on may not come out. The lecturer’s tip might turn out to be a hoax. I had such an experience with Nigerian Legal System in my second year. The day before the test, the lecturer told the class to focus on civil and criminal procedure. But on the D-day, he asked us to describe the constitutional process for appointing a judge, citing relevant sections of the constitution. I almost cried in the lecture room. My only consolation was that I wasn’t the only one with a sad tale.

As stated already, striving for the day to day approach should be a student’s goal. Start out from the beginning of the semester and look out for others who have similar study goals. Appraise yourself periodically and make changes to your schedule until you arrive at a suitable routine. It is also useful to note that in some cases a student may have to sacrifice some engagements and fun things to keep up a consistent schedule. Prioritize your academics, and you will be better for it!

Akintunde Ifeanyichukwu Agunbiade is a 400-Level student of the Faculty of  Law, Obafemi Awolowo University (OAU), Ife. He is a decorated public speaker, having represented his Faculty and the school in national debates, and winning the award for “Debater of  the Year”, from the Law Students’ Society, OAU, for the 2015/2016 Session. He is also a member of the Students’ Representative Council (Parliament of the Students’ Union), representing the Faculty of Law. He participated in the formation of the Tax Club, Intellectual Property Law Club, and the ADR (Alternative Dispute Resolution) Society. He also led the team that drafted the constitution of the Tax Club within 8 days.

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