Tips in reviewing for an exam

- Atty. Joseph Gonzales () - September 3, 2008 - 12:00am

Law school has got to have the most exacting academic environment. 

The cases we were required to read, some of them a thousand pages long, can’t be compared to the study load for, say, economics. (That’s the only course I dare compare law with, since that’s the only other course I have intimate knowledge of). 

And I’m not even taking into consideration the codals (or the collection of laws that were codified into thousands of provisions), or the annotations, which were the explanations accompanying those codes (trust me, far from being short notes, they were more like tomes).

Early on in law school, we were forced to get a grip of what was necessary to survive. The burning issue was, how did we study all the materials pleasantly sent our way by our loving professors? We had to develop study habits, fast. Some of the things I tried worked, some bombed. In any case, these are some of those that worked.

 Timing is everything. First, find your schedule. Are you the early bird type, disgustingly bright and cheery first thing in the morning? Or are you more of a late owl, and your mind’s clear as day only in the wee hours of the night? Can you study on a full stomach, or do you tend to doze off after lunch? Do you prefer to be hungry while absorbing knowledge? Get your body clock, and once you know that, try sticking to it. But if your schedule does not permit you, why not take a cup of coffee to keep you focused and alert? Numerous studies have shown that coffee aids in mental awareness.

I also have this non-scientifically tested belief that the brain processes info while a person is sleeping. So, mostly, I studied until midnight, and then I tried to get a great night’s sleep. There’s a lot to be said for sleep, including having energy not just for the exam, but the party afterwards. But that’s just me. I know some people who are capable of studying all night, not sleeping, and then walking into an exam room still functional. Again, it depends on what works for you.

Study aids. If I had to study in the afternoon, then I made sure I had a cup of coffee to fight that dangerously delicious siesta beckoning in the corner.   Coffee always did the trick. Sometimes, just that distinct aroma that coffee gives is enough to heighten the senses. 

You might have your own pick-me-upper, like gum or a chocolate bar. Hopefully, something nutritious, nothing deleterious. Whatever it is, stock up on it, and make sure they’re available for easy access.

Location, location, location. Presumably you already know what works for you, space-wise. Are you the type who can’t study unless you have a herd of miserable companions suffering alongside? Does a library full of eye candy work for you, so you can scope the landscape for inspiration every now and then? Or is it too distracting by far, and you’d much prefer blank white walls and zero distraction? Whatever it is, make sure you have that space available to you right before a crucial exam. 

 Original McCoy. I belong to the ‘segurista’ school of thought. Nothing compares to reading the material in the original. Sure, digests and outlines prepared by other brilliant students light years ahead can save you time. But who knows if they omitted something they thought was unnecessary, but that something wasn’t within your data banks yet? So to be safe, read the original text, especially if you do have the time. Don’t take the easy shortcuts - they could be fatal.

Still have time? Read the assigned material, and then read the digest somebody else prepared. Compare the two. Try to critique the digest, and see where crucial items were missed. Once you’ve critiqued it, you’ve just made it easier to learn the material by heart.

Dry Run. Did you know dancers try to go through the choreography in their heads as a way of rehearsing? It’s actually a great idea. After you’ve gone through the material, do a mental run through of everything that you’ve read. Just try to remember everything, without referring to your notes. You’ll find out where the gaps are. This process can tell you what you know, and what you didn’t retain. The good news is, you still have time to look up what’s missing. Then you can pick up what got left behind.

The juice. Very important—try to get the kernel. Not everything’s a matter of life and death if you forget them. Try to figure out why the material was assigned, and what’s important for you to learn. Sometimes it doesn’t matter where it happened (unless you’re talking about jurisdiction in criminal law) or when it happened (unless you’re arguing about whether the case has been superseded or repealed). Who cares about the sex of the party (unless it’s the crime of concubinage) or his age (unless he’s a minor wanting to get married). Is the number of carabaos stolen material? Do you have to know the time the incident happened? You might answer, most probably not, but the answer’s actually a ‘maybe.’

The point I’m trying to make is that certain details count, others don’t. With too much information in your hands, it all boils down to filleting the essential from the crap. Focus on why you’re studying the case. How is it related to the provision of the law? What made that crazy professor, who combined the hodge-podge of seemingly unrelated cases into one cohesive course outline, assign this particular case? Try to find the method in the madness. Once you know what to look for, then you’re safely on track.

Refresh. Still got time? Get a relaxing cup of coffee, and read everything all over again. The rule of thumb they gave in law school was, read everything thrice. Totally impossible, unless you’re a whiz at speed-reading. But reading it twice does let you pick up nuances you might have missed during the first pass. Things you learn in the middle or the end of the semester could clarify the cases you were grappling with at the beginning of the sem, so it pays to go over the material one more time. It can give you a holistic picture of the entire course. (Natch, that should give you an advantage over everybody else.)

Benchmark. Talk to your classmates and try to get a feel of what they understand of the material. Is their understanding pretty much the same as yours? Discuss sticky issues. 

The process of discussion lets you articulate and process the things you’ve read (and makes it easier to retain what you discussed). Come exam time, and questions related to your discussion pop up, you’ll find it that much easier to retrieve from your mental files. Worse comes to worst, you’ll pick up something useful from the discussion, and learn something. (And that’s really why you’re in school, right?)

Of course, there’s also the danger of finding out nobody else studied as much as you did, and you get a false sense of complacency. Or you might end up lulling yourself into thinking you’re smarter than everybody else. But don’t worry. Law school has an amazing ability to humble most people.


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