In my first year, I had a partly open book exam for the public law module. At first, I did not know exactly what partly open book exams meant. Since I was a novice, I thought it meant that you could bring a book, such as your textbook, in the exam. In actual fact, a partly open book exam requires you to bring your own notes (usually between ten and twenty pages) with you in the exam and it differs from an open book exam in which you can really make use of a textbook. As I was confused about it in the first semester, I started my preparation for the partly open book exam at the beginning of the second semester. Here are some rules that I followed in preparing the perfect notes for such a situation, rules which helped me ace that exam.
First of all, do not commence all panicked about the amount of work and theory that you will need to cover in your exam notes. A module may be dense but it is by no means impossible to deal with. If you are already familiar with the legal principles governing that particular area of law, i.e. if you study throughout the year and do not leave everything for the last moment, you should be able to put all the pieces of information together like a puzzle. You will be able to figure out what is missing and what is not from your notes. The next step is to make sure that you fill in those missing parts and put them back in your notes. These can be either lecture notes, tutorial notes, summarised chapters from books or your own ideas that you picked up during classes. Download or get a hold of the list of chapters that you will be examined on (remember not all chapters that you studied are going to be in the exam) so as not to focus or waste time on unimportant topics.
After you have obtained the topics that are most likely to come up in the exam and you have collected enough notes and information to cover all these topics, prepare to edit and make adjustments over and over again. I know it sounds time consuming, but unfortunately there is no faster or easier way to do it. I started off with a big ‘block’ of notes for each chapter that I had for the exam. I wrote brief summaries of those chapters from different textbooks and re-wrote important legal principles and procedures until they were stuck in my mind. Although all textbooks are supposed to contain the same information regarding a topic, you will notice that the style of each author is rather different and that some of them tend to leave bits of information out which you may then find in another textbook. Data collection for the exams is indeed a demanding, but compulsory process.
With practice, the big ‘block’ should start narrowing down in time as soon as you start selecting, understanding and memorising the information that you have. If you can already remember the name of an important case and are sure that it is going to stick until the exam, do not write it down again in your notes because you will waste the limited space that you have. Make sure that you make clever use of the pages allowed in the exam and do not cram them with useless information. Try to be as selective as you can and do not lose coherence in your writing. Depending on what kind of learner you are, i.e. visual, kinaesthetic etc., you may try and sum up the information that you want to remember in charts, diagrams or mind maps. There are plenty of websites or software programmes (e.g. ‘XMind’) which facilitate this task for you if you are not keen on using MS PowerPoint.
Do not be influenced by what your fellow students or colleagues include in their exam notes because every one has a different understanding of the subject. Your friend might understand how a legal procedure should be brought about, but you might not, so do not try to copy their notes. Do ask for help where you need it, from either your fellow students or from teachers. Your personal academic tutor might not be teaching the same module, so it would be better if you asked your module tutor directly, after classes or during their office hours where you can just drop in without an appointment.
It could take months, weeks or just a few days (if you are really good at it) to finish your notes for a partly open book exam, but do not give up on them at any time or leave them until the last moment. Time is, as you should already know, of the essence. Time, dedication and ambition are probably your greatest three assets when in law school, so take advantage of them when preparing for exams.