There are a variety of methods for preparing exam notes, so how you choose to develop yours is ultimately be up to you. Beginning preparation early is advisable, as it will give you plenty of time to experiment with different formats. Remember that no set of exam notes is a substitute for a good knowledge of the subject as a whole – they exist merely jog your memory.
Here are a few methods of preparing exam notes to get you started.
- ALWAYS include a table of contents in your notes, in order to ensure that you can find anything you need as quickly as possible. You may also want to tab your notes for the same reason. After issue-spotting, you can use the table of contents to find the relevant sections.
- You should have a set of primary hypothetical notes, between 10-30 pages, which you will use for the majority of your exam answers. These notes should be as brief as possible, as their main purpose is to jog your memory. You might want to have more detailed information in the back of your notes
- Structure is important. Make sure that your notes are organised logically, in a manner that you could apply directly in the exam. You might want to give each topic a heading, which you can copy directly onto the exam paper. Remember that in the exam time is important – the less time that you have to spend thinking about structuring your argument, the more time that you have to spend developing the argument itself.
- The process of making the notes helps you to remember the subject – simply using someone else’s notes won’t improve your understanding of the course. While looking at other student’s notes can be a helpful guide to structuring your own notes, it is often not a good idea to base the content of your notes around it. It is much easier to make arguments that you understand, based on your own interpretation of the law, than it is to apply someone else’s reasoning.
The checklist can be structured in a number of ways, but the basic premise is simple. Your notes should be structured in such a way that you can progress through them when writing a response to a hypothetical. You can easily make a checklist using Microsoft Word or Excel. The advantage of using Word it that it is easier to structure your notes by using a table and merging the cells where appropriate. You might set your notes out like this:
It is often a good idea to use text formatting to make your notes clearer. In the example below, the topic headings are very clear, and the notes make use of bold, underlined or italicised text to convey their meaning. In the example below, underlined words indicate the most important points. Bold words indicate the core of the rule (I think of it as the ‘name’ of the rule, for example, the ‘sale rule’). Finally, italicised words indicate thresholds or qualifications, such as special majority, significant chance or highly likely.
The flowchart is particularly useful for mapping out legislation, however it can also be used in the same way as the checklist. One challenge of using this format is the difficulty of arranging the flowchart so that it fits onto an A4 piece of paper. Even if you plan on hand-drawing your flowcharts, remember that large pieces of paper will be difficult to fit onto your desk in the exam. Flowcharts are even more effective if you use colours or images. Many students use images to represent particular cases, and colours to represent different topics. You might also use text formatting in a similar way to checklists. Some great programs for creating mind maps and flowcharts are Freeplane and Xmind, both of which are available for free. Freeplane offers many more options, but is harder to use (and quite ugly).
The same example used above might look like this:
The mind map format is particularly useful in ‘broad’ subjects that cover many loosely related topics. The mind map can be an invaluable means of spotting issues in an exam, and may also be useful for writing exam essay questions. For example:
Bear in mind that it is often more appropriate to use a combination of the above styles. A common example is to use a flowchart or a mind-map in the first few pages of your notes, to help with issue-spotting, and then to use checklists or flowcharts for the substantive law. For example, using the above mind-map:
Creating Your Notes
These are simply examples – there are a range of other ways of preparing your notes. It is important to experiment with different formats, and to think about what format is the most appropriate for each subject. In order to do this, you have to leave yourself plenty of time to test your notes on past exams and re-organise your notes.