Legal Theory: Improving Your Memory Skills

By Katie Spark, First Year EAGLE Facilitator

Some preliminary points for improving recall during a closed book exam:

  1. Repetition is key!
  2. Start early
  3. Try and get an overview of the whole subject and the connections between topics
  4. As you progress with your revision, mix the topics altogether
  5. All of these strategies will help improve your speed and time management in an open-book exam as well.

Exams/essays will require you to discuss multiple topics.  As such, you want your brain to be able to recall information that is relevant to the various topics and not necessarily in the order you learned it.  Further, your teachers aren’t expecting you to recite long direct quotes from the authors.  Instead, they are expecting you to demonstrate that you understand the authors’ position/arguments.

  • Accurately summarise their key positions in your own words
  • This is not to say that a key phrase can’t be helpful (e.g. ‘mere cloak and a sham’) – find the balance! If the position can be encapsulated in five words, then perhaps learn those five words – but it won’t often be the case
  • Additionally knowing your opinion on various positions will help you construct an argument more than memorising a long direct quote.

Techniques for Memory Retrieval

Make exam notes as you would for an open-book exam, then revise and condense (& repeat) until you no longer need the notes

To help with recall, place particular topics in certain locations on the page, e.g. negligence is always in the top left corner

Additionally, the use of particular colours may help with recall later on


  • Process of creating them makes you summarise the material you have learnt – which in of itself is revision, yay!
  • Put the long information on one side and, on the other, a drawing, phrase or word that summarises it (e.g. Harm Principle)
  • Once you’ve created the cards and practiced a bit, shuffle the cards and try to retrieve the information ‘out of order’.
    • Place all the cards with the long information face down on the table, then pick a card and say out the meaning of the short phrase, drawing or word on the up facing side. Stack all those that you get right in one pile and those you get wrong in another
    • By separating right and wrong and noting those you get wrong, you can focus your revision
    • Additionally, you can keep track of your progress
  • Memorising the long information in this manner can help if the prompt/question only refers to a case or author – e.g. Mabo or Hart
  • May work better if the cards are not colour coded – although still helpful either way
  • Make sure to shuffle the cards each time as you are trying to develop memorisation of each fact, not of a pattern that the topics occur in
  • Flashcards also come in different colours so if you are into the colour per topic, this is another way you can include that!

Learn and discuss topics with friends – knowing is different from explaining!

  • Discussion is a great way to revise and consolidate knowledge
  • Knowing a quote will not help you discuss the position that the quote expresses
  • The process of finding your own words to explain a topic is key to engaging in an exam question or discussion
  • Additionally, by talking about what you understand with friends you can make sure that what you are saying is understood by anothe

Think about the type of learner you are – visual? audio? kinaesthetic?

  • Memory retrieval techniques that take this into account may help you more
  • You can try a variety of these if you think you learn in more than one way – many of us do
  • Our brain has multiple pathways to help us store information and while one may be dominant, accessing and using all of them will help

Visual learner – potential strategies:

  • Diagrams/visual representation of information – Mind mapping, venn diagrams, etc.
  • Venn diagrams may help illustrate points of commonality or difference between various contentions/critiques
  •  Colour code particular topics
  •  Can use this for mind mapping or notes
  • Do little drawings to summarise a topic/theory/opinion
  •  Create stories that link the various topics together
  • Visualisation through the loci technique
    • Using a location well-known to you (very well-know, think your bedroom), then:
    • Associate locations of the room with particular topics (e.g. wardrobe = theories of the self), and then:
    • Items in that location with particular pieces of information (e.g. leather jacket = Foucault’s conception of the self involves the connection of three forces: power, truth and subjectivity)
    • When recalling you look for that particular item in your mind to remember the information
  • You could even use flashcards and practice this in real life!
  • Basically – any technique that uses visualisations (such as images, colours or drawings) to help you memorise through association

Audio learner – potential strategies:

  • Read out your notes and explain to yourself or another how different topics connect
  • One method to initially learn the connections of the overall course: chunking which requires creating groups of topics by theme, author or another grouping factor – e.g. moralistic
  • Practicing chunking which creates association between topics will be particularly useful
  • Create mnemonics or alliterations that you can repeat which encapsulate key ideas
  • Discuss or debate various essay prompts with a friend – what would you argue?
  • Record you reading you notes and listen to them, then later test your recall through practice exams
  • Create rhymes or sing out the information
  • Basically – any technique that includes your voice and/or ears in the process of information

Kinaesthetic learner – potential strategies:

  • Use you notes or flashcards as you move – e.g. go for a walk or use an exercise bike
  • Re-write your notes by hand
  •  Note this is good for all learners – studies have shown that it helps process information from short term memory to long term memory
  •  However, I believe the feedback sensation that you get from writing on paper is key to this strategy – screens don’t give back the same return pressure.
  • Mime the information or create an action that you associate with a particular fact
  • Mind map by hand
  • Create a game that involves movement and reciting of information
  •  e.g. blue tacking your flashcards on the wall and throwing a ball at them, whichever the ball hits you need to recite the information on whichever side of the card is face down
  • By making the game unpredictable as above, you also add an element of unpredictability to your memorisation, preventing you from learning a pattern rather than the individual facts
  •  Basically – include movement into the process in some way whether that be during the start of your revision or after you’ve made notes and are reciting them
  • Utilise the internet – there are many memorisation techniques and apps out there to help you!
  • If you have a particular learning style, then look up techniques for that style – these were just a taster!
  • Rinse and repeat – you’re not going to see results straight away so just keep swimming practicing!
  • Try a variety of techniques to hit all those neural pathways, but remember to spend a bit more time on techniques that fit your learning style