Many of you may have open book exams coming up. These exams may allow you to bring in your outline, a codebook, your textbook, supplements. . .you name it. You may be relieved knowing that you are going to be able to bring in everything you might need into the classroom. There is no way you can’t do well on this exam, right?
Well, let this be a warning to you, open book exams are definitely not easier than closed book exams. And in many ways they can be harder.
Open book exams are hard.
Think about this for a moment. You are a professor grading a huge stack of exams. You have a mandated curve that you need to meet, which means that you need to get a distribution of points throughout the class. You have decided that the exam will be open book so all of the students have the same rules in front of them. So, how are student answers going to be different?
It all comes down to analysis and issue spotting.
Yikes. They are hard. How do I study for them?
There are a few keys to studying for an open book exam.
First, you need to know the material so well that you basically don’t need to look at your outline. This makes sense when you think about it because exams are an awfully lot about speed and time management. If you spend a total of 10 minutes of the exam time looking up rule statements, those are 10 minutes the person next to you is spending writing out the answer. So in a way, you want to study the material as if you were taking a closed book exam. Your outline should be simply reference material.
Second, you need to have great legal analysis. This is true for all types of law school exams, but especially true on open book exams because all of the students have all of the rules in front of them. Your analysis must be thoughtful and show that you have a great understanding of the law. Remember, from a professor’s prospective, you didn’t have to spend time memorizing all of the law, so you could have instead really worked on your understanding of the material. In order to have great legal analysis, you need to practice, practice, practice and get as much feedback as possible.
Third, you need be ready to take the exam in timed conditions so you can finish the exam. Another common pitfall of open book exams is that students struggle with time management. That is because they have all the possible law they can discuss in front of them and it seems like the best idea to throw in every possible issue and rule because, hey, why not! Well, that only works if your professor wants you to discuss every possible issue and rule (which is highly unlikely). Instead, you need to practice allocating your time between issues and making judgment calls on what is an issue and what is not. That will help you get through the exam, thoughtfully, on exam day.
So, you have an open book exam in a few weeks, what should you do to study?
Make sure your outlines are complete, organized, and concise. Yes, concise. Seventy- page outlines aren’t necessarily helpful when it comes to exam time. Remember, you still need to be able to learn the information in your outline. (You can check out more outlining tips, here.)
You want to make sure your outline is full of helpful attack plans so you know how to answer a given question. You then want to practice and get feedback to make sure your analysis and issue spotting are where they need to be. Talk to your professor to see if he or she will give you feedback, talk to the academic support office (if your school has one), or even check out a law school tutor. Exam writing is a learned skill and one that needs to be practiced.
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Here are some other helpful posts:
- Law School Outling: What’s the Point?
- Can Your Outline Be Too Long?
- How to Turn Your Class Notes Into an Outline
- What Most Law Students Forget to Do: Think About the Material
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First of all, I’d like to thank you for some very helpful tips. What you wrote made perfect sense. The problem I’m having, though, is memory dump. It feels like I’ve retained so much information that my brain is leaking valuable info or trying to memory wipe bits and pieces. I understand the concepts and memorized the rules, yet can’t recall them fast enough or notice subtle but important gaps when I do.
I’ve always been a deep thinker and carefully plan/outline before I do any major analysis, but I think it sort of kills my time management on tests. I have OCD like symptoms when it comes to writing, which helped with philosophy and creative writing in undergrad, but is now a detriment to my grades in lawschool(1L). Any suggestions?
Thanks for reading and I am glad you have been finding our tips helpful as you prepare for exams.
Law school exams are different tun your undergrad exams because knowing the law is important, but the rules are just one part of the IRAC and the law school exam experience. In law school, the rules are just to enable you to write out quality legal analysis. One rule of thumb to prevent “brain dumping” is that your rule statement should typically be shorter than your analysis section.
As for re-call, mnemonics and attack plans are key. If you have open book tests you can bring these attack plans with you. If they are closed book tests you also want to memorize these (hopefully using mnemonics so you can quickly recall the information at exam time). Also consider memorizing flow charts as some folks find them helpful as well. (Check out this post on attack plans: https://lawschooltoolbox.com/wondering-what-an-attack-plan-is/)
And for time management, you must set guidelines on how long you can prepare before writing. A good rule of thumb is no more than 15 minutes for a 60 minute question. You also want to remember that the quality of writing should be that of a decent rough draft — you can’t focus too much on how perfect your writing is. Your professor is going to be reading really quickly, and won’t even notice perfection!
I hope some of these tips are helpful. Good luck!