Study Skill Series: How do I prepare for class?

by Robert Craig, University of Bristol Law School

[The introduction to the series can be found here]

Preparing properly for synchronous sessions is essential for them to be useful for you and for others in the seminar – please make the effort to engage actively with your peers and academic tutor for both seminars and consolidation sessions. It is impossible to take any meaningful part in seminars without doing a significant amount of prereading and thinking before class. Going to seminars with insufficient preparation tends to be quite stressful for most people because it is quite hard to follow what is going on if you are not on top of the materials.

Figuring out what works for you

Some students figure out their own working style fairly quickly and are well able to organise their time so that they read all the designated material efficiently and effectively in their preparation for class. Others take a little longer to figure out how to read and prepare for classes, and this post is aimed more at the latter group of students. Feedback from law students suggests that a good proportion of students appreciate tips and guidance on how to prepare for class. It is important to emphasise again that the suggested tips that I set out below are just that: suggestions.

My friend Hannah at university used to take a sheet of paper before starting her preparation for class and write down all the page numbers of reading she had to do from the textbook that week. Then every time she finished a page, she would cross out the page number on her sheet of paper. Like many people, she used to read the textbook at around 4/5 pages per hour. This reading speed is absolutely normal for new students who are just starting to study law. In my first year of studying law, I was the same – I literally read textbooks at about 4/5 pages an hour. So I would spend 6 hours reading 30 pages of a textbook for class. Then I would quickly skim the cases and other reading and then try and hide in class because I didn’t think I had done enough. In my second year I tried to work out ways to read faster, failed, and then just did more and more hours in the library to try to read everything. Mad.

It was only in my third year that I actually sat down and thought about whether I could read things more efficiently and quickly. Don’t be like me. Take the time right now to think about how you work not just how hard you work. You need to work smart as well as work hard. Law students work very hard. We have always worked harder than most other students. On the flip side, for most of you, having a law degree will very likely mean you will be working in well-paid high-flying jobs, with clever and nice people, doing interesting things. And all you have to do to get there is work really hard to understand some stuff that is actually really fascinating when you get into it. And, weirdly, the more you get into it the more interesting it is. It is only hard if you try to do it half-heartedly. Instead, marinate your brain.

The first thing you need to do is decide how to take notes. I do not recommend opening the textbook and writing out notes as you read. We call that “cold” reading or “passive” reading. It feels like you are working hard but for many people this approach is actually really inefficient. But some people like to have a pile of notes at the end of their preparation for class and I do get that. If that is how you like to do it, then you do you. Whatever works for you. But for a lot of people, this basic approach soon loses its appeal. Instead, maybe consider some tried and tested alternatives. We consider the first of these in the next post.

The first installment in this series can be found here. The next is here.


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