Study Skill Series: Proactive Learning

by Robert Craig, University of Bristol Law School

[The introduction to the series can be found here]

Law is a subject where there is usually a strong correlation between effort and progress. Experience with generations of law students suggests that it is a bad idea to “leave things until later” in your class preparation because it is much harder to come back to things, from scratch, when they are not fresh in your mind. Also, the volume of material can quickly add up. Little and often is better and, incidentally, pacing yourself well over time also helps you to learn and remember the content far more easily – not to mention that the discipline of training your mind to keep plugging away regularly is a useful, and marketable, life skill. You will be justified in giving yourself a little pat on the back when you get to the revision period if you are actually revising rather than “catching up”.

It is undeniable that the more “proactive” learning process I am describing in this blog series, with wider reading, fewer notes and only a hazy grasp of some of the more obscure points, is more challenging than trudging through the textbook slowly. But ask yourself if it is more challenging going into a seminar having barely done the textbook reading, at a huge cost in time, or whether you want to jump into the deep end. Do you want to take the risk that doing some detailed spidergrams, or making some punchy notes of the key points and forcing your brain to be stretched by reading a large amount more material quickly will prepare you better for class, and even more importantly, the revision period and the summative examination? Assessing the right balance for you between speed and detailed notes is the constant judgement you need to make.

Everyone is different so only you can really know what works for you. But I hope I have at least made you think about your working style a little bit. How you prepare for class is an essential skill that you need to think about actively throughout your degree. Unfortunately, it is one of those skills that you kind of have to work out on your own. But I will say one thing for sure. The more you read, the more you will understand and the better you will get. And law, unlike physics apparently, is one of those subjects where there is a strong correlation between effort and progress. Short term pain, long term gain. And by long term, I mean the summative examination, obviously.

Some people have a policy of choosing one topic from one unit to do “extra” work on in every learning cycle. If you do this, make sure you rotate between your units between each cycle. Don’t just do extra on your best subject every cycle – keep a balance between your subjects. That is also true in revision. Be ruthless in allocating equal time to each unit. Don’t have favourites. You can have favourite areas when you are choosing your optional subjects in future years but try not to do that whilst you are actually studying the units. Sometimes subjects you are not sure about at first can really grow on you. That happened to me with Land Law, for example.

Finally, at the end of each learning cycle, stop reading about that topic. Move on to the next cycle. Don’t think you can “come back to that later”. You won’t. And if you try, you will make yourself unhappy – not least because there is so much to do in the next cycle that will keep you plenty busy without trying to do extra. Move on to the next thing and recognise that you will not be coming back to any of the material from earlier cycles until the revision period where you prepare for the summatives. That can be scary, but it is probably better to be honest with yourself, especially if it motivates you to do as much as you can in the time available knowing that there is a real deadline after which you will move on.

If you want three quick ideas of things that will really help you later, then:

  1. Set aside 30 minutes every Sunday to go over your notes for each unit and do a one page simple spider gram or one page summary of headings and bullet points of the whole topic
  2. Set up a reading group of 4-5 other people on the course to chat every week with a view to trying to put together a summary of the main points for each topic
  3. Write. I don’t mean writing extra formative essays necessarily because that’s obviously a big deal, but even just writing paragraphs to work things out in your head or to practise explaining things or just because writing is such an important skill for you generally. Ideally, write something every day about some bit of law that you are studying, even it its only a really short paragraph. Maybe find a buddy and commit to writing a 100-200 word email explaining some legal concept, or case, to each other each day or every other day. Or your mum and dad. I am sure they won’t mind – they’ll probably love it, actually, as long as you tell them at the end of each email that you are eating properly. Or Blackboard if you like. Set up a thread and reply to yourself every day (or even every week). Or some anonymous chat board online somewhere. Or do a blog. Who cares. But if you write something every day about what you are studying, you will be amazed how fast you progress. And the formatives, even summatives, will be that much less daunting.

If you have the strength of mind to do these three things (and don’t stress if you don’t, you will be fine – adrenaline is an amazing thing), you will need to be careful you don’t crick your neck from patting yourself on the back when you get to the revision period and summatives.

The earlier installments in the series can be found here, here and here.

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