The semester examination has just ended at my university. Working late till the wee hours of many mornings, I completed the evaluation of several thick bundles of examination scripts. As always, a fair number of answers were illegible, incomprehensible and terribly disorganised.
FOR all of us in the teaching profession, the periodic ordeal of marking examination scripts arouses suicidal as well as homicidal instincts!
Many students fail to exhibit basic knowledge of the subject and, understandably, fail the examination. Others have undoubted ability but not the technique or methodology of writing effective answers. It is to the latter group of law students that I wish to address today’s column.
Let me begin by saying that law is “reasoned argument”. To perform satisfactorily in the field, some special skills and techniques need to be cultivated.
Language: A law student should understand that oral and written communication skills are absolutely indispensable for the effective practice of the law. Law students should seek constantly to improve their command of the language by reading newspapers, law books and law journals.
Original sources: A good law student buys her own textbooks and statutes and does not rely entirely on class handouts. She constantly supplements class handouts with self-study from textbooks and adds to the “bank account” of knowledge opened by the lecturer for the students.
Art of reading: Reading is an art. Unless we have a smart strategy, it is entirely possible to get lost in the undergrowth. In reading a book or article, the student must avoid beginning at the beginning and plodding to the end. She must first look at the headings and sub-headings to get a broad feel or outline of what the chapter contains.
She must proceed from the general to the particular; from the woods to the trees. If an easy book or handout is available, she must read that first to get a background.
Self-study: Her study techniques must have three aims. First, to understand the basic principles of the law. Second, to recall basic ideas. To achieve this she must summarise the main principles or ideas in simple diagrams, charts, “magic words” or acronyms. These “scaffoldings” or outlines must be committed to memory. A third aim must be to evaluate existing materials and to highlight the flaws in the laws.
Attending tutorials: Successful students go prepared to class bubbling with queries. During the class or tutorial, they don’t just hear, they listen. They jot down prolific notes. They ask questions orally or by e-mail or in other written form. They participate.
Study groups: Successful law students form informal groups for study and revision. They try to be in a group of hard workers and independent thinkers. They encourage differences rather than conformity. They expose their understanding to scrutiny by others.
Summarising notes: Organising, systematising and summarising knowledge is the best way to master it. In preparation for the examination, a good student summarises each topic on one A4 page or on index cards or uses flow charts or diagrams to organise the vast amount of material collected.
For example, the whole topic of constitutional supremacy in constitutional law can be summed up in six points:
> Article 4(1) and 162(6) on supremacy of the Constitution
> Fundamental rights
> Federal-state division of powers
> Judicial review
> Amendment process
> Darurat (emergency).
These six points can, in turn, be summed up in one magic acronym AFFJAD to help you to recall the broad contours of the topic effortlessly.
Likewise, important cases could be summed up in half a page with a few lines each on three important parts of each case: the facts, the issues, and the court’s decision on each issue.
Past years’ examination papers: Familiarity with existing patterns of evaluation helps greatly in preparation. A successful student obtains and analyses past years’ examination questions. She prepares charts to discover the examiners’ preferences or patterns. She is, however, aware that examiners change from year to year and are not bound by patterns or precedents.
Practising written answers: A good student solves some past years’ questions and submits them to her lecturer for evaluation. This way she seeks to learn by simulation. She submits her knowledge as well as her methodology to sympathetic scrutiny.
Effective presentation: Examinations are like life. Substance is important but so is show! An organised, easy-to-read presentation always secures higher marks than one that is all jumbled up, disconnected and disorganised.
In writing her answers in the examination hall, a wise student does not start writing the moment she is allowed to do so. She spends five minutes organising her answer; drawing up the scaffolding or the outline on the left page of the answer book.
ATACR formula: For each essay or problem question, a wise student follows the ATACR formula. “A” stands for analysis or breakdown of the question or problem into its constituent parts. The more issues the student spots, the higher her marks are likely to be.
“T” refers to theory or the law relating to each issue identified above. The theory and the law are found in statutes, decided cases and juristic works.
The next “A” stands for application of theory or law to the facts of the case or question at hand.
“C” refers to conclusion on the point being discussed and “R” signifies the remedy or course of action to be recommended.