One easy way to improve your exam technique

Want to know the easiest exam tip for law school to improve your exam technique and grades, and which wont involve spending longer in the library studying? Use a timer – it will keep you on track during the exam and give you an edge over other students. It’s so simple, but almost no one does it properly.

Want to score a high distinction?

To illustrate, picture an exam with 10 questions, each worth 10 marks each. It’s a timed exam and time is used to separate the performance of students. That is, it’s difficult to finish within the time frame given – for example, every law exam ever written.

Student 1: Student 1 has studied and knows his material. He gets 9.5 in every question he answers, but only has time to finish 8 questions. Total score: 76 (distinction).

Student 2: Student 2 has studied and knows her material. She gets 8.5 in every question she answers, and answers all 10 questions. Total score: 85 (high distinction).

If you understand the law of diminishing returns in exams you will never need to be student 1.

Understanding the law of diminishing returns

law of exam techniques
Spending that extra time to get a question perfect will hurt you in the long run. If you time it properly, you’ll get a great (rather than perfect) score on every question, increasing your overall exam mark.

The law of diminishing returns refers to the fact that it’s easier to score the first 50% of marks for a question than it is to score the last 50% of marks. Then when you take the last 50% of marks, it is easier to score the first 25% of those marks than it is to score the remaining 25% of marks. And so on.

Another way to illustrate this is to take a hypothetical 20 mark question:

  • the first 10 marks will require 10 minutes;
  • the next 5 marks will require 10 minutes;
  • the next 3 marks will require 10 minutes; and
  • the final 2 marks will require 10 minutes.

On exam day, there is no longer any time to learn new material or write new notes; the only element within your control, and which will have the greatest effect on your exam score, is how long you spend on each individual question.

Luckily, this is very easy.

Using a timer in an exam

To control how long you spend on each question in an exam you must:

  • use a timer; and
  • make sure that each individual question is finished with its allocated time.

timer in law school exam

Lower scoring students often spend too long on individual questions, and instead of leaving a question part answered, they will continue to spend time on a single question until it is completely finished. It may seem counter-intuitive, but to get high distinctions you will sometimes need to leave a question unfinished.

Unfortunately, some students will work harder and spent longer preparing for an exam, but will still score poorly, simply because they have poor exam taking skills. What they fail to understand is that law exams are designed with time constraints in them so that not everyone will finish. This makes it easier for lecturers to mark exams and to distinguish between the best students (that is, to place students on the curve).

Putting it all into action (the steps)

The best thing about this issue is that it is very easy to address. The plan is simple:

  • First, buy a small timer (and make sure it is silent and doesn’t beep each time a button is pressed).
  • Second, calculate exactly how long a single mark is worth in time, that is, in minutes and seconds. To do this, you need to know how long the exam goes for and how many marks are available. Then, divide the total marks by the time in minutes.
    • For example: an exam will be out of 80 marks. You will have two hours (being 120 minutes). Each mark will therefore be worth 120 minutes / 80 marks = 1.5 minutes per mark.  That is, 1 minute and 30 seconds per mark.
  • Third, write a list that you can use in your exam. If you have practiced a number of past exams, you will have an idea of the common marks for each subject. Just to be safe, bring in a list of marks from 1 to 30, and the corresponding times. This assumes that the exam will be open-book, which most law exams are.
    • Using the example above, 1 mark = 1 minute and 30 seconds. 2 marks = 3 minutes. 4 marks = 4 minute and 30 seconds. And so on until your list reaches around 30 marks.
  • Fourth, during reading time, quickly flick through your exam and write down how much time you will have next to each question, down to the second. I normally do this in the first 45 seconds or so as I am checking to make sure I have all of the pages on the exam. (I then complete reading time by reading through the exam and making notes.)
  • The fifth step is the hardest: you need to answer the questions and stick to the designated time. Do not go over. If you haven’t finished leave half a page and come back to it (but understand that this is unlikely). Each 30 seconds you go over means that you are cutting into marks of the next question.

This exam technique is one of those “easy to say, hard to do” practices. In theory, it is simple and effective, but it is also admittedly difficult to follow. The only way to make sure you can succeed with this technique, and therefore increase your exam score, is to take timed practice exams. Make sure you complete as many as you can before exam day.

Use this technique in your next exam

We have all walked out of exams where someone says that they didn’t have time to finish 1 (or even 2) questions. Don’t be that person.  You should never be in the position where you don’t get to answer a question, and if you are, then you better hope that everyone else did worse than you so that the curve works in your favour.

Using a timer is an effective way to ensure that you answer every question on an exam, and be getting to every question, you will be able to capture the majority of marks in an exam.

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