How to Prepare for a Closed-Book Exam

Closed bookLaw school exam tutor extraordinaire Lee Faller Burgess of Amicus Tutoring returns with advice on preparing for a closed-book law school exam. Take it away!

What Type of Exams Do You Have?

Depending on your law school, you may have many or few closed-book exams. For example, when I was a first-year law student, all of my exams were closed book. I didn’t have an open-book exam until I was in an upper-division class. [Note from Alison: I never had a closed-book exam in law school. Thanks goodness!]

However, the trend lately seems to be that more and more professors are giving open-book tests. But that doesn’t mean that the dreaded closed-book exam is gone — it is alive and well in law schools around the country!

Here are some thoughts on getting ready for your closed-book exams.

You Should Be Happy You Have a Closed-Book Exam!

First, you should feel good about having closed-book exams.

I am sure you are laughing after reading this, but I do believe they are good preparation for the biggest closed-book exam of them all — the bar exam!

That’s right — there are no outlines allowed on the bar exam — you have to have all that information right there in your head.

So a closed-book exam during law school helps you:

  1. learn the law in a way that may be easier to recall come bar exam time
  2. learn how you memorize best, which will also help with the bar exam

OK — feeling ready to study for the test?

Make Sure Your Outline Can Be Memorized

Make sure you have a good outline that is memorizable.

Hopefully, your outlines are done because you are just days or about a week away from your first final.

An outline should not be a treatise of information. It should be a concise statement of the law that you can memorize.

That is because you need to memorize the entire outline. Nope, I am not joking.

Almost every word of that sucker needs to be put to memory. So if your outline is 80 to 100 pages, there is no way you are going to memorize everything. You’ve got to make it shorter!

A General Understanding of the Law Isn’t Enough

Having a basic understanding of the law isn’t enough. You must memorize the law so that you can quickly recall it and write it down.

True story: The first Thanksgiving I was in law school I went home to spend time with my family. My parents are both lawyers (I know — I swore I would never join the ranks of the attorneys in my family) and my mother took it upon herself to quiz me to get me ready for my torts exam.

We were sitting at my parents’ kitchen table and she said, “How is the studying going?”

“Fine,” I replied.

“Great, so let’s see, you know all of the Tunkl factors then.”

“Yes, I understand them.”

“OK, but what are they?”

I started to fumble through the factors listing them out of order or incorrectly.

My mom put down the outline and looked at me very seriously.

Understanding them is not good enough. You have to know them and be able to write them down. Perfectly. Every time.

So this made me very nervous, as I realized I had never taken a test before that was so much about memorization. You had to know the right language not just the general ideas.

After that talk I quickly broke out my torts outline and started memorizing. But how do you memorize all that material?

How the *$%*&@# Am I Supposed To Memorize All of This?!?

Tips for memorizing — do what works best for you. There is no one right way to memorize.

Here are some common ways that my students work on memorization:

  • Memorizing with flash cards. I personally don’t like flash cards — because they don’t force me to write out the law the way I would on the test. But a lot of people like them. One warning about flash cards: Don’t spend too much time making them. Students can spend hours making flash cards when they should be reviewing and studying their outlines.
  • Memorizing by re-writing rules. The way that I best memorize is practicing writing out the rules and/or outline for a specific area of law. This can be done by hand or on the computer, but I recommend re-writing things by hand. It slows you down and makes you really think about what you are writing.

You know the rules, now what?

You want to practice writing out the rules in the exact format that you would on an exam. So, going back to my Tunkl factors, you want to write them out — in paragraph form, numbering each one — just as you would on a test.

That ability to recall a rule in this way and write it out is key to writing a quality exam answer.

You should be able to do this for all the rules in a class. And you need to practice recalling the rules fast.

Make up Some Mnemonic Devices

If you have a list of factors, how can you memorize the list for quick reference?

This is where mnemonic devices come in. A mnemonic device is a learning technique that aids recall and makes memorization easier.

You create a phrase to remember the order of factors using the first letter of each factor. This helps you recall the factors in a quick and accurate fashion.

You may have a lot of mnemonics by the time you are done preparing for your exam. That’s all right! They will help you on test day.

So I Don’t Have to Practice for a Closed-Book Exam, Right?

If you have to spend all this time memorizing, is there still time to practice for the exam? The answer must be yes.

Here is a secret:

On exam day almost everyone will have all the rules memorized.

You don’t believe me, but it is true.

So then, what sets you apart from other students?

  1. Recalling the correct rules and being able to write them quickly and accurately.
  2. Identifying the correct issues in the question.
  3. Writing lots of great analysis tying the rules to the facts.

To make sure you can do these three things, you must practice writing complete exam answers.

But don’t despair! Doing practice exams is a form of studying! You are practicing writing out those rules and testing yourself. That is a much better method of studying than staring at an outline anyway.

I Just Can’t Do This All Day Long!

How much time should you memorize in a given day?

I recommend that students balance memorization and practice.

You need to decide what is best for you as to how long you can memorize and when you should memorize. For me, I memorize best first thing in the morning. So on a given study day, that is what I do during the morning and I save more practice for the afternoon.

Think about how you study and decide what is best for you.

These are just some tips to get you started preparing for a closed-book exam. Focus on getting in good study and practice time and you’ll see exam success!

— – —

Thanks, Lee!

If you’d like to learn more about Lee and get some of her general exam taking advice, check out the interview we did a while back: Nervous About 1L Exams? Get Advice from a Rock Star Tutor or take a look at Myths About Law School Exams. She’s also weighed in on what to do if you fail the bar exam.

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  1. I have a closed book exam for the first time this semester, and it’s not just issue spotting. There will be a multiple choice section. Is there anything different I need to do to prepare for that and where can I find practice exams with multiple choice questions? (My professor does not release prior exams.)

    • You will find that most professors don’t release prior multiple choice questions because they re-use them every year. They are also very difficult to write, so professors don’t want to have to write them over-and-over again. If you know someone who took the class last year, it can be helpful to ask them about what they remember about the multiple choice portion.

      Typically the preparation for multiple choice questions isn’t that different from issue spotting, you just want to practice some questions if possible to get used to taking questions in that format. Sometimes multiple choice questions will test very specific nuances in the law that are difficult to test on an essay exam.

      Depending on the class, you typically can find a supplement that will have multiple-choice materials. Some, like “CrunchTime”, frequently include multiple choice practice right in the book. If your class is on a subject that is tested on the multi-state bar exam (Contracts, Torts, Crimes, Property, Constitutional Law, Evidence) you can use bar materials to test yourself. Most law school libraries have copies of bar materials (check with the librarian).

      Lastly, I recommend that if you can’t find any multiple choice questions, you try to write your own. Or get a group together to all write a few questions and exchange them. Writing your own is a great technique to test your knowledge of the material and also help you study.

      Good luck!

  2. Sorry to ask/state the obvious but are you then suggesting that practice exams should only be done after transforming class notes to a good set of outlines/mini outlines?

    How many days/weeks prior to the exam will you advise that practice exams should be taken?


  3. Hi Christy:

    Ideally, you will have some sort of outline to practice with, because that will give you the structure of the law to apply to the facts. The common mistake that students make is thinking that you can’t practice until you have learned all the law – or memorized it for a closed book exam. That is just not the case. You can use practice exams to HELP you learn the law – nothing will show you whether or not you understand a concept like applying it to a fact pattern.

    I think that you should practice as much as you can before the exam. For instance, at this point in the semester I recommend that all my students be doing practice exams. If you have a limited number of exams from your professor, you can find other practice (see here for some suggestions) which can help you prepare. You should also feel free to re-write an exam you have already done to make you feel like you know what the best possible answer would look like.

    Lastly, try to save one exam question for the days before the exam. That will give you a dry run of sorts before test day. But as soon as you feel like you understand the black letter law, you should be practicing as much as you can.

    I asked a friend of mine what he wishes he had known his first year of law school. He said “write every day.” Although that may be a bit over the top, there is a lot of value in doing a large amount of writing leading up to exams. And if you struggle with timing, organization or have exam anxiety – then yes, you should be writing every day.

    I hope this helps! Please let me know if you have any other questions.

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