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  • Writer's pictureMarie Hadley

Open Book Exams: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Girl laying head on pile of books

I remember the feeling of relief when I first discovered that law exams were open book – finally I wouldn’t need to memorise essays, dates or names! Much to my surprise, having a big book of notes in an exam is not the picnic I’d imagined…

The Good

The best open book exams are usually the ones where you refer to your notes only once or twice, if at all. Markers are usually able to tell if students are copying large sections from their notes or if they have synthesised these notes enough to demonstrate their critical understanding of the topic at hand.

In these exams I primarily use my notes to double-check the names of cases I have in mind or confirm a section of law that I needed to jot down.

The Bad

Let’s face it, it’s not always possible to keep up to date with the readings all semester and to have had the time during STUVAC to type, summarise and actually revise your notes. If you’re anything like me, you’re probably spending your study break just doing week 3-12 readings for the first time. Eventually you realise that reading over 1000 pages of constitutional law in five days isn’t really feasible, so you fish for another student’s perfectly written notes.

Although the exams where I relied on other students’ notes were not my best, I can also say that they weren’t my worst. By using another student’s notes I at least had some time to revise. Although the situation would have been better had I done my own readings and notes, I still found myself only relying on my notes a few times during these exams.

The Ugly

There have also been a few STUVACs where I have ignored the law of diminishing marks and convinced myself that I should do the readings and write my notes from scratch. By the end of it I would have a set of perfect, colourfully tabbed notes… the only problem was that I’d spent so much time writing them (sometimes until the early hours on the morning of the exam) that I had not absorbed any of the content.

It was in these exams that I would spend a good 15-20 minutes actually revising, before even picking up a pen. My ugliest example would probably be when my mark for administrative law fell from an 80+ assessment/pre-exam mark to a credit after the exam. At least I passed, right?

Initially I thought that an open book exam was all about thorough notes and colourful tabs, but it is really about demonstrating your critical understanding of the subject and applying the law learned in classes to the exam question. At the end of the day, markers are looking at what you have written in your exam, not the perfectly written notes you prepared for the test.

When it comes to notes for an open book exam, the more concise, the better!

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