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How to Make an Exam Answer Template

Student taking notes

‘Aww man, you’re so lucky! You have an open book exam!’ While there are some students who believe this means no study is necessary (I like hearing them banging their heads on the desk during exams!), for the rest of us prepping for an open book exam means trying to synthesise a semester’s worth of learning into some brief, easy to use notes. I’ve found the best way to format these notes is as a quick-reference answer template. Because exams are just over a month away, here are some tips to help you make an awesome answer template…

Structure and Formatting

Your brain can do some crazy stuff in exams, so when it comes to deciding how you’ll structure and set out your template, the most important thing is to choose something that works for you. If you like colour coding, then colour code. If dot points and headings are you thing, use them. If you use pictures to help you understand, then do it! Flow charts can also be useful, but only if you can follow them. If you’re going to reference a page in your textbook (‘see p 124 for discussion’), make sure you know which book you’re referring to! Just remember, whatever you do doesn’t have to work for anybody else; it just has to work for you.

Keep an eye out for exam hints

Lecturers may be evil overlords of brain pain, but they can also be really nice and can’t help casually dropping some exam hints here and there. Some share a whole list of stuff that will be in the exam; others are more subtle and throw the ‘you might want to know this for the exam’ in the middle of a super-boring lecture about charitable trusts. Make a note of any relevant hints to incorporate into your template.

Refine it down…

Go through your notes from the semester and pull out the essential parts. If you’re doing problem solving questions, you’ll need the various legislation and rules. If the exam contains a theoretical question, make sure you get a good foundation of cases, legislation, theorists, public policy arguments, etc. Go through stuff from tutorials – I found tutorial notes to be really helpful, especially with problem questions! And as a back up, always take your tutorial work into the exam – you never know if your lecturer will sneak a tutorial question in.

…and refine it some more!

Now that you have your essential info, hack it down to its bare bones. I like to call this my answer skeleton. Essentially, you have the scaffolding of an answer; you just need to pad it out, build on it and give it some body in the exam (and because we’re law students, we have no problem adding extra words!).

For some topics, there’ll be an obvious answer structure that you can base your template around. For example, in negligence, your template will need to include information relating to duty of care, breach of duty, etc.

But even if your subject doesn’t have a specific structure, remember our old friend IRAC. Write what the potential issue may be, then write what the rule is and outline any relevant tests, and don’t forget to include your legal authorities! This is your I and R. In the exam, you can apply the tests/authorities to the specific scenario and draw a conclusion based on this (this is your A and C).

Make sure that your template is concise enough to use at-a-glance, but also detailed enough so that you won’t need to be rifling through textbooks to see what you’re even talking about.

Re-read, recap and re-do

Always come back to your template the day after you make it, when you’re no longer ‘word blind’, and re-read it, just to make sure there are no typos, weird grammar, or ‘seriously, brain, what the hell?!’ moments.

It’s pretty pointless making an answer guide if you don’t actually use it! Once you’ve made your template, try and use it to answer some practice exams. This will highlight any information that you are missing and will also ensure you actually understand your guide. Until exams roll around, consider your template a work in progress – keep testing it on past exam questions and don’t be afraid to edit your template.

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