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How to Study for a Closed Book Exam

Lady reading book outside

I’m terrible at remembering names, and I’m even worse when it comes to numbers – and a closed book exam means memorising lots of case names and sections of legislation. Like most law students, I tend to panic when I heard the words “closed book exam,” but here are some tips for making the process easier…


When it comes to studying for a closed book exam, the most important thing is to give yourself plenty of time. It depends on the size of the exam, but generally you will need two to six weeks. You will need to allow more study time if the exam covers the entire course, as opposed to just a few topics.

Having enough time to study is vital because your short-term memory can only take in so much information and it doesn’t retain it for very long. Short-term memory won’t be enough for a closed book exam. If you start studying earlier the information will be stored in your long-term memory and you’ll remember more of it. That’s good news when you’re doing exams notes-free.


Once you know the exam date and have an idea of content, make a study timetable. Your schedule should give your mind an opportunity to take in information and process it.

When you attempt to learn an entire subject in two days it all gets jumbled together and you usually end up more confused than when you started. It’s the worst way to study for closed book exams. Don’t do it.


Knowing what’s on the exam is vital when planning your study. Even if you’ve been studying for weeks ahead of a closed book exam, you still won’t remember every little detail. If your lecturer says it’s not on the exam, don’t try to memorise it. If the excluded material is foundational you should certainly do a little bit of revision so you’re familiar with it, but be wary of wasting “brain space” on things you won’t be assessed on.

With closed book exams keep in mind that you won’t be expected to remember things in the same detail as you studied them in class. You’re not expected to cram a 600 page equity textbook into your brain, so don’t freak out and try to.

Some lecturers give you an aid in closed book exams, such as a case list or a list of sections in legislation and their titles. If they do this, try to get a copy ahead of time and use this to jog your memory as you work on practice papers. Also, if you have a case list, you don’t need to try and learn full citations, unless you really, really want to…


When you begin studying, do an hour or two of reading for that subject (with plenty of breaks) each day and try to understand each topic before moving onto the next. Don’t aim for longer study sessions because you won’t give your brain a chance to fully process all the new information. Once you’re familiar and comfortable with the material you can then increase the amount of study you do. When you’ve laid these foundations, remembering the information becomes much easier.

The information you need to remember will not be as detailed as for an open book exam. Still, I tend to start with a detailed set of notes (sometimes they’re quite long) and I read them several times. Then I edit them down to about half their original length and read these new notes a few times. Then I cut them down and revise again, and again, and again… until it’s just a few pages of headings with case names and/or sections of legislation listed underneath them.

When revising, I know it’s time to re-edit my notes when I can remember most of the material in them. I remove the parts I remember and only leave in the things I can’t remember or don’t fully understand yet. When you cut down your notes be sure to leave in relevant headings so you know what its context is within the course.

Reading and editing your notes down isn’t the only thing you should do to study for a closed book exam. Using different study methods increases your ability to retain information. So I also listen to lecture tapes and do past papers.

Where I have trouble remembering information, I copy those notes out by hand a few times. From time to time I have also been known to write these notes in whiteboard marker on the shower screen or bathroom mirror and test my knowledge when I’m getting ready for the day.

People often say teaching is the best way to learn. When it comes to preparing for closed book exams my experience is that it really can help. Meet up with a classmate and explain concepts and cases to each other. Not only does it help you to remember exam material, it also shows you where you need to do more study.

The Secret Weapon

If all these techniques weren’t enough, there’s always flash cards. They may seem like a silly primary school teaching tool, but nothing works better. In fact, they’re particularly good for last minute revision of those stubborn bits of information you just can’t remember. . If you’re trying to learn cases, write the case name on one side of the flash card and two short sentences on the back: one sentence covering the facts, the other for the law. If you prepare your flash cards like this, you’ll be able to test yourself both ways: matching the case name with the facts/outcome and then vice versa. If you’re learning legislation, put the topic on one side (eg. “Hearsay”) and on the other side write the section of the act and a brief summary of what it says.

When preparing flash cards, try to use as few words as possible. This will make your brain work more. Otherwise, the more information you have in front of you, the lazier your brain will be.

The great thing about flashcards is that you can quiz yourself anytime – they’re particularly good for public transport.

Have I mentioned how awesome flash cards are?

Keep it together

If you’ve been studying for weeks on end, chances are you’re all set for the exam. In the exam you’ll be surprised at how much you actually have remembered. If you can’t recall something straight away, move on. If you stay calm you’re more likely to remember the information you need. As Douglas Adams would advise, “Don’t panic.”

FROM THE ARCHIVES: This story was first published on Survive Law on 23 November 2010.

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