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  • Kath Hall

Top tips for doing well in exams (from an academic)

Updated: Jun 16

Marking exams is one of the hardest things I had to do as an academic. First, there was always time pressure. We usually had only a few days (at most a week) to mark 60 – 100 exam papers so that the results could be collected, checked and submitted in time for release.

Second, no matter how much I loved Corporations Law (and I do) – it was always hard reading so many similar answers over and over again and staying fresh and excited for the next paper.

Finally – and this was the hardest part for me – there were always students who knew the law really well but would not get the marks they deserved in the final exam because they didn’t answer the questions well. This was really hard to see as (more often than not) it was technique that was holding these students back, not their understanding of the law.

So below are my tips for writing great exam answers to problem-style questions. The most important thing to remember, whatever technique and structure you adopt to answer questions in exams, is that your goal in answering a question is to show the marker you really understand the material and the course. Not just that you have great notes!

As markers, we have to look for indicators that a student really understands the material and the course, and is not just copying out notes. For example, we all know that IRAC suggests you adopt the following steps

  • identify the correct legal issues raised on the facts

  • state the correct law;

  • analyse and apply that law well to the facts;

  • reach a conclusion.

The problem with many students’ answers however is not that they don’t apply IRAC – it’s the effort/time/words they allocate to the different parts of their answer.

For example, if a question raises the corporate law issue of Directors’ Duties – some students might spend a lot of time

  • setting out the elements of the particular duty (including those that don’t apply/are not relevant on the facts);

  • writing out the relevant legislation or case law; or

  • restating the facts from the problem.

In a good/great answer, all of these issues would be dealt with very quickly (if at all). This is because every student should be able do these things. They do not require you to really understand the course – just to have good notes.

In contrast, the parts of your answer that should take up most of your time and effort (as they show that you do know the relevant law) include

  • dealing with the more complicated legal issues first in your answer or in the most detail;

  • identifying the most relevant cases or sections that apply to the facts;

  • applying/discussing how that law could be used to resolve the issues;

  • setting out arguments for and against the application of the relevant law where the outcome is not clear;

  • discussing remedies/penalties and coming to a clear conclusion on what you think is the likely outcome on the facts.

These parts of your answer require legal analysis (applying the law to the facts) and show that you understand the relevant legal principles. They require you to demonstrate your understanding of the law. Instead of your answer containing a lot of abstract detail on what the law is, your analysis will make it apparent to the marker that you understand the legal issues. The more effort you put into these parts of your answer, the better your marks are likely to be.

In addition, focusing on these issues in an answer indicates that you are prepared and have studied for the exam. Legal analysis is not something you can do well if you have not reviewed your lecture notes, gone over (or redone) tutorials and practiced past exam questions. It is definitely not something you should do for the first time in an exam.

In conclusion, remember that your over-riding goal in answering an exam problem is to show the marker that you understand the course. This means spending most of your time/words on applying the relevant law to the facts and always coming to a clear and well-argued conclusion on the key issues.

Also, be sure to plan your answer (including how long you will send answering each part of the paper) before you start. Make sure your answer is easy to read by adopting a clear structure and incorporating headings, clear handwriting, limited abbreviations and accurate case/section references. And if you have any questions - just let me know.


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