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Study skills for law students 2: Understanding before memorising

How school ruined any enjoyment of learning for me

I was always an inquisitive child so I was genuinely looking forward to grammar school. I’ve already mentioned in the previous article that grammar school is a type of secondary school that is academically very selective with a very strict admission procedure. As a nerd who was suffering at a local primary, school that accepts only people with the same mindset as me seemed like heaven. And it was. But it also wasn’t.

I was lucky that my new teachers were quite fair, but not many of them were good teachers. To be honest, I can remember only one of them, a physics teacher, who managed to bring any fun and enjoyment into the lesson. I still vividly remember his attempts to help us learn how to do the maths for calculating speed on the example of a little girl riding her bike and the chewing gum she encounters on the road.

Sadly, the same can’t be said for the rest. A biology teacher completely ruined our passion for biology and I was really looking forward to sciences which were so basic at primary school. She shattered our blooming enthusiasm during the very first class when she told us to copy a taxonomical chart of plants and animals without explaining anything.

Other subjects weren’t any better. I never got a reasonable answer from a math teacher when I directly asked him when I’d use this or that formula in real life (I wasn’t being sarcastic) and our chemistry teacher hardly ever did any experiments despite the school having a pretty good lab. Chemistry became this vague discipline for me that consisted of solving endless formulas for substances I could hardly imagine.

Studying at grammar school wasn’t about exploring new exciting areas I was looking forward to. It wasn’t about delving into the fascinating world of sciences. It was about memorising dry pieces of information with apparently no connection to real life. I can go as far as to say that grammar school ruined any enjoyment of learning for me.


Toxic cramming

I’m not saying that our teachers weren’t trying to explain things to us properly. Some of them were. The problem is that they never truly checked whether we really understood and asking the whole class “So, do you understand?” rarely met with any other response than a few of my classmates nodding so that the teacher could move on. They also rarely explained how we can apply that knowledge in real life.

Our exams were often based on what the teacher wanted to hear as opposed to critically thinking about the material. At university, this tendency reached astronomical heights with one teacher of English literature who only wanted to hear her interpretation of a literary work and other interpretations resulted in a failing grade no matter how well they were supported by logical arguments. Thus, most of the class, myself included, pretty much resigned and learned her version just to get a passing grade.

As a former student of archaeology, I’m no stranger to toxic cramming. I know how you feel, dear law students, when you open your textbooks and your head feels heavy before you even begin. Studying archaeology was the same and even though we did have some internships and had a chance to get our hands dirty at real excavations, just as you participate in moot courts, our studies mostly consisted of endless cramming from textbooks.

Cramming has a bad reputation and, arguably, some things need to be crammed (hopefully using smart methods we will talk about in the upcoming articles) to be memorised. The problem is when occasional cramming becomes a toxic chase of straight As and exams don’t test your understanding of the topic but rather how many pieces of trivia you can draw from your memory.

The term “toxic” refers to something harmful and while occasional cramming before an exam has never killed anyone, toxic cramming can damage your health and ruin your passion for learning. Just remember all those instances when you were pulling all-nighters, had to rely on stimulants to keep you alert and were on the verge of burnout. I bet you didn’t feel enthusiastic about your studies during those times even if the subject interested you.


Exams that are checking your memory, not understanding

Some subjects, like maths, do check for your understanding and the ability to apply your newly acquired knowledge, but most exams are still heavily based on getting words out of your memory on paper. They don’t check for understanding; they check whether you were able to memorise the material.

You could be asked for a definition of something and write that definition correctly, but does that mean you understood the topic? Not necessarily, it just proved that you memorised a sequence of words the teacher wanted to hear. Most of my classmates worked that way. They got an A for giving a perfect definition but when asked to apply that knowledge to a real-life situation, they failed miserably.


A fact or a concept?

Since you’ve managed to read this far, there’s a chance you don’t want to end up like that. You don’t want to score straight As just for the grade’s sake and then freeze when actually standing in the court, trying to help your client. Sure, there’s still a ton of information you have to memorise by heart, but you need to, first and foremost, understand what you’re learning, why it might be useful and how you can apply it.

Therefore, when approaching any study material, you have to analyse it first. Skim through and decide which parts of the text are pure facts and which are concepts. You need to be able to distinguish between these two because you have to approach them differently.

Facts are pieces of information that have to be memorised. They refer to things like names and dates and you can’t do much about them except commit them to your memory. If you’re asked to study when certain legislation was passed, in which state and who were the participants in that trial, you can use flashcards and spaced repetition to remember more easily, but you essentially have to memorise the information by heart.

Concepts, on the other hand, are things you have to understand. They answer questions like ‘why’ and ‘how.’ You can cram when a certain legislation was passed, but to actively apply the knowledge, you have to analyse what was the dispute about, why a certain law had to be enforced and how it changed the society. These things cannot be mindlessly memorised, you have to think about them.


Understanding before memorising

This leads us to a simple truth; you have to understand what you’re trying to learn before you start memorising it. Thinking critically and trying to understand should be the first step, not the last. It should be a step you take before you start committing things to your memory. Understanding must precede memorising or else you will end up with a bunch of facts in your head you can’t apply.

Fortunately, there’s a very good method to check your understanding and it’s called the Feynman Technique. Richard Feynman was a Nobel Prize-winning physicist known for his ability to convey complex ideas in a simple, easily understandable way. As Albert Einstein famously said: “If you can’t explain it to a six-year-old, you don’t understand it yourself.” How does it work?

  1. Choose a topic you want to learn and study it thoroughly.
  2. Once you feel that you have a good grasp of the topic, try to explain it in your own words as if you were teaching someone else. It’s important to use simple language and avoid using jargon.
  3. During the process of explaining, you might find areas that are challenging to convey. This is where the weaknesses in your understanding are. Go back to your studies and clarify these gaps.
  4. Once you’ve filled in the gaps, review and simplify your explanation even further. Create analogies, use simple language and try to convey the very essence of the idea. The goal is that even someone with no prior knowledge of the topic can understand it.
  5. Finally, it’s time to practice and apply. Practice the concept repeatedly until it becomes natural to you. Also, try to apply the concept in a different context and use it to solve problems.


Think like a lawyer

Even if you’re still at university, you can start thinking like a lawyer right away. Don’t rely solely on lectures and textbooks, focus on developing your critical and analytical thinking skills. Always ask 'why' a decision was made in a case or 'how' it applies to what you're studying. Practice answering legal questions and not only those that might appear on the exam. Remember, your goal isn’t just to score straight As, your goal is to become an excellent lawyer in the real world.

Find a study group and discuss complex legal concepts with your classmates. This might help with both deepening your understanding of the topic and retention of the material. Another benefit is that you can test each other and even simulate a moot court. There’s one other hidden benefit: studying in a group can be very motivational and prevent procrastination.

Don’t be afraid to interact with your tutors. Make use of their office hours to ask about things that are unclear to you and show your enthusiasm. Contrary to what you might think, most teachers want you to succeed. Attend seminars and workshops outside your curriculum that offer a more practical approach and apply for internships to get your first real hands-on experience.



Ø  Cramming can easily become toxic so be aware of that.

Ø  Before learning any new material, you have to analyse it first. Is the thing you’re trying to learn a fact or a concept?

Ø  Understand first before you start memorising, use the Feynman Technique.

Ø  If you can’t explain it simply in your own words to someone outside your field of study, you probably don’t understand it.


Action steps to take immediately

o   Try the Feynman Technique

o   Find a study group at your campus

o   Visit your tutors during their office hours

o   Look for extra-curriculum seminars and workshops

o   Apply for internships as soon as possible


In the next article: How our memory works