The Scots Law Student

The SLS : Life and trials of learning law in Scotland

Tag: memorisation

The most unlikely law study aid ever?

As I am an avid reader and notorious for it, it’s not unusual for me to get books at Christmas, and last year I received a copy of Derren Brown “Tricks of the Mind“. This book, although not ever intended specifically for it, may actually become the most unususal law study aid I have thus far tried.

My reason for this conclusion – the title of Part 3 : “Memory”

A law student needs to remember a great deal for closed book exams and this is a common complaint – I’ve already written about the issue in the short time this blog has been established.

Now, in no way am I suggesting that reading Brown should supercede reading Gane & Stoddard but any law student, any student whatsoever, on reading him recount listing Shakespeare’s plays in chronological order of their being written by mentally walking a path through a theatre wishes to God that he’s giving a genuine tip that might help him to remember, for example, common law case lines. Teasingly, Derren Brown himself studied law while at university and applies his system to remembering a case name and year – very promising stuff.  For those interested, it’s Pharmaceuticals Society of Great Britain v Boots Cash Chemists 1953.

For example, a very common problem seen before the court is that of parties making a mistake in their contract or their understanding of it and disputes arising from it. Obviously not all mistakes are equal so the law has created a series of tiers and definitions of these – one of which is Unilateral Error, the induced version being close to misrepresentation and ending with the contract becoming voidable and I learnt that the cases of Morrisson v Robertson and Shogun Finance Ltd v Hudson told me the common law principles that govern this form of error. However, should that unilateral error be uninduced then the issue is much more unclear and I have to remember that MacBryde has written authority on exactly this issue so it would be good to be able to quote it and I know that case wise it was decided in 1875 through the case of Steuart’s Trs v Hart that mala fides, knowledge and non-disclosure were relevant factors. This seems fine and reasonably memorable, however, as far as I understand it in 1890 Stewart v Kennedy pretty much denied the very existence of uninduced unilateral error, instead prefering “error plus” and declared that it had to be induced to be effective and that was upheld and followed several times as recently as 1990, that’s confusing but it sounds like the later cases have superceded the earlier one. However in 1992 Angus v Bryden went back to the 1875 case and decided that knowledge and bad faith were once again indeed remediable faults.

Thus, there were two lines of active case law operating in the same area of law and a lot of authoritative cases, which cruelly happen to have the same sounding name. This is the kind of situation where you need a visual alternative to a sound and it is the kind of thing that Brown teaches in his book – moving everything to images, even using rhyme to convert numbers to images. It’s a fantastic plan but I’ve always been concerned that it seems like more work than just learning the facts as they stand. I think if you managed to leverage the visual memory system that he advocates you would see a marked improvement in your ability to recall facts and their relationships with other facts and that would pay off very well.

Just as you need to be able to read quickly in law school, a good memory for what you have taken in is essential if you want to get the most out of your reading and note taking. There is nothing like struggling to remember if a case was anomalous because it was decided after a landmark authority or came before and represented the established way of thinking and remembering cases as, for example, things on plinths in alcoves of a hallway (my attempt at transferring this method to contract law) would help you remember if the case came before or after another. Physically remembering the year on the case report which you studied is my current method for exam preparation but I think it is too fleeting, I effectively bulk up on rapidly memorised facts and stomp into the exam hall and forget everything I ever knew in the stress (large blocks of higher maths are no longer clear memories to me).

However, I was watching one of his TV series, Trick or Treat, on channel 4 and spotted the mother-lode of research gifts. In that he apparently managed to get a regular human being, Glen, to record the contents of a library by dragging his fingers down each page in a book and sort of glancing at the page.

Let me tell you, I’m an authority on sort of glancing at the page while studying and I’m pretty certain it doesn’t work. If it did work though, that is an unbelievable system which seriously changes how schooling will happen around the world. Until then I will dream on that the speed reading + eidetic memory is as effective and as effortless as Derren has made out.

The fact that Glen, a man who by all accounts cited his poor memory as a failing when he applied to go on the show single handedly managed to beat off all but one team in the All England Pub Quiz just rubs my quiz loving nose in it. I literally had a daydream while watching the show of being able to do that with Stair, Hume, the dear Scots Law Times and basically the rest of the library too. It’s a dream of students on reading heavy courses to be able to speed it up, so improved retention and improved speed will both help and I realised I needed to make this a priority.

Derren, aside from his sometimes evil nature, is very entertaining and I make a point of watching the majority of his shows as they’re broadcast. I would never go to see him live because he’s a scary man but I’ll watch him on TV and cheer him on from a safe distance. This is a man who has rolled a human being -tied up in a sack- into a lake and not been particularly shook up about it.

In the words of Charlie Brooker, my favourite columnist for the Guardian, Derren Brown is:

“Clearly the best dinner-party guest in history – he’s either a balls-out con artist or the scariest man in Britain.”

Amen to that.

Law school is hard, tedious, and long

(But it is not a bad experience.)

I should really say that Law School can be hard, tedious and long but conditionals lack punch in headlines.

Brute force memorisation of the common law principles of the Scots Law of Contract before an exam is hard, tedious and long but once you know the principles a little revision will keep them fresh in your mind and, if you play your cards right you will be able to have a book near by anytime you need to use them again. As far as I can tell the intent of time limited questions is to provide a good way of eliminating cheating and to train students to think on their feet. It’s also possible that it gives those students who are just out of school a familiar format of paper – that of the exam you dive on as soon as the invigilator says start.

It’s a million miles away from the slow, inexorable image of justice and wisdom which the profession, especially the judiciary presents. The number of case reports marked with cur. adv. vult. (curia advisari vult) show that a great deal of respect is placed to deliberate thinking and not immediate answers in the search for justice but at the same time it is not so strange a strategy for the profession to, in the first year at least, train their pupils to be able to process a question quickly and sketch out a passable answer using learned material. It’s not so good if your handwriting may not be the neatest in the world (I excuse myself by conceding that it is rapid if not beautiful) but that is a fault I may only lay at the doors of my handwriting teachers in primary.

The mixed nature of examination is another issue, perhaps in a move to even out the success of skin-of-teeth exam crashers over the slow and steady workers who, despite working harder fail to produce the same results on the day of an exam as the stunningly intelligent or very lucky. We’ve all been in classes with the stunningly intelligent. My favourite stunningly intelligent classmate spent two years of higher and advanced higher having a laugh in class, going as far as (myself as an honest witness) banging his head against the wall behind him and then going on to scoop the highest mark of the year, in a private school, twice. A stunning achievement and one I am frankly very jealous of because it was a great class that I sadly didn’t continue after higher. I counted myself among the very lucky and every results day had pangs of guilt when I scored higher than friends and classmates that I knew had worked harder than me throughout the year. (Readers will be glad to hear that luckily, for my conscience at least, this trend has since reversed.)

The worst side of the exam system is that I, strangely enough, left the hall after the exam feeling disappointed that there was not more. For example, before I started university, I spent a fantastic sixth year learning as much as I could retain about Shakespeare but come the exam there was only one question on Shakespeare and that question only asked about one elements of two of his plays. I had 90 minutes, give or take, to show what I had spent a year of my life doing and I couldn’t help wondering if this was a fair exchange – a year for 90 minutes of questioning.

However, time planning so bad it has on occasion alienated friends has also led to me not feeling as much love for the alternative – the coursework assignment that is much maligned in university today. Oxford University has been reported as going as far as to use what sounds like heuristic analysis on pupils’ essays to check for cheating, and it is possible to gain an A in some university acceptance qualifications without ever needing to attend the exam, “merely” submitting stellar coursework. Checks and balances exist in the system but there is still a suggestion that there is too much reliance on coursework.

I disagree, if I didn’t get disorganised and put it off, coursework would provide the time required for a passionate student (remembering that some of law any school can be hard, tedious and boring) to really put the effort into proving their worth. It would also eliminate the advantage of the very lucky and apparently, according to a long line of educational research, disadvantage boys. I find this bad on a personal level but selfishness is not a reason to scrap coursework. I find coursework to be more stressful than flying, but only around the deadline, apart from that there is no endless past papers in front of a clock, no dividing clock faces up into essay segments like a hurdler timing strides – that’s not learning, that’s training to get the high score.