Wednesday, 25 March 2015

For the record - record cards

For the record....
Record cards; small lifesavers for revision

When I was doing my GCSEs a very, very long time ago, I had to take three papers in science. "Co-Ordinated Science" was the misleading title given to this subject, which counted as two whole GCSEs.

My notes amounted to three... yes, three... level arch files. I looked at those files come revision time in abject horror. I was 16. How was I going to learn ALL OF THAT MATERIAL??

Then a friendly teacher told me that what I needed to do was "synthesise" the information. As a child of the 1980s, this confused me. What, was I meant to feed it into a computer, and then, like a brilliant Depeche Mode or Pet Shop Boys song, something beautiful yet logical and precise would come out?

The sympathetic teacher then explained; by reducing the information to essentials, summarising, and removing verbiage, I would have a far more simple and manageable amount of material to learn. The teacher suggested small record cards. 

Knowing that 3 level arch files would be the death of me, I was willing to try anything. With six weeks to go before the exams I asked my parents to buy some record cards... I remember the trip to WHSmith on Hounslow High Street... Thankfully nobody else had taken our kindly teacher's advice and the record card packs were there for me to purchase!

I wrote cards out, where necessary I drew diagrams. Where the diagrams were too complex, I photocopied them from books, cut them out, pasted them to the cards and annotated them....

Slowly I found myself learning the material. Probably more from the actual process of sifting and really thinking about the information to make the cards more so than the revision from the cards once they were made. 

I found a technique which worked. I got AA in Co-ordinated science. Just don't ask me anything about science now. I don't have the faintest idea. My box of record cards is at my mum and dad's house where I left it...

I hear my BPTC students ask "Wow, Snigdha, thanks for the trip down memory lane. But how does this help us?"

This method can be used by ANYONE for ANY SUBJECT.

Let's have a look at a couple of civil litigation revision cards by Zara McGlone: 

Note the unifying features:

- A lack of unnecessary words
- Bullet point expression
- Use of colour coding
- Underlining of key information
- Use of indentation to show internal structure - topic, subtopic and relative ranking of information
- Clear hierarchy and relationship to the syllabus

I asked Zara to explain her technique. Here is what she told me:

"I've used various revision methods in the past, but when it comes to exams where there's a lot of material to learn, rather than necessarily lots of detailed analysis, I find note cards really useful. I think that I learn through a combination of lists and visual aids; using note cards means that I both number the things I have to learn (e.g. for Civil Lit, the seven different types of service in the jurisdiction), and picture them on the card when I come to test myself on them. 

I also think that the physical act of writing out note cards helps to start fixing the facts in my head. I use colours to try and highlight certain things or key words, such as the necessary statutes or provisions of the CPR, which assists on a visual level. In addition to all that, the portable size makes learning seem more manageable and makes it easier to try and use tube journeys to revise - or at least harder to avoid using that time!"

Research has proven that "self testing" is the most effective form of studying for information retention, so Zara's method is in line with current thinking on maximising learning and memory. 

I would also advocate her "multi-source" approach; record cards, lists, self tests, other visual aids. The more multi sensory and immersive your revision, the more effective it will be.

I would also say that my experience tells me I remember more of what I write or draw than I type. I will remember more about the diagram of the eye in cross section that I drew up when I was 16 in a couple of months time than this blog post after I upload it. 

Finally, the portability and manageability of revision cards make them ideal. They can be tucked into a bag, referred to on a bus, tube or train journey. They don't take up space or weigh too much, so you can carry them everywhere. The very fact they are small means they are not daunting. Much better to have some small cards than 3 lever arch files, right?

That's exactly what I thought!

I would like to express my heartfelt thanks to Zara McGlone for her help and assistance with this blog post. Without her, it would never have been possible. Thank you very much.

Sunday, 15 March 2015

Go with the flow! (Flowcharts)

Go With The Flow.... or: Flow charts - Magical Procedural Memory Aid

Learning civil litigation or criminal litigation is very difficult, I can appreciate. Students with a law degree or postgraduate law diploma have to learn a process about which they have no real experience.

Let's put this into context...
It's like trying to learn how to drive a car and pass a driving test having only been taught in a classroom. Being told about how to mirror-signal-manouvre... being told about how to find the "biting point" on the clutch... all of which done without actually getting into a real life car. 

So you need to have a clear idea of what happens. What order the steps occur in. Where the process begins and ends. What the decisions to be made are...

Reading a textbook can help you get that basic understanding, but lots of text is not going to help you put the stages in order in your brain or to understand the scheme. 

How can you improve your ability to retain these abstract steps?

My answer is a simple diagram. I advocate the use of flow charts.

They can be drawn quickly and easily. They cut out lots of verbiage. They are clear. They are visual.

Often lawyers become so used to reading endless amounts of words, they forget that we are visual people, and love colours and shapes. Diagrams seem to simple; childish, even.

But you have a left and a right brain. One is the practical and methodical half. The other is the creative and playful side. They CAN work together, and when they do, they are much more likely to make connections which achieve long term memory. 

Flowcharts are exactly what both sides of the brain find useful; both logical and schematic, but also creative and "artistic". 

To try to kick you off on a journey of creativity and learning, here is my attempt at drawing up a diagram to cover the earliest stages of civil litigation.... 

I realise that perhaps the diagram on its own doesn't help you very much. So here is a video I uploaded to YouTube some time ago. It explains the thinking process I went through in making the diagram.

**UPDATE: Although claims are sent to Salford and processed at Northampton, the heading of all County Court claims now state they are issued "IN THE COUNTY COURT" rather than the previous "IN THE NORTHAMPTON COUNTY COURT". This is to bring practice in the County Court in line with the High Court.**

I know what you're all saying:
"That's all very well, Snigdha. Very nice. We don't have time to do this. You picked a very convenient example for a flowchart. How are we going to do this with other elements of civil litigation? What about criminal litigation? Sorry, we'd rather just read the textbook."

Firstly, I would refer you to my previous post, and why you should try to use more active methods of learning that reading alone:

Secondly, I would say that your fellow students are successfully using these methods for learning and revising and it is both helpful and worthwhile.

Jack Harrison, a current BPTC student I found on Instagram, is a fellow advocate of flow charts and diagrams. He is a former teacher and started his revision by consolidating his knowledge and drawing flowcharts and diagrams. I was so impressed by his efforts, which I think are genuinely something worth emulating, that I asked him for permission to feature examples of his work and I asked him for an explanation of his rationale and technique.

He told me:

"I used to be a teacher and in trying to work out what sorts of learners my kids were, decided I was a visual learner - I.e someone who learns best by looking at graphics as a way of understanding things. It's great to think "how can I condense this huge topic to the bare bones of needed to know" and often those bare bones will prompt my memory for the fleshier details.

I like the use of colour because it helps keep my attention and I use certain colours for things, e.g. In civil lit I will always use red for Costs and sanctions because they're very important and need attention. I think by breaking subjects and rules down to flowcharts, it helps understanding immensely. Also as the BPTC written exams are very procedural, flowcharts are ideal for settling out each stage succinctly."

**UPDATE - the Pre Action Protocol for PI Claims has come off syllabus in June 2015. The diagram made by Jack is still a brilliant way of learning procedure, but you do not have to learn this element of civil procedure any longer.**

I am very grateful for Jack for sharing with me and with all my readers. He's a wonderful chap! As you can see from his examples, the diagrams don't have to be very involved and do not have to take long to draw.

Just the simple act of drawing will help fix the steps in the process in your mind. Every time you then check over your diagram, you are reimpressing and reinforcing the original process of drawing the diagram.

I will leave you with this - my diagram on Judicial Review. 

**UPDATE - As of June 2015, Judicial Review is no longer on syllabus. The flowchart is still a good example of how to draw a helpful visual aid for revision, but of course, you do not need to learn the content of this particular diagram!**

**Updated on 7 October 2015 to reflect changes to the Civil litigation syllabus. Students are requested to check the up to date syllabus document.**

Monday, 9 March 2015

Exam Post Mortems - End this madness!

I want to declare war.

I declare war on the "Exam Post Mortem".

You know what I'm talking about - you've just done an exam, you're feeling like you've been put through the wringer, you're mentally exhausted and a fellow student decides to ask you about what you put down as your answer....

Cue lots of fevered, frenetic discussion...

"I think I got that bit right... I put...."
"Well, yes, but then what about...."
"Did you spot the.... issue... I thought it was rather obvious, personally...."

And so it goes on...

PLEASE - stop doing this!

It is utterly pointless.

Don't tell me that you "can't help it".

You can.

All you are doing is creating worry, stress and anxiety. Both in yourself and your fellow students.

The exam is DONE. Get over it. Let it go.

Once you have done an exam, go and have some fun.

Watch a film, share a meal, go for a drink.

Just make one rule - whoever starts to talk about the exam has to go home. 


Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Revising; how to get more bang for your buck

We all want to get the maximum out in return for whatever we put in. It's natural. We want value for money or "more bang" for our buck. We want more result for the time we expend.

Let us consider what research reveals about different methods for revision....

We remember on average:

10% of what we read. This is why I can read the newspaper in the morning and have forgotten almost everything by the time I get home from work.
20% of what we hear. This is why I don't remember any of the lyrics of songs I hear on the radio.
30% of what we see. This is why I can walk past a picture on my wall at home and occasionally notice something I've never seen before. 
50% of what we see and hear at the same time. This is why I have only a vague memory of what happened in the last season of House of Cards.
70% of what we say. This is why I'm better at remembering that really useful explanation of security for costs I gave last week.
90% of what we say and do at the same time. This is why I remember the diagrams I draw on the white board in a class whilst talking through a point.

What does this mean?

Think about it this way - you can read for an hour and only get a return of 6 minutes' worth of retained material. It means that you can spend three days reading Professor Stuart Sime's A Practical Approach to Civil Procedure and only retain the equivalent of 5 of its 50 chapters. 
And in all probability you will only retain small smatterings of information scattered across the whole book.
That can't be good enough, can it? For three whole days work?! 

So what would be better? 

Well, some students think that if they read whilst highlighting the "important" parts of the text, that they will remember. Often, this is done on the first full reading of the topic in question. 
This doesn't work very well... because the student doesn't yet have a proper understanding of the subject matter to sift it. 
As a result.... it all seems important. 
"But I thought it was ALL important!"

Highlighting seems like an "active" thing to do. But what processing of the information is going on here? I think at best you are giving your hand something to do. It isn't active learning. 
A combination of annotation in several colours and highlighting would be better. 

Can this be improved upon?

Yes. There are many methods that you can use, all of which mean an outlay of more time initially, but pay off with better retention of the information handled. 

Old fashioned note taking

Going through a combination of your own class and lecture notes, the tutor's handout, class slides, the text book and the practitioner's text to pick out the essential points which are noted down. 
Use of colour is recommended; using both the left brain and the right brain boosts memory retention.
This is time consuming, but if done well, you can put away all of your other resources and proceed using your notes alone; a single effective source for future learning. 

Record cards

Small format record cards are an ideal place to have key points jotted down. Portable and handy, they allow you to revise in stolen moments; on the train, between tasks, waiting for friends. 
The discipline is in working out what the key points to put on the cards are - mentally sifting the important from the irrelevant detail.
Again, the use of colour is recommended.
I made record cards for GCSE, A Level and for case revision on my LLB. My mum probably still has the little boxes of the cards in the loft of my childhood home. 

Flash cards 

The easiest way to test yourself. Quick, cheap and easy to make. You can test yourself or get others (even those who know nothing of the subject you are studying) to test you. 
It's a great way to get others involved, which will make the whole task of testing yourself a little more fun.

Recording your own podcasts 

I don't mean just read the textbook into your phone. I suggest organising your notes first - so that you have some structure and understanding of topics before you begin, and then carefully narrate and record sound files for listening to on your phone, iPod or tablet.

Audacity is a free application which will allow you to record sound files, although many phones have similar free apps which achieve the same aim. Once done, re-listen when jogging or travelling. A way of enjoying a walk or run, without feeling guilty about being away from your desk.

Mind maps

Developed by memory genius Tony Buzan, these are diagrams that work in the same way as your brain does; by making connections. 
You begin with a central theme, with arms radiating out of the centre. The items which are only 1 line removed from the middle are the key concepts and headline points; as you then radiate outwards, you can see the relationship from the central theme. You need an understanding of the topic before you make a mind map, and there may be other details you will need to learn by means of another technique, but this is a good way of organising your knowledge.

Teaching each other in a study group

If you remember 90% of what you say and do at the same time, it should be clear why teaching your friends a given subject is highly likely to fix it in your mind. Spread the misery! Get your fellow students to share out syllabus topics and take it in turns to teach and learn. Particularly where there is a very large syllabus, this can be a brilliant way to achieve coverage. 
What do all of these methods have in common - they are all methods of active learning. Active learning is always better than passive learning. Listening and reading are classic methods of passive learning, and as you can see from the statistics I've set out above, the levels of memory retention for passive learning are poor. Your time will be far more efficiently spent using methods which are active. 

Please don't convince yourself that you "don't have time" to make notes, flashcards, mind maps, form a study group or record your own podcasts. Time efficiently spent will end up time well spent. 

Give it a try!