Law School Survival Tips: Effective note-taking in class

September 17, 2014

Law School Survival TipsLast week’s installment covered reading cases, which I described as one of the most common activities that you’ll engage in while you’re in law school.  But as those of you in law school are already well aware, taking notes on classroom lectures also consumes quite a bit of your time.

And the importance of taking effective notes in your classes is difficult to overstate.  You will rely on your notes when, among other things, you are studying for the final exam.  And since professors will quite often provide information only in classroom lectures that will later be tested on the final exam, complete notes of these lectures is vital to success in the course.

But not everything that the professor says during the lecture is relevant information.  Nor does the lecturer always provide coherent structure for the topics covered.  As such, note-taking isn’t always as easy as it may initially seem.  But because it remains so important to law school success, figuring out the secret to effective note-taking is an important part of conquering law school.

To that end, here are some tips that we hope you will find helpful:

Outline your notes

What I mean by this is that you should take notes in an outline format.  If you need to jot some information down quickly before you get a chance to set up your outline, that’s perfectly fine, but don’t leave your notes for the day as being disorganized.

And what I mean by being “organized” in outline form is pretty simple: using numbers/letters or bullet points with indents for subtopics to arrange the information from the lecture.  Nearly everything taught in law school can be broken down into some form of outline format (e.g., elements of a tort or criminal action, different tests or factors employed by courts, statutes and rules, etc).

Putting your notes together as an outline not only helps in reading them later on, when you may have forgotten some or most of the lecture, but helps organize the ideas in your memory to start with so that they’ll be easier to remember later on.

Don’t write things word for word, but err on the side of detail

Not everything that your professor says during the lecture is going to be important to remember later on.  As you may have already noticed, the course of the classroom discussion may sometimes veer off onto tangents, much of which is irrelevant information.

However, do not take this to mean that you should not take copious notes.  Just the opposite: you should take as detailed of notes as possible.  I can speak from personal experience: there’s nothing worse than being unable to figure out what happened during class on a given day at the end of the semester because my notes were sparse.  I probably figured at the time that I was taking them that a lot of the information overlapped with the reading, and that I would easily remember it later.  I underestimated the raw amount of information that I was expected to process in law school, and naturally, I forgot what was apparently fresh in my memory at the time that I took the original notes.

Don’t let this happen to you: it leads to frustration and wasted time at the end of the semester.  You can easily prevent this by taking comprehensive notes during class.

There is one more advantage to making your notes as complete as possible: you commit more of these ideas to memory.  Some of the information that you learn during these lectures will invariably be lost over the course of the semester.  But the act of writing down the information at the time that you learn it will more strongly commit this information to your memory, such that it will be easier for you to recollect when you’re studying it later in the semester.

Highlight important subjects/terminology

In nearly every class, there will be some ideas that are of particular importance, and will likely appear on the final exam.  Sometimes the professor will explicitly let you know that certain topics are more important than others, and other times it may be apparently from how heavily the ideas are discussed in class.

If your notes are as comprehensive as they should be, though, these important points may not be apparent when you’re studying later on in the semester.  And that’s why you should make sure that they are bolded or highlighted in some way in your notes.

Once again, doing this will make it easier for you later on in the semester when you’re reviewing your notes not only because you’ll know which topics or points are particular important to study, but also because you’ll have likely made those points stick in your memory more strongly by making that extra effort to make them stand out in the first place.

Use an organizational note-taking program

What you use to record your notes is almost as important as the quality of the notes that you take in the first place.  You can certainly use a word processing program such as Microsoft Word or Google Docs, but you’ll have to spend extra time to write identifying information about the date that the notes were taken, and you may have to do a lot of scrolling when you are reviewing your notes later on in the semester.

I would suggest instead using a program like Microsoft OneNote or Google Keep (or any other of the notetaking software available).  It’s a small measure that you can take that makes organizing your notes far easier, and saves some headaches for yourself later on when you’re neck-deep in studying.

And that’s actually the point of taking good notes during class: to make things easier for yourself later on.