It’s that time of late summer when law-school boot camps and pre-orientation prep sessions start happening. I’ll be speaking about legal writing next week and note-taking skills the week after that.
For the note-taking session, I put out a call for help and got some really good responses. Here’s the call for help:
Hey I’m giving a talk on note-taking skills for law students. Planning an exercise where students sort note-cards for GOOD note-taking (what to do) & BAD (what not to do). E.g. listen for key terms (yes!) and surf the internet to stay focused (no!). Please share ideas here!!
— Listen Like a Lawyer (@ListenLikeaLwyr) July 13, 2018
The responses covered lots of good points about note-taking. I’m re-organizing them here into a sort of chronological timeline: getting ready for class, listening in class, and reviewing after class. (Apologies for the repetition of the “parent tweet” asking for help; due to non-existent HTML skills, I can’t get rid of it despite checking the box to do so.)
Before the semester, decide on paper, highlighters, and other equipment.
Effective note-taking has elements of creativity to it, in how you capture the content of what you hear. You may want lined paper, plain paper, or paper organized for a certain note-taking strategy. Someone told me a story about their brilliant law-school classmate who took all her notes on mathematical graphing paper. The point is to prepare in advance with helpful equipment such as paper and pens that will help:
Colour-code your notes as you go. Common law rules/governing cases in one colour, statutory rules in another, wisdom from the prof in yet another. And – the real secret – note where the ambiguities lie within or between cases. That’s where fact patterns are born.
— Caroline Mandell (@cjmandell) July 13, 2018
Use paper with a 3″ left margin.
As they’re raised, put themes and concepts in the left area, details in the right. Basics of an outline from jump.
— AnHil (@AnHil) July 13, 2018
No one really talked about taking notes by laptop, which is a debate too large for this humble post. Extrapolating from the comments above, if you’re going to take notes on a laptop I would advise experimenting with apps that give you flexibility for formatting the page, using color, and otherwise doing more than just writing or typing.
Gain context before class.
The difficulty in listening to learn is that a learner, by definition, lacks the framework of an expert. (It’s sometimes called a schema.) Learners can help themselves build a rudimentary schema before class by preparing generally and specifically.
For general preparation, I was always taught to study the textbook’s table of contents. And there’s always the syllabus!
Actually read the syllabus. Helps with organizing notes and building an outline.
I found it helpful to have a few different topic headings based on the syllabus when class started so that I could then plug notes in during class where they belonged.
— Daniel Krchnavek (@DaKrchn) July 16, 2018
Beyond the textbook and syllabus, the specific assigned reading itself may provide a framework for understanding what’s about to happen in class. This suggestion from Alex Klein shows the benefit of reading actively before class, rather than reading passively and waiting for class to clear everything up. (Hint: that’s wishful thinking in many cases.)
I made my own reading notes & then annotated in class, highlighting what the professor talked about, noting their comments & key concepts. Then I’d synthesize into a topic overview so I could figure out whether I was getting all the concepts. The overviews became outlines.
— Alex Klein (@ALKM27) July 13, 2018
Listen carefully by focusing on key terms, on classmates’ contributions, and on what the professor says in expressing an opinion.
Is more always better—as in more notes, more accurately reproducing exactly what happened in the class session? #PracticeTuesday co-founder Rachel Gurvich shared a lesson learned from her law-school days:
“Transcribe every word” (No—but it’s what I did)
— Rachel Gurvich (@RachelGurvich) July 13, 2018
A complete transcription is difficult and likely detracts from deeper learning while listening. But the difficulty—especially for new 1L students—is knowing what should and should not be transcribed. At first, it may be better to err on the side of transcription:
Write down anything you think *might* be important. Why? You might not know what is important until later in the semester.
— Jonah Perlin (@JonahPerlin) July 13, 2018
More experience in the law-school classroom should bring more discretion at what matters most. Experienced note-takers learn to recognize different categories of content as it comes out in class, such as factual distinctions and policy rationales:
Note differences rather than details. The most important facts are the ones that turn the case. If you try to remember everything, you’ll drive yourself bananas!
— Nicole Elizabeth (@ShutterbugMcG) July 16, 2018
@RachelGurvich summarize in your own words, and write down competing policy rationales.
— AH (@Aviv_Halpern) July 14, 2018
Another note-taking skill in the law-school classroom is paying attention to the various perspectives offered, not just by the professor playing different sides of an issue but by classmates:
Jot down the questions classmates ask and answers. There are usually good connections made between concepts in questions.
— C.Lenn (@cmaclenny) July 13, 2018
My own special twist on note-taking was to add a feature I called “professor says.” As I processed what the professor stated and asked, sometimes it would become apparent the professor was stepping out of a neutral role and taking a position on the topic. When he or she did that, I would label that moment in my notes with “Professor Says: ___” Keeping track of those moments helped me to match them up with my notes so I could be mindful of them while studying later. Here’s my guest blog post for The Girl’s Guide to Law School that expands on the “professor says” method.
Use visuals to indicate relationships and other ideas.
One less-than-effective way to take notes is uniformly and robotically writing out text from left to right on every page. A better approach is to practice active, flexible, graphical note-taking techniques:
Get key rule terms. Use arrows, indenting or some other system to show idea relationships, and things like sub-definitions and layers of rule explanation material.
— Mary Ellen Maatman (@MaryEllenMaatma) July 13, 2018
I recommend the Cornell method. I’m fascinated by sketchnoting (YouTube has tutorials) but no idea how to implement/teach to students. Can they see the forest for the trees? I think that’s the hardest thing for students—being able to zoom in AND out.
— Cassie Christopher (@CassieChristop) July 16, 2018
Review and organize notes after class to prepare for outlining and final-exam prep.
Effective note-taking does not end the moment class ends. Putting those notes in a box until it’s time to study for finals is not the best advice. Rather, the advice is to use those notes sooner rather than later to review and consolidate growing knowledge:
I don’t think this is a great tip — its time consuming — but it really helped me 2d semester of first year: take handwritten notes in class, but go over them and type them up more formally that night. Then, use the typewritten notes later to prepare your own outline.
— Charles Hokanson (@CharlesHokanson) July 13, 2018
I did that last semester – i organized my handwritten notes like a comprehensive outline and updated them each week; then closer to finals I whittled it down to a study outline.
— Stacie Osborn (@staciejosborn) July 16, 2018
These crowd-sourced suggestions struck me as a good starting place for 0Ls about to become 1Ls. Please feel free to share more note-taking techniques here in the comments or on social media at @ListenLikeaLwyr.