It’s a great question, for a couple of reasons:
- Thinking about how to structure your class notes can help you make sense of the sometimes unfocused Socratic method.
- Your class notes are very useful in understanding how your professor thinks about the law (and how he wants you to analyze an exam question).
What Goes in Your Class Notes?
There are five critical things to include in your class notes:
- Black-letter law: Whenever there’s a clear statement of law, it needs to be in your notes. “The elements of assault are…” One drawback of the Socratic method is that it can convince you that everything is up for debate. That’s not the case! There are rules, and it’s crucial that you know what they are when it’s time for an exam. When one arises in the course of class discussion, write it down.
- Areas of ambiguity: Equally important, however, are the areas of ambiguity. It’s rare that the law is totally straightforward. What if there’s a traditional rule, and a modern rule, and they lead to different outcomes? In that case, write them both down, with a big note saying: *** Ambiguity! *** (If you’re not clear on what we mean by ambiguity, here are some details on legal and factual ambiguity.)
- Notes on how to apply the law: Once you’ve got the black-letter law and the areas of ambiguity, you’ve made progress. But you’re not finished yet. Be sure to write down how to apply the law to a particular factual scenario. This is where you capture all of those crazy hypos that your professor is fond of. They’re designed to teach you how to deal with the ambiguity — an important skillset indeed when exam time roles around.
- Policy arguments: Sticking with our example of a modern rule and traditional rule, it’s useful to know what policy considerations drove the rule change. Why did the rule evolve? Has every jurisdiction adopted the new rule? If not, why not? Having a clear list of the policies behind each version of the rule will prove invaluable at exam time, when you can get extra points by discussing the pros and cons of adopting a particular version of the legal rule at issue.
- Your professor’s quirks: Finally, it’s useful to make note of your professor’s particular quirks or areas of interest. Are there certain topics, or phrases, that seem to come up every class? Write these down, even if you think they’re silly or off-topic. There’s a very good chance they’ll show up on the exam, one way or another. Also be sure you’re recording any multi-part tests, or particular turns of phrase, that come up repeatedly. Using these in your analysis on an exam can only help!
How to Organize Things
When you’re thinking about how to organize your class notes, consider having a thematic section at the top for each day (or down the side, if you’re handwriting, and that makes more sense to you), where you make a note of anything that falls into one of the five topics above.
This approach avoids the usual temptation, which is to simply record whatever’s said, in a linear fashion. The danger with this approach is that important nuggets of information are buried in the midst of a bunch of junk that you never want to read again.
Instead, try a small section at the top that says:
Factual or legal ambiguity:
How to apply the law:
This way, you’ll have all the important stuff at the top, and you can write your linear notes below if you still want to do that.
And, just the act of trying to pull out each of these pieces of information will focus your attention nicely, so you pay better attention and get more out of class.
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What notetaking techniques work best for you? Do you handwrite, or type?
Once you’ve got your class notes, what’s next? Find out how to turn your class notes into an outline.
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