Whether you’re in a classroom or the comfort of your own home, lectures remain a staple of law school. So, it’s important to figure out how to make the most of them. Regardless of whether you have the most engaging professor or a professor who puts you to sleep, you need to take responsibility for staying focused.
Tip 1: Prepare Before Class
It can be tempting to sit back in a lecture, especially when you are not on call and even more so when you’re not sure what the professor is talking about. But, relaxing during lecture may take up valuable study time later as you figure out what you were supposed to learn during class. A good rule of thumb is that a lecture should not be the first time you are learning the material. This means doing your reading before class, not afterwards.
Engaging with your reading ahead of time can help you master the material more efficiently. Researchers have found that “a variety of pre-class activities that introduce new material can increase student performance compared with traditional lectures.” Your professor may not go to the trouble of creating pre-class activities like quizzes but you can. Pre-class activities include doing the reading before class, looking at an outline, checking out an E&E chapter, or quizzing yourself on CALI.
Ideally, you should be reading a day or two before the lecture so that you get the benefit of spaced training. “Spaced training” means reviewing the material several times with breaks in between. This approach produces better outcomes compared to “massed training,” also known as cramming. Think of spaced training as reading the material a day or two before class and massed training as reading the materials right before class starts.
Tip 2: Turn Off Distractions
When you run the numbers, each law school lecture is expensive. So, it’s worth putting your attention where your money is. This means eliminating as many distractions as possible.
Distractions like notifications and group chats make it harder to focus. One of the leading researchers studying interruptions, Gloria Mark, found that distractions also restructured the physical or desktop environment, “which makes it more difficult to rely on cues to reorient one to their interrupted task.” For example, if you open a lot of new tabs in your browser, it is harder to find the tab with your notes.
Distractions also have an emotional toll. At least one study found “people in the interrupted conditions experienced a higher workload, more stress, higher frustration, more time pressure, and effort.” Checking social media during class may also be emotionally exhausting. The Pew Research Center found that “55% of adult social media users say they feel ‘worn out’ by how many political posts and discussions they see on social media[.]” Law school is already stressful enough without getting sucked into the latest Twitter controversy in the middle of class.
Yes, this means logging out of social media accounts and email. This also means setting your phone on do not disturb or even turning it off. If you are like many students now attending lectures from home, this also means letting any family or roommates know that you are in class. A pair of big headphones or a sign on your door can cut down on interruptions.
Tip 3: Hand Write Your Notes
Students who were randomly assigned to take notes by hand did better on a standardized test compared to peers who took notes on a laptop. The researchers hypothesize that hand writing notes helps students better synthesize the material and improve recall. There are two other benefits to handwritten notes. First, it is easier to draw diagrams, pictures, or flow charts. Second, it is much harder to zone out when you are writing by hand.
I switched to exclusively handwritten notes during my third year of law school and wish I had switched sooner. You might be reluctant to take notes by hand because you won’t get every word. But that’s actually the point. While taking notes by hand is not a pleasant experience—hello hand cramps—slowing down can actually help you get the most out of class. Though transcribing a lecture might feel productive in the moment, taking notes by hand will force you to focus on the main points of the lecture. This will also help you when it comes to synthesizing your notes later because you won’t be bogged down with small details that seem important for class but probably won’t matter on your exam.
Tip 4: Doodle!
Lectures can take a LOT of mental energy, especially when you are still building up your stamina. Sometimes small distractions can help you focus longer. Doodling on your handwritten notes or a separate piece of paper may help you make it through the entire lecture by giving your brain a small break. It may also help you remember the material. For example, I still remember my drawing of the pirates on Lake Champlain from Ploof v. Putnam.
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