Along with briefing cases and outlining, taking effective in-class notes is another key skill to develop for law school success. Regardless of your background, taking notes in law school will probably require some trial and error to figure out what will work well for you. Like most things in law school, there is not a one-size-fits-all answer to taking the perfect, most effective notes. However, there are a few key things you can consider to help you develop the best method for you.
Consider which Method is Right for You
Unsurprisingly, we highly recommend that you handwrite notes. There is a constantly growing body of research supporting the fact that handwriting notes is linked to better learning and retention, so you may want to seriously consider ditching the computer no matter how much easier typing seems. A growing number of professors seem to agree with this, as more and more are banning the use of laptops during class. If you do have the option to type your notes in class, be sure to consider whether this method will work for you. Are you likely to get distracted by browsing the web or iMessaging? If so, maybe typing won’t be the best option for you.
Take Notes Before Class
AKA, arrive to class prepared. This is where case briefs come in, as having some sort of structure in place can help you take more effective notes and avoid transcribing the entire lecture. While you’re reading for class, take a few minutes after you finish each case or section to jot down either a brief of the case, or a few main points from whatever section you’ve finished. Not only does this help you to better retain the information you’ve read, but it will allow you to go to class with some structure already in place, so that it’s easier to follow along. It may also save you some time, in that you may be able to annotate some of your reading notes instead of rushing to copy down everything during class. If you can spend less time frantically writing, you’ll have some breathing room during class to actually think about what the professor is saying and identify any areas of confusion.
Be Organized in Your Approach
Coming to class prepared certainly helps you to be organized, but regardless of your pre-class preparation it can be extremely helpful to have some sort of plan or system in place when you take notes during class. If you’re handwriting, consider something like folding the sheet of paper in half, and using one side for your reading notes and the other for your lecture notes. This way, all of your notes on the same topics are in the same place and easy to find, rather than spread across a few different pages. If you’re on the computer, creating two columns in your document can serve the same purpose. Regardless of whether you’re handwriting or using a computer, some sort of color-coding scheme to differentiate your class notes from your reading notes is likely to be helpful, particularly if you’re very visual. For example, all of my reading notes are written in black, and all of my in-class notes are written in blue, annotated with a pink highlighter. So, anytime I go back to my notes I can easily see exactly what was emphasized during class by focusing on the blue pen and pink highlighter.
Don’t Transcribe the Entire Class
Despite what you may think, it is probably not in your best interests to try to frantically scribble down or type every word that your professor says during class. Not only is this impossible, but you aren’t really thinking critically about what the professor is saying by doing this. Part of taking effective (and efficient) notes is parsing out what is important to take away, and what isn’t. Things that are usually important to write down include facts that explain main points or rules, definitions, elements of rules, tests, things that your professor has repeated multiple times, anything about the exam, and any hypo or example that your professor gives. If something is heavily emphasized, make special note of it or highlight it. If something confuses you, highlight it. Generally, you probably don’t need to write down things that your classmates say, unless your professor makes a point to emphasize it.
Review Your Notes Regularly
Reviewing your class notes regularly is key to making sure you’re understanding and keeping up with the material. In a perfect world, it’s best to do this within a couple of days so that the information is relatively fresh in your mind. That way, you can better identify areas where you left something out of your notes, or where you may be confused. If you can find time within a day or so of each class that’s great, but for many people a more realistic goal might be to take some time once a week to review what you’ve learned in each class. Pay particular attention to areas where you may have missed some details, or where you feel like you don’t quite understand something. Identifying these problem areas early allows you to clarify them sooner rather than later.
Taking effective notes in law school can be a bit of a learned skill. However, with a few conscious changes it can become easier, and feel much more effective.
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