For many students, the end of the semester means outlining, flash cards, bar graphs, study groups, and any other manner of exam prep. But it also means trying to cobble together a semester’s worth of notes—some handwritten, some typed, some in full paragraphs, others in cryptic half-sentences that are impossible to comprehend six weeks after they were written. Every semester, there’s the vow to avoid this part of the exam prep process, and every semester it happens again. So how can you help out your future self, and create notes that are useful before, during, and after each class?
Before: Don’t Get Bogged Down In The Parts of the Case That Won’t Be Tested
Reading for class can present some of the biggest hurdles to creating useful notes. It’s easy to go down the rabbit hole of long judicial opinions and come out of it not knowing what you were supposed to take away from it. For some students, briefing can help with this process, but this is not a one-size-fits-all approach, and can still lure students into spending too much time on facts and reasoning. Ultimately, you want to read for the exam, which is typically going to test application of the law, rather than which party said what in what order at what time on what day. For the facts, just give yourself a headline so that you understand the set of actions underlying the dispute.
(Of course, adjust based on your professor’s expectations. If you do have a professor who wants you to recount the facts in detail, in class or on the exam, then tailor your reading to that expectation. Generally, though, facts will be an afterthought, and won’t even appear on an exam except for the purpose of brief analogizing or distinction.)
It’s important to frame your reading notes in terms of 1) the question the case is seeking to answer, also known as the issue, and 2) the applicable takeaway. This will be the holding, but also any rules or tests you need to keep in mind, as well as any macro points on how this particular decision impacts the state of the law.
Don’t worry about understanding the material perfectly. Hopefully, lectures or office hours will help clarify anything you didn’t absorb or understand. Too often students spend so much time dissecting every part of the reading, they miss the testable point. Remember that you’re meant to go into your lecture prepared to learn. Contrary to what law school culture would have you believe, unless you’ve been assigned to lead the class on that day, you’re typically not expected to go into your lecture ready to teach the topic at hand.
During: Pay Attention to Framing
In an ideal world, your lecture is an opportunity to have the reading clarified and, for the purpose of exam-taking, understand the framing within which your professor wants you to learn it.
Giving specific guidance on how to take notes during a lecture is challenging because it depends on the lecture itself – Is it Socratic? Are there visual aids? Are laptops forbidden? – but it is recommended that you make a point of noting a few specific things.
First, make a clear note when your professor has returned to a policy theme as it relates to the doctrine at hand. This may come up in a policy question in an exam, or will signal to you when to incorporate policy in a fact-based issue spotter. You also want to clearly note when your professor has articulated a rule, or doctrinal takeaway. They may be reinforcing what you read, or elaborating on it, so notice your professor’s take, since that’s the one you’ll likely be applying on an exam. Finally, take note of how your professor connects what you’re learning to other topics you’ve covered. Some legal subjects are cumulative, so make sure you’re tracing the links your professor is making as the semester unfolds.
After: Distill the Takeaways and Create An Inventory
Now that you have two sets of notes to work with – reading and lecture – you want to process those into a cohesive tool for exam study. The best time to do this is right after class, if possible, while the material is still fresh. At that point, go to whatever is serving as your foundational study source—maybe it’s a notebook, a spreadsheet, a word document, or a note-taking platform. Whatever it is, make it your home for your ultimate distillation of what you’ve learned. You want this to be fairly limited to what will be tested. This means organizing by the overall concept (e.g. Hearsay, Commerce Clause, Negligence, etc…), any relevant case names and brief factual context, the doctrinal takeaways (holdings and rules,) plus any policy considerations and connections your professor has amplified in the lecture.
If you adapt these principles to your studies before, during, and after class, hopefully you’ll end the semester with a resource that helps you feel exam-ready, even before you’ve started outlining.
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