Do your reading! It’s a familiar refrain from law school professors and academic support professionals. But there’s more to law school homework than just making it to the last page of a reading assignment. You don’t just need to do your reading; you also need to be able to remember what you read.
Remembering your reading is important for two reasons: it ensures you’ll be prepared if called on in an upcoming class and it improves your ability to connect new material to concepts covered in prior classes. But with the amount of reading assigned to the typical law student, (not to mention the dullness of some the material), it’s not always easy to recall the important information when you need it. Fortunately, you can improve your ability to remember what you read by using a few quick and easy strategies.
Write key things out in your own words.
It will generally be easier to remember key facts and case holdings if you paraphrase them in your own words. For example, while hearsay is technically defined by the Federal Rules of Evidence as “a statement that: (1) the declarant does not make while testifying at the current trial or hearing; and (2) a party offers in evidence to prove the truth of the matter asserted in the statement,” it’s going to be a lot easier to remember this definition if you simply summarize it as an out of court statement offered for its truth. Both the physical act of writing the concept down as well as the mental act of paraphrasing it in your own words will make the material easier to recall. Even if you’re not on board with case briefing, try to make quick margin notes as you read or jot down the major facts and concepts from each case.
Put the case in context.
One of the most frustrating aspects of law school instruction is that professors tend to assign reading without giving clear direction as to why that particular set of cases has been included. The typical law school classroom expects you to complete your reading first, then decipher why you’re reading those cases and how they fit into the larger area of law you’re studying. This lack of context while reading a case can make it difficult to stay engaged while reading, connect the reading to your prior knowledge, and isolate the key concepts from the less important dicta. All these factors can in turn make it more difficult to recall a case’s facts or major principles. To preempt this problem, give your cases some context before you start reading: observe where they are located in the table of contents, think about the subtopics they address, anticipate how they will fit into the larger structure of what you’re studying, read the notes following the case to get hints about the purpose of the case, or maybe even skim a supplement so that you will know what key principles you need to be on the lookout for. These pre-reading tasks will take less than five minutes but will make it much easier to understand the case and remember it.
Engage in periodic review.
Humans forget an incredible amount of information if they don’t periodically refresh their memory. So while you may be able to remember the concepts you read on Tuesday during your class on Wednesday, you might not remember those topics three days later, three weeks later, or three months later. This forgetfulness, for lack of a better term, can sometimes make it difficult to see how early concepts related to later concepts, to recognize more nuanced points during classroom discussions, and to ultimately prepare for an exam at the end of the semester. But if you take just a few minutes at the end of each week to review your class notes and/or your course outline, you will improve your ability to recall what you’ve read and studied in prior classes. Engaging in a quick, periodic review can pay huge dividends in terms of time and comprehension when final exams approach.
Reading might seem like a basic skill that shouldn’t require much thought or effort at this point in your academic career, but good reading comprehension is actually central to success in law school and the bar exam. These three strategies will help you stay engaged with your reading and improve your recall of the key facts and concepts. That will, ultimately, lead to better class preparation, better notes, and better outlines.
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