Efficient v. Thorough Notes – Whether to Take Pre-Class/Reading Notes

February 19, 2012 at 8:17 pm (Success in Law School)

In this post, I discuss my method of “pre-class” notetaking, as well as the pros and cons and whether this is something that might be helpful for you.

Most of what you learn in law school is first encountered while reading and studying the material assigned before class. Law school is sort of a guided, but self-directed study. In a lot of ways, the law student is independently responsible for learning the law. You are expected to come to class with already having been introduced to the topic and have a fairly good understanding of it. The role of the lecture is then, to supplement your understanding, expand upon it, and either confirm your understanding or expose your misunderstanding.

Given the emphasis on pre-class preparations, it always made sense to me to devout a lot of time to my pre-class preparation: reading and note-taking. Though not an exhaustive list, I believe there are four ways in which a law student can spend their pre-class time working through the material:

  1. Read the material and take pre-class notes based on the assigned reading. Flag anything in the pre-class notes that is not understood. Then supplement the pre-class notes with in-class notes. If what was not understood before is still sketchy or my questions were not answered in-class, then consult a supplement (hornbook or commercial outline) and/or see the professor. (This is what I do, and though it is the most thorough option, it is time consuming and may not be the most efficient). 
  2. Read, but don’t take pre-class notes. At the least, mark-up the book (i.e., “book brief” and write notes in the margin). Take notes while in-class. Then, either go with the mindset that if the professor didnt mention it, then it wasn’t important, or (probably the more sound decision) go back through the reading material and supplement the class notes.(This is probably a decent balance between efficient and thorough note taking). 
  3. Read, but only take class notes, never again looking at the book. (Not ideal).
  4. Don’t read before class, take what you think are really good in-class notes, then, and only then, would you go back to the book and try to make sense of something that you didn’t understand. (This is a bad idea).

I will openly admit, I am not the best “processor” when it comes to extremely dense, difficult, and boring reading material. I have to try to stay engaged, make sense of difficult material, and understand the structure of what is being said in the material (ex. in a torts case, involving breach, duty, causation, and harm, maybe breach and duty are satisfied, causation “might” be satisfied, and harm is definitely satisfied, what is the implication for this party/client/case? What would help me determine whether causation is satisfied or not? and so on).

One thing that has helped me through some of these difficult problems and has improved my reading comprehension is to take “reading notes” a/k/a “pre-class” notes from the reading material (as I described in Option 1, above). This is SO time consuming. BUT not only does it help me understand the material, it also dramatically decreases the amount of notetaking I have to take during class (thereby allowing me to sit back and “process” some more by just taking it all in), it also helps me easily and quickly review prior to class, and it makes end-of-semester outlining a breeze (because rather than inserting the information into my outline, I’m condensing what I already have which is so much faster than hunting down info, typing it, etc.)

Having to first read the material, highlight or use different colors of pen (see blog post on technicolor reading soon), then type the important stuff into my word document keeps me engaged in the reading material and also strengthens reading comprehension (especially the typing part – because I have to really look at each word and then type it – rather than just skim and inadvertently walk away from the reading with only a “gist” of what it said).

Law school reading is like having a ton of information thrown at you without a lot of context for how to sort the information and how the information relates to this specific reading material or other material previously read. Since it naturally comes from a book, there’s little structure to it – and I find this problematic. For me to process it, I basically extract the important points from the reading, insert it into my own word processing document (last semester I used Circus Ponies, this semester I’m just using Microsoft Word), and convert it into a format that makes more sense. Most commonly, that “format” is an outline. Don’t confuse this for the “outline” that is used for exam prep and exam taking. Rather, this version (which I tend to call a “course summary”) is much more lengthy. It contains all of my briefs for every case that I read and includes any notes from sections of the casebook that are explanatory in nature (usually appearing before or after the cases).

This is all organized in either bullet-point or numbered and lettered format (thus forming an “outline” style of organization). I prefer bullet-points because the numbers and letters tend to get distracting, especially if you are also referring to a statute that has numbers (common in civil procedure). For example, I would hate to have a numbered/lettered bullet point “b.” describing Rule 60(a). But I’m a little OCD, so do whatever you like and what fits you best.

Here is an example to more thoroughly illustrate what I’m talking about, and again, remember this is all just for my pre-class/reading notes:

  • Topic (usually the chapter title from the book or the topic provided by the professor in the syllabus).
    • Subtopic (usually the section of the chapter or a subtopic provided by the professor in the syllabus).
      • Introductory notes for this particular topic which the casebook editor provided prior to a case or at the beginning of the chapter.
      • John Smith v. Doe Smith (2000) – p. 232 (notice that I’ve listed the case name, the year the case was decided, and the page number for which it appears in the book).
        • Facts:
        • Issue:
        • Holding/Disposition: (very short statement of what this means for the parties in this case – I don’t spend a lot of time on this because it is not very meaningful in terms of knowledge of this particular rule).
        • Rationale: (this is the important one – you have to know why the court chose this particular result – why the rule applied in this particular situation given the facts of this case – this is vital to understanding the rule and to applying it in the future).
        • Dissent/Concurrence: (if applicable)
        • Rule: (a short, few sentence summary of the rule).
        • Analysis: – this won’t work for every case, but when the opinion clearly lays out a step by step process for analyzing this particular issue, I always include it – it can work as a boilerplate to sort through a similar issue in the future on an exam!
      • Susie Q v. John Q (2005) – p. 349
      • Any notes which follow the case (casebook editors will often follow an opinion/case with “Notes and Questions” which provide the majority/minor rule or even better, summarize the rule in a neat one or two sentence format that is super convenient and can be placed into the brief, above under the “rule” bullet point).

In doing this, I have provided a structure for which to analyze the material. For example, two cases might illustrate two different outcomes of the same rule. In the casebook, the two cases might be 20 pages a part, but in my notes, I have them together (often on the same page).

Again, this can be extremely time consuming, but I am convinced this is the best method for me. It’s heavily “front-loaded” but when it comes time to outline at the end of the semester, most of the heavy lifting is already done. Plus, as you go along, you get much more skilled at the process and it becomes faster and like second nature.

5-10 minutes prior to class, rather than skimming through the book for the important points of the reading (which could mean flipping through 30+ pages) I can just read through my condensed notes in a few minutes.

During class, I have one side of my screen taken up with my pre-class/reading notes and the other side with my document for class notes. Most professors tend to follow the flow of book/assigned reading without jumping around too much. Since I re-read through my condensed reading notes, everything is fresh in mind; so while the professor is lecturing, I can listen intently without scurrying to write every word. Most of what he is telling me is already in my notes. Usually, the only time that I type anything at all is when we are going through an assigned case. Though I already have the “basics” (facts, issue, holding, rule, rationale, analysis, etc.) the professor almost always expands on the case by posing several “hypotheticals” that stretch the rule – it defines the rule – whether it encompasses this new set of facts set forth in the hypo, or whether the rule falls just shy of applying to this new set of facts. This is so important because it allows me to see the rule “in action,” being applied to new facts – it increases my understanding of the rule, it’s purpose, and why/why not it works in other situations. This is just like what I have to do on the exam!

Ideally, while in-class, I am able to easily annotate my reading notes with the professor’s lecture. However, if the professor has gone off on a tangent (which is valuable material, of course) or if he has skipped around and I am not able to quickly find where to insert this new in-class information into my reading notes, then I refer to the other document I have on my screen that is dedicated entirely to in-class notes.

Ideally, at the end of every class, I would spend a few minutes incorporating whatever is in my class notes, into my reading notes. But for me, this has been rarely possible because I have classes back-to-back. So, I reserve Friday afternoons specifically for reviewing and reconciling my in-class notes with my reading notes. In doing this, I am seeing the material again (good for memory) and getting feedback (yes, my pre-class understanding was correct per the lecture – or – crap, I’m confused, get help).

Once I have integrated/reconciled my class-notes into my pre-class/reading notes, I have what I call a “course summary.” This is essentially all of the information that I found important in the course – it’s way too long for use on an exam (though I have it with me just in case). Last semester, these “course summaries” were 200-250 pages for each subject. It’s important to organize it in such a way that it can serve as a useful “how-to manual” for the exam. I share share my tips on organizing the course summary, creating an “attack outline,” and a one-page issuer spotter for the exam in this post. 


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