“Have you done your outline for ____?” This ubiquitous question repeatedly confronts all law students from fall break onward to the end of the semester. Outlines are one of the urban myths of law school; talked about as the mythical key to getting a good grade in a course often without explanation as to what an outline is or its purpose. This post is intended to dispel a few myths and help you prepare for exams.
First, the value of the outline is in the making of the outline. Reviewing and thinking about the course work in order to create the outline is what makes the outline valuable. As a result, it is unlikely that a commercial outline or the outline another student (even if he or she tells you “I got an A!”) prepared is going to help you do your best. If you get an outline from another student or have access to a free commercial outline, it doesn’t hurt to consult them as study aids in preparing your own outline — but don’t use them as a substitute for creating your own.
Second, outlines are personal. An outline is a study tool; for it to be effective it has to match your learning style and needs. It also has to match the course content and the professor. The goal is be organized — use consistent headings and numbering systems. Other than that it can and should reflect your learning style.
This last point may help you decide whether you “type/keyboard” the content or hand write your outline. And secondly, whether your maintain an online outline or print your outline out. There is a fair amount of research that advocates that hand writing notes actually accelerates learning. Ask yourself — How do I learn best? — when making these decisions.
Last and most important, you simply have to do the work. This means not only giving yourself time to prepare the outline; but also building time into your daily and weekly schedule during the semester to review, study, and memorize the outline as you go along.
So what is a course outline? In short, an outline organizes and condensing all the material covered in the course. This means you don’t simply transcribe all your notes, briefs, and lecture notes into a new document and call it an outline. The act of organizing and condensing the course materials is the most important part of the process. As you create the outline you should see the development and connection of the theories covered in the course.
Unlike undergraduate college exams, law school exams test your ability to apply what you studied in class to a new situation. A well thought outline prepares you for law school exams – you will have theory at the ready and be able to apply it to the question.
There is no one right way or wrong way to prepare an outline. Depending on the course your outline may include flowcharts, lists, and diagrams in addition to text. The law library has books with additional outlining tips. Acing Your First Year of Law School, 2d edition, and Being a Model Law Student are just two options. Both are found in the Study Aids Collection on the first floor of the law library. You can also check-out advice on course outlines from law school hacker.
Ironically, I was unpacking moving boxes this weekend and came across two of my law school outlines. Given all our moves over the years since law school I was quite surprised to see my outlines for “Partnership Tax” and “Secured Transactions.”
These are old school — pre-computer. Most of my law school classmates did not have a computer in law school. And those of us that did most likely had a dual-disk drive PC using 5 1/4 inch floppy disks. So our outlines were handwritten, tabbed, multi-colored, and just what we each needed to be successful!
Don’t hesitate to reach out to me or any other law librarians if you need help with study aids or outlines!