Taking Effective Notes in Law School

When most people think of taking notes, they think of sitting in a classroom and taking notes while the professor lectures. In undergrad, note-taking is often a pretty passive task—students write down what the professor is saying without really processing what is going on in class. Once class has ended, the note-taking process has ended. Some students don’t take notes in class at all, instead relying upon other course materials when they study for exams.

Your approach to taking notes in law school should be very different. The first thing that new law students need to understand is that effective note-taking is a cyclical process. Your case briefs are the foundation for your class notes—by creating case briefs, you are creating a set of notes that you can rely upon in class. Then, when you go into class, you should take additional notes about what happens during class. Many law students stop at this point, but there is still a third step to creating good notes. After class is over, you should spend a little time reviewing your notes from class, elaborating upon things you didn’t have enough time to jot down during class and correcting any errors in your notes. You should also use your class notes to clarify your case briefs. Complete this review of your class notes as soon as possible after class has ended because your memory of what happened in class will still be fresh.

Should you take notes by hand or on your computer? There’s an ongoing debate over whether law students should take notes by hand or on their computers. Some professors don’t allow computers in the classroom, and in those circumstances your decision is simple—you will take notes by hand. Most professors do allow computers in the classroom, however, and that means you will have to make the choice about what is right for you.

There are studies that have found that students who take notes by hand are able to remember lectures better than those who type their notes. One of the reasons for this phenomenon is that, when you handwrite notes, you are required to think more about what you are going to write—the cognitive process is different. Because most people cannot write as fast as they type, it isn’t possible to create a transcript of everything that is said during class. Instead, someone who handwrites has to process information differently so that they can write down the important things that were said in class.

Students who take notes on their computers have a tendency to try to write down every word. When you create a literal transcript of what happens in class, you are not really processing that information. Thus, if you choose to take notes on your computer, you will need to take a disciplined approach to your note-taking. Students who use computers also have to resist the urge to be distracted, as there is always the temptation to check social media sites, surf the internet, and message friends.

Check back in tomorrow for another blog post on this topic—I will be talking about what law students should include in their course notes!

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