Tag Archives: mind maps

Tuning Out the Noise

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

At this point in the semester, I often have overwhelmed law students come to my office, worried or upset about the conversations they hear going on around them in the law school. Based on what they have heard other students say, these students are concerned that they:

  • aren’t studying hard enough,
  • are studying too hard,
  • are being too generous in sharing study materials with friends,
  • aren’t sharing enough,
  • should be participating in a study group,
  • shouldn’t be participating in a study group,
  • should have created a traditional outline instead of a mind map,
  • should have created flow charts instead of a traditional outline, or
  • have the wrong study strategy altogether.

You get the point—it’s easy to listen to what other students are talking about and let self-doubt creep in. You hear the person who sits next to you in Contracts or Evidence talking about how she hasn’t gone to bed until at least 2:00 am for the past two weeks because she wants to make sure her outline for the class is perfect. You begin to ask yourself if you are being irresponsible, throwing away your dreams of becoming a lawyer because you’ve been going to bed at 10:30 pm instead. Or maybe you have had another student warn you that law students should never study together because law school is competitive, and you might be giving that other person an advantage that will result in him receiving a higher grade than you. As final exams approach and you feel stressed about doing your best, you may be tempted to take what other students are staying much too seriously.

The problem with listening to what everyone else is saying around you is that a strategy for academic success in law school is not one-size-fits-all. Another student’s approach to his or her studies may not work as well for you, and comparisons between your approach and someone else’s is likely to be imperfect. The woman who stays up until 2:00 am studying may not get up in the morning until 9:00 or 10:00 am, just in time to make it to class. Maybe you get up early and do much of your studying in the morning, before class, while your brain is fresher. The fact that you go to bed 3 ½ hours before her then is irrelevant. Or maybe you are an auditory learner and remember information better if you talk through your study materials with a friend. The fact that you may be helping your friend do better on the exam becomes less of an issue because you’ve benefited from that process as well.

That is not to say that you shouldn’t periodically reevaluate your study strategies—all students should periodically assess their approach to their studies, trying new techniques and making sure that the time put in to their studies is used efficiently and effectively. In the process, you may realize that your study group is not really working for you any more, or you are spending too much time surfing the internet and not enough time outlining. You may decide you need to add flashcards to your study strategy, or that creating a flow chart for the Erie Doctrine will help you visualize how to address that legal issue on your Civil Procedure exam. Just make sure that the changes in your study strategy are based upon what you need to do to be successful on your exams, rather than just a reaction to what your fellow students are saying.


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Types of Law School Outlines

In the past two posts, we have explored what law school outlines are and what kinds of information they should include. It is also important for you to consider the type of outline you want to create—in other words, its format. Not everyone approaches outlining in the same way—it is not one-size-fits-all. Instead, many students consider their learning preferences in deciding how to format their outlines. Regardless of which format you choose, I want to stress that the content is the same—all of the things that I described in yesterday’s post should be included in every person’s outline.

So what types of law school outlines are there? Here are several options that you may consider, although this is not an exclusive list:

The Traditional Law School Outline: When we use the word “outline,” people commonly think of the traditional, formal documents that are organized by Roman numerals. For example, in Torts, your first Roman numeral might be “Intentional Torts.” Letter “A” might set out the general requirements for Intentional Torts, while letter “B” might set out specific examples of intentional torts to persons, such as assault, battery, etc. Each of those examples would be identified by number, and lower-case letters would further break down the sub-issues within each type of intentional tort. The result is a tightly organized, formal outline. Reading and writing learners often choose to create traditional outlines. Once this type of outline is completed, aural learners may use text-to-audio programs to convert the traditional outline to audio files.

Although many law students do create traditional outlines, there are actually many other forms that also work for synthesizing course material.

The Modified Traditional Outline: Some students like the organization created by the traditional outline but do not like to the Roman numeral system. Those students may use other formatting tools, such as bolding, underlining, tabs, and bullet points to organize their course information. Explore some of the formatting options in Microsoft Word and other programs—you may find a particular formatting tool that works especially well for your outlines. Keep in mind that white space can also be a good tool—too much print concentrated on the page makes the outline hard to study from later.

Like the traditional outline, reading and writing learners often choose to use the modified outline approach. Visual learners may also find this approach helpful. As with the traditional law school outline, aural learners may use text-to-audio programs to convert this type of outline to audio files.

Tables: Some law students use the table function in Microsoft Word or other programs to create organized, visually-differentiated sections. Each section becomes a separate table, and you can even insert tables within tables to further organize information. Because the text is still very much the focus of the table approach to outlining, reading and writing learners may find it useful. Visual learners may also find tables helpful.

Image courtesy of Pakorn/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Pakorn/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Flow Charts and Diagrams: Still other students create flow charts or diagrams to organize course information, especially if they are visual learners or kinesthetic learners. Translating course materials into flow charts or diagrams, whether in whole or in part, can help you to visualize the process that you will use in applying the law to facts. Kinesthetic learners can use these tools to simulate the type of analysis they will use on exams. If the course information is too complex, you may need to utilize flow charts or diagrams in combination with one of the other outlining techniques I’ve described in this post.

Mind Maps: Occasionally, students find Mind Maps useful, and they may use mind mapping software to create webs of legal information, presented in something different than the traditional linear form. There are a variety of different mind mapping programs out there, either free or available for a small fee. Like flow charts and diagrams, it is important not to oversimplify your studies with this type of tool though. If you decide to mind map, choose a program which allows you to incorporate more detailed information into the mind map.

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Flashcards: You may also create a flashcard system, either as your main form of outlining or as a supplement to another outlining form (for example, you might create flashcards for important definitions or legal tests to make it easier to memorize those concepts). Some students color code their flashcards to signal connections between different cards. Others use flashcards of different sizes to signal that the card addresses an issue versus a sub-issue. If you plan to make flashcards your main form of outlining, it is important to develop a system for recognizing the connections between concepts on different cards.

Experiment with different ways of organizing your outline—you may be surprised about what works best for you. Additionally, what works for one class may not work as well for another. Periodically reevaluate your approach to outlining to make sure you are maximizing your outlines’ potential.

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Perfecting the Law School Outline

It may sound crazy to talk about how to outline when we are already three quarters of the way through the school year, but outlining is a skill that you can constantly improve—whether you are a 1L, 2L, or 3L. I thought I would take this opportunity to discuss “best practices” for outlining. Maybe after reading this post, you will discover something that strengthens your outlining skills and make your outline do more work for you.

Of course, we use the word “outline,” but a law school outline can be so much more than a document organized by Roman numerals. While it is certainly possible to organize information from course materials using the traditional Roman numeral format, outlines can utilize many forms. Some students use bolding, underlining, tabs, and bullet points to organize their course information, while others use the tables function in Microsoft Word to create organized sections. Still others find Mind Mapping a useful technique. Experiment with different ways of organizing your outline—you may be surprised about what works best for you. You also may discover that what works for one class may not work as well for another. Outlines are personal and should support your unique learning style.

One reason why the outline is so important is that it really is the place where you learn the law. By synthesizing various course materials (case briefs, class notes, other assigned reading, etc.), you gain a deeper understanding of legal issues and see connections among legal concepts. You also identify legal issues that you don’t entirely understand—topics that you need to spend more time on, go back and read about again, or set up an appointment to meet with your professor to go over.

So what should your outline contain? Regardless of format, all strong outlines contain the same basic types of information. The first step is to make sure that your outline is organized around legal issues rather than cases. For each section, start with the legal issue that you are going to focus on. Make sure each section has the following parts, as applicable: (1) history/development of the legal issue over time (For example, when you studied personal jurisdiction in Civil Procedure, you read Pennoyer v. Neff. Although not everything is this case is still good law, it may provide helpful context for your understanding of the current state of personal jurisdiction law); (2) any rules/tests/factors relevant to the legal issue, along with any definitions of key legal terms; (3) policy arguments relevant to how courts decide this legal issue; (4) competing approaches to the same legal issue (such as majority vs. minority approaches, or common law/Restatement/Uniform Commercial Code); (5) cases and hypotheticals illustrating components of the outline described above (in very brief form, focusing on facts relevant to understanding the legal issue that is the focus of this part of the outline); and (6) any observations about how this legal issue relates to other legal issues in your outline (for example, for your section on the tort of negligence, you might note that defenses and other legal concepts such as contributory/comparative negligence, joint and several liability, vicarious liability, etc. may also apply).

If your outline contains this information, it will be the only thing that you need to study for purposes of the final exam.  And, most importantly, you will gain a deeper understanding of legal concepts that will stay with you–not only for the final exam but for the bar exam and the practice of law.

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Filed under General, Outlines, Study Tips