Different Approaches To Taking Notes
Taking good notes is an essential component of excelling in any academic course. How should you approach taking notes? Does the fact that you are in law school change this approach in any way? Most of us simply try to summarize what we think is important. Next, we try to note a key point as quickly as possible so that we are ready for the next. Nonetheless, there are some alternative approaches that you can take to improve how you take notes.
Things change from the old to the new. This is certainly no secret. However, it is important to remember the benefits that the “old” may continue to offer. I attended law school with a woman who had worked as a legal secretary. Back then, legal secretaries knew shorthand, used dictation machines, as well as used something known as a typewriter to draft correspondence and pleadings.
My friend would use shorthand to take notes for every one of her classes. Every night she would transpose her notes, which was an excellent way of regularly reviewing them. I think it is safe to say that law students do not always have the time to regularly review their class notes daily, but this seemed to be an effective and useful process that worked for her.
Let’s face it. How many law students entering their first year of school know shorthand? Less than 1/10 of one percent? But there are some lessons here that can be extrapolated to the present. You can take each subject and list the most important terms that you expect to regularly recur in lectures and cases throughout the course. You can then assign a symbol to each term to save you the trouble of always writing it out when you hear it mentioned during a lecture. You can use the same symbols repeatedly since you are organizing them by subject.
First and foremost, you need to be prepared for class. You need to do all the assigned reading and case briefing. This should also include notes from your readings that will supplement the upcoming lecture and/or the cases you have just briefed. If you accomplish this, it should help you better realize what is important and worth writing down. If you have prepared for class, your class notes should just fill in the gaps.
You should never take the approach that you are going to write down everything. Never get so absorbed in taking notes that you fail to pay attention to the substance of the lecture or become disengaged in-class discussion. Even if you could achieve taking down every word in class, your notes would then require extensive daily review and editing. You have just created an additional, unnecessary step to learning the material.
Hopefully, your notes focus on any new material introduced by your professor with an analysis of the day’s cases. And do your best to review your class notes directly after class, before starting your next reading assignment.
The Cornell System
In 1950, Professor Walter Pauk of Cornell University devised the Cornell system for taking notes. The Cornell note-taking system is sometimes referred to as the “Do it Right In The First Place” system.
Professor Pauk designed the system to help students save time while maximizing the effectiveness of their notetaking. The system ideally does not require any reorganizing, rewriting, revising, or retyping of your notes once you have taken them.
The Cornell system for taking notes consists of the following steps:
Step 1 – Divide your paper into two columns
Use a large loose-leaf notebook for your note-taking. Only use one side of each page in the notebook. Draw a vertical line 2 1/2 inches from the left side of the page. This is the recall column of your notes. All your lecture notes will be taken to the right of this margin. Later, keywords or phrases can be written in the recall (left) column.
Step 2 – Take notes in the note-taking column
Record notes in paragraph form in the note-taking column to the right. Try to note general ideas and concepts rather than illustrative ideas. When you end an idea or thought, skip a line. Write legibly, avoid long sentences, and use abbreviations whenever possible. In the left column, note relevant questions and keywords.
Step 3 – Review your notes within 24 hours
After each lecture review your notes and clean the page up for legibility as necessary. Use the 2 1/2 inches column to the left of your notes and write down ideas or keywords that summarize the day’s lecture. Reduce the lecturer’s ideas to your own words after some reflection. Cover the right-hand portion of your notes and recite the general ideas and concepts of the lecture from memory. Overlap your notes showing only recall columns and review.
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