Monday, March 23, 2009

Condensing Monster Outlines

A number of law students spent their Spring Breaks catching up on outlining for each course and beginning to review specific topics for exams.  Some students will have lengthy outlines that include a great deal of detail (probably over 60 pages with 6 weeks to go still).  

Students who are prone to making lengthy "monster" outlines are often insecure about what they can safely leave out of the outlines.  Part of this dilemma may be a misunderstanding as to the purpose of the outlines.  Some students believe that course outlines need everything included because they will depend on them to study for the bar or to remember the law once in practice.

The purpose of a course outline is to manage information and to pass the final exam.  When it comes time to study for the bar exam, the bar review course will provide an enormous box of books with "everything you need to know for the bar exam."  Few students actually use any course outlines to study for the bar because 1) no professor can cover every topic that may be on the bar; 2) a law school course may have been too specific or not specific enough about state law, common law, or a uniform code; and 3) the law may have changed by the time one graduates.  Recent graduates tend to keep their bar review course outlines hidden in a desk drawer at work (rather than their personal outlines) for those anxious first months as a new lawyer.  After that time period, neither resource is used because they have "graduated" to other library resources that are state-specific or more updated as well as a personal foundation in their practice areas. 

Another reason students may have lengthy outlines with too much detail is that they are sequential-sensing learners who learn first through the parts, facts and details.  Only after they are comfortable with these stages can they begin to seek the bigger picture of a course.  However, they need to get to that overview with an understanding of the inter-relationships among the parts in order to succeed on their exams.  If they stay bogged down in details, they may miss issues, write about phantom issues, and run out of time on exams.  

It is more efficient to condense class notes and briefs before they are put into an outline.  That way the outline contains the essentials in a topic and sub-topic format rather than bogging down in details of cases.  Also, it takes less time to construct the outline if it is pre-condensed, so to speak.  However, this type of condensation is often easier for 2L and 3L sequential-sensing learners because they have more experience of what is unnecessary for exams.

Assuming that one is not able to let go of the details for the first outline stage, let's consider how to condense it afterwards.  Whether you will have an open-book exam where your outline is allowed or a closed-book exam where you have done extensive memorization, there is no time in an exam to leaf through a monster outline to find something - whether the leafing is done mentally or in real time.  Thus, one wants to have as few outline pages to consider as possible.

Someone once described the process of condensing outlines to me as a family tree.  The long first version is MASTER OUTLINE.  It should then be condensed to Son of Outline (approximately half the original size), then Grandson of Outline (half the size of the second version), Great-Grandson of Outline (5 - 10 pages at the most), and Great-Great-Grandson (the front and back of a sheet of paper).   

If memorized for a closed book exam, the one-pager is written on scrap paper as soon as the proctor says "begin."  It acts as a checklist for all exam answers.  (For the open book exam, it goes on top of the outline.)  The Great-Grandson of Outline is the next mental outline stage to think through for a missing rule or step of analysis.  One works back mentally through the versions if one needs more depth of information.  (In the open-book exam, the outlines are arranged from shortest to longest in a binder.)

I have never had a student tell me that she had time to go back further or needed more detail than Son of Outline during the exam.  And, many students admit that everything they needed was in the Great-Grandson of Outline.  Thus, staying tied to the monster outline is inefficient in the end.

Although a student may still start with the monster outline, it should be condensed in stages as indicated as one learns each section.  The most successful students will study the outline throughout the semester (or the remainder of the semester for those who have just started) and condense old material as they add new topics.  Thus, the outline will shrink and expand simultaneously until the final versions are produced.

If your students are skeptical that these methods will work, have them go back after their exams and highlight anything that they actually used in the monster outline on the exam.  They should then evaluate how much information they slaved over including that was ultimately unnecessary.  This exercise should help them learn what is essential for an outline and what is unnecessary.  (Amy Jarmon)

        

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