Thursday, March 29, 2012

Course Outlines as Master Documents

Making course outlines is a tradition at law schools.  However, not all students get the most benefit from their outlines because they do not understand why they are making outlines and how to use them most efficiently and effectively for exam study.  Here are some thoughts on outlining:

  • If an outline is constructed properly, it will include all of the essential information from one's briefs, casebook, and class notes.  In short, one should not have to go back to those materials again.  The outline is truly the master document for exam study.
  • The outline should be formatted to give the student a 360-degree view of the course:  what is the big picture of the course; what are the main concepts and interrelationships among concepts as well as any relevant policy; what are the steps/rules/tests/questions to ask for analysis; and what are the details/fact examples/case names to flesh out the outline.
  • The outline should flip the student's thinking from individual cases and minutia to synthesis of the material and the solving of new legal scenarios with the law that is learned through the cases.  Except for major cases, cases should become illustrations rather than the focus of the outline.
  • The outline is building a toolkit to solve new legal scenarios that will show up on the exam.  Include the essential tools (each course may have different types of tools): rules, exceptions to rules, variations on rules, definitions, steps of analysis, questions to ask, bright line tests, policy arguments, etc.
  • Additional information from supplements may also go into an outline.  However, remember that students want to learn their professor's version of a course and not a supplement's version.  If a student understands a topic fully, s/he may never look at a study supplement. 
  • The student wants to set aside time each week to review a section of an outline intensely - this is the review to learn the material as though the exam were next week.  This intense review should be the time to gain full understanding and grapple with the material.  Any questions that remain should be answered as quickly as possible by visiting the professor on office hours.
  • In addition, a student wants to read the entire outline for a course through at least once a week - this is the review to keep all of the topics fresh (long after the intense review of early topics and before one has intensely reviewed some topics that are newly added to the outline).
  • After one has intensely reviewed a section of the outline, it makes sense to do some practice questions to see if the material is really understood and can be applied to a new legal scenario.  However, wait several days before doing practice questions.  Otherwise, getting them right will happen because the material was just reviewed.
  • After a topic in the outline is intensely reviewed and practice questions on the topic have shown that the material is truly understood, condense that portion of the outline by at least half.  Start a second document that is the condensed outline so that the longer version is never lost.
  • Approximately one - two weeks before the exam, condense the entire outline to 5-10 pages of essentials for the material so far.  The essentials will bring back the more detailed information if the material has been studied properly.  Use the condensed outline to recall the information. 
  • Condense the shorter outline again to the front and back of a sheet of paper.  This condensed version can be memorized as a checklist.  When the proctor in the exam tells you to begin, quickly write your checklist on scrap paper and use it as a guide throughout the exam.

Remember that the goal is to learn the material for an exam that is limited in time and will test students' knowledge solving new legal problems based on the semester's emphases.  Students are not learning the material to go out and practice in that legal specialty the next day.  If students tend to get bogged down in minutia, they need to remember that studying outlines has a specific goal in mind.  (Amy Jarmon)   

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