Law School Academic Support Blog

Editor: Amy Jarmon
Texas Tech Univ. School of Law

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Using Flashcards to Outline

Starting outlines can be an intimidating process, especially for those who are not "born organized."  Using flashcards to construct outlines is a useful technique for those having trouble getting started, for kinesthetic and visual learners, and for anyone who has trouble organizing masses of complex material within the confines of a laptop computer screen.  This is also a useful technique when small study groups want to work together to construct an outline. 

Although outlining with flashcards can be time intensive and certainly doesn't work for all students, it has advantages for many students.  Like using a whiteboard to construct flowcharts and mind maps, using cards is highly visual and kinesthetic, so it involves the whole person in learning.  The learner doesn't have to start off being organized or understanding the material  -- rather, understanding and organization come from engaging in the process.  Unlike a whiteboard, cards allow for more detailed information and more permanence even while they allow for easily moving, manipulating, and deleting information.  And the same cards used for constructing the outline can also be used as flashcards for memory work and issue spotting.

Here's my recipe for starting to outline using the flashcard method.  Like any recipe, alter it to your own taste.

Ingredients: 

  • 3 X 5 cards, store-bought or homemade (Check your local dollar store for good deals. It may be cheaper to buy cardstock paper and cut to size.)
  • Pens, pencils, and highlighters in desired colors
  • Glue dots
  • Rubber bands
  • Source material -- case briefs, class notes, casebook
  • Room with a big table or tables (an empty classroom is ideal) or with big blank walls

Process. 

  • "Brain-dump."  On each card, handwrite one, and only one, piece of information.  That could be a concept, definition, major rule, subrule, element, policy, case holding, case facts, example, or hypothetical.  Handwriting is important here, because creating cards on a computer may bog you down in perfection paralysis  -- and perfectionism is the enemy of starting outlines in the first place.
  • Once you have brain-dumped, review each individual piece of information to make sure it is accurate.  Did you use the proper terminology?  Does a rule include all the elements in the proper order? 
  • Spread your cards out so you can see each individual card.  You can do this on any flat surface like a table, but many people find it easier to see and grasp the information if the cards are on a wall (glue dots are incredibly useful for this).  
  • Now start sorting your cards into rough groupings. For example, which rules and cases come under duty and which under breach? 
  • As you engage in working your way through the material, you will almost certainly think of more concepts, rules, definitions, and examples you didn't think of when you were starting out.  Great!  Create a new card for each of these and plug into the appropriate place.
  • Work your way from rough groupings into more formal relationships shown by outline format.  For instance, does this case illustrate a major rule or a subrule? 
  • Use this process to think your way systematically through the material and deeply engage with it.  Remember, relationships are not always obvious and might be logically placed in different places, but you want to find the best place.  For example, if you were analyzing some torts or crimes, would you treat lack of consent as an element, or would consent be an affirmative defense?   
  • Color code, number, or otherwise mark your cards to show the order between them.  It's handy to periodically take pictures of your cards as arranged on the wall to record your outline as a visual construct.  If you are working at home and have lots of room, you might keep the cards on the wall; if not, take down your cards in order and secure them with a rubber band. 
  • Revisit your outline often with the new understanding gained by working your way through hypotheticals and taking practice tests.  Are the concepts in the best order?  Are your rules accurate?  Are your examples helpful for understanding the concept?
  • The more you use the cards, the better you can understand the material on both a micro and macro level.  It's critical to periodically spread the cards out to get a visual sense of the whole organization of your subject.  In addition, you can use the cards as flashcards for memory or issue-spotting work. 

 (Nancy Luebbert)

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/academic_support/2018/09/using-flashcards-to-outline.html

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