Friday, December 1, 2023

The Problem with Outlines

It’s the last day of classes. There is palpable stress in the air that can only be brought on by the collective dread of law school final exams. This time of year, I always seem to reflect on my own 1L fall exams. I remember a string of late nights spent furiously editing outlines. I can also clearly remember thinking to myself, “I’ll never have time to study if I don’t finish these!” Finally, I realized something was wrong with that picture. Isn’t creating a study tool supposed to help you study?

I felt an unbelievable amount of pressure to make outlines for every class.  But the outline structure made it difficult for me to see the hierarchy of concepts, to synthesize the material (to cut an anecdote about a case felt like torture and a word document is endless anyway), or frankly to even review the material in a meaningful way. My strength in learning comes from my ability to see the big picture and make connections back to that structure. Working systematically on an outline each week, when many law classes are not taught with the big picture in mind, was painful. I was behind on my outlines, not because I wasn’t working hard or was procrastinating – I was behind because the process of outlining didn’t work for me. So, I did the unthinkable. I hit delete on all my outlines.

How did I manage to succeed on my final exams after I pressed delete? I created study tools that helped me see the big picture, synthesize rules, and think about how those rules apply to new scenarios. I made the same study tools I used successfully during my undergraduate career. I called them “concept pages.” They were single sheets of paper, each dedicated to a major concept in a class. They were messy with arrows connecting ideas. They also contained clear, concise rule statements and showed how the rules connected. I could make them quickly. They improved my understanding because they acted as a series of capstones on each major concept. They aren’t for everyone, but they worked for me. And that is my point.

Over the years, when students come to me panicked about the state of their outlines (not started, WAY too long, class notes with roman numerals that mean nothing to them, etc.), or crying because they will never finish their outlines in time to study for exams, I start the same conversation. “What if you tried something else? What type of study tool did you make in college? How do you like to organize material? Flow charts? Tables? Maybe something handwritten and messy?” I have seen many students do better in law school when they stop making outlines and start making something else. What would happen if we supported students to make the study tools that work best for them? If we gave them other options from day one? If we talked about creating study tools instead of using “outlining” as a synonym for law school success?

The best study tool to create is one that best organizes the information. For some topics that might be a short, traditional outline. For other topics, a table or flow chart will work better. We should be flexible about study tools because they need to flex around the subject matter and around individual needs. I’ve stopped telling students to outline. Instead, I ask what type of study tools they are working on and how the tools are working for them. Who’s with me?

(Ashley Cetnar)

Exams - Studying, Learning Styles | Permalink


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