Best Note Taking Strategies for Law School

 Are you worried that your notes aren’t great? Would you like to improve on your note taking skills? Today I will provide you with eighteen note taking strategies.

Note taking is an important skill, with you taking notes before, during, and after class. Success means mastering what, where, when, why, and how to take notes. If you're looking for the one way to take notes, you'll never find it. You are unique, different from the other people in your class. What I can provide you with are different strategies, some of which will work for you and others that won’t. The key is to try them and see what works for you. 


I will first discuss out-of-class techniques and then move to in-class techniques. Now, in no particular order, are the eighteen note taking strategies.


Best Note Taking Strategies for Law School

Out of Class Strategies Context

Come to class with a good command of what you are going to discuss. This means reading all assigned material, taking notes on what you read, and reviewing study aids. This will allow you to follow the classroom discussion at a deeper level, help expose gaps in your understanding, and reduce the amount of time you need to spend cleaning up your notes after class.



There is some evidence that taking notes while standing improves our notes. This is because it takes more energy to stand than to sit, requiring our bodies to pump more blood and to breathe more, resulting in more oxygen reaching our brains. Start with one hour a day, and alternate between sitting and standing as too much standing does result in fatigue. 



Make a study schedule and stick to it, even when you don’t want to. When your schedule tells you it’s time to move to something else, do it. This helps your brain so you don’t fret about something else. For example, suppose you have scheduled 9 am to noon on Saturdays for studying, and you have an entertainment break on Friday night. Because you have scheduled a study time on Saturday, your brain can relax on Friday because it knows you have a study plan. If you don’t have a study plan, when you are trying to have fun on Friday your brain's going to start worrying because you know you have that test coming up on Monday. 



Take breaks to avoid mind fatigue. I suggest you try the Pomodoro technique, which is a method where you work for 25 minutes, and take a quick five-minute break. Do a second set, just like the first, and the third set, you do a 25 minute study time with a 15 minute break. Your brain gets tired, just like the rest of you does. So you need to take regular breaks. 



Most note taking strategies are designed for linear logical thinking. But some of you are more visual than others. One strategy that might work for you is to draw your thoughts on paper. I recall a student who would draw trees, with branches on the trees and then roots. She put the main issues on the branches, minor issues were the roots. Her drawings were works of art. If you aren’t an artist, try drawing circles, connecting them with squiggly lines to other circles. Maye a box will be a less important concept, connected to the circles with a squiggly line. The key here is to take notes in a non-traditional way, using diagrams that make sense to you. 



After class, take your pre-class and your in-class notes and synthesize them into an outline form. This outline will only have what you need for the exam, not everything from both sets of notes. Throughout the semester, review the outline and make changes as you learn the material at a deeper level. 


Class recordings

You might have access to a recorded class session, but the problem is you will be tempted to listen to that class over and over again. This repetition might create the illusion of competency. When you realize that you generally only need about 10% of what is said in class, you will stop wasting time listening to a classroom discussion more than once. Take good notes once and use your time for more productive purposes, like creating outlines or taking practice exams. 


In Class Strategies Professor cues

Listen for important cues from your professor, and then write them down. For example, I will occasionally say something like this during class: “this topic has appeared in nearly every final exam I have ever given.” Write that down. Other important cues start with “this is important,” or “there are the four primary parts you need for the exam.” 


White Board or PowerPoint

If your professor writes something on the board or places it on a PowerPoint slide, pay attention on it. It might only be an illustration, or it might be something you should capture in your notes. 



When you encounter something you don’t understand in class, write down a question in your notes, or a question mark. After class, try to find the answer on your own, and if you can’t, then ask the professor. By the way, try to write down a few questions during each class session, as a means of improving your active engagement. 



A professor might provide a story to help keep you engaged and awake. You rarely have to take notes from a story. Part of note taking does understand what you don’t have to capture. 


Professor’s Notes.

If the professor takes time to look down at his or her notes and read something verbatim from their notes, it's probably important, so place that in your notes. 



Try to write your notes, not type them into a computer. Because you can generally type much faster than you can handwrite, you generally stop thinking when you type your notes, with your brain focusing on transcribing rather than active engagement. One possible blended technique is to get an app for a computer tablet, where you handwrite your notes and they are copied automatically into your electronic notes after class. 



Sit near the front of the class to avoid distractions from those who sit in front of you.



If your professor gets excited about a topic, pay attention on that topic. This demonstrates interest from the professor, which means they might test you on this topic. 


Hunger & Bathroom

Don’t go to class hungry, otherwise you won't be able to focus. Eat a small healthy snack before class. For me, a small handful of almonds do the trick. As a professor, I don’t like teaching right after lunch because most students are in the middle of what I call a food coma—students aren't as thoughtful and some have trouble staying awake. Also, use the bathroom right before class. Nothing worse than getting towards the end of class, needing to rush to the bathroom. You can’t think well like that.



When you get lost during class, make a notation in your notes. That way you can come back to that after class and figure out why you were confused. 


Class Time

When you can, schedule classes at times that work best for you. If you aren’t a morning person, then don’t schedule a class for 8 am. I’ve taught night classes, and had students fall asleep during class. I understand that sometimes this isn’t under your control, so either goes to sleep earlier in the day or plan to take a quick 10 minute nap if you have a night class. 

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