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How to use other people's notes effectively

Pen writing in a book

Bought or borrowed notes are frequently viewed as a miracle on A4, the answer to your pre-exam prayers. Hand-me-down notes can be a huge help, but should be approached with caution.

If you’re using notes you didn’t write yourself, here's how to get the most out of them and avoid any nasty surprises...

Find the best possible notes

If you plan on using borrowed notes the best source is someone at the same law school who has done the subject within the last year.

Why? Different lecturers emphasise different elements of the subject and may also exclude certain topics. With second hand notes it isn’t a one-size-fits-all scenario. Subject coordinators will have their own view of the law that may influence the course structure and the way topics are taught.

Be wary of jurisdictional issues. Even if the subject focuses on federal laws, notes from across the jurisdictional divide may miss some important (assessable) local perspectives.

Compare with class slides and case lists

It's frequently said that the law is slow to change but that’s no guarantee that your notes from 2009 are up to date. New cases are decided all the time and new legislation comes into force on a regular basis. Even if the notes you’re using are relatively new, it is definitely worth comparing them with any case lists or lecture notes from your class to make sure you’ve got everything covered.

Treat secondhand notes as a secondary source

The best way to verify the reliability of someone else's notes is as a reference when you're learning the subject. Read what the notes say on a topic before you attend class or do the readings, and compare the content. Add in any new authorities as you go, and if there are differences, go with what your lecturer says.

Make them your own

Many students get their hands on a high distinction set of notes and think their problems are solved. Unfortunately, you still need time to read and learn the notes, and make them your own.

A really comprehensive summary (think 100+ pages) for your subject is great for learning from during semester, but not for taking into exams. Trim these notes down to a more manageable length - a few reference pages is ideal.

Never overlook the importance of formatting. Everyone has their own formatting style and having notes in a format that makes it easy for you to spot headings and cases will make a huge difference in the exam.

FROM THE ARCHIVES: This story was first published on Survive Law on 31 March 2010.

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