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How to Make the Best Law Lecture Notes of All Time


Sometimes you leave a lecture with the impression that very few of the important points raised in class have ended up in your notes. We’ve all been there. Follow this nifty guide and make awesome notes every class...

Prepare for class

Dull and predictable as this piece of advice is, if you prepare for a class, you’ll get more out of it. Before the lecture, do the required readings and quickly scan the notes you made in the last class. This will provide a context for the new material you’ll be learning and means you can focus your note-taking energies on subject areas you are not already familiar with. Why would you want to make lecture notes about material that’s in the textbook?

Organising your notes

Date all your notes, give each lecture a topic title, and use subtitles where necessary. Avoid writing your notes on scraps of paper: write all your notes in the one notebook, or save all typed notes to the one folder on your laptop. This will help you to find what you’re looking for in a hurry.

What to use

In lectures some people prefer to type their notes, others write them out by hand. Find a system that works for you and keep it consistent.

For me, the process of physically writing out my notes helps me to be more selective about which pieces of information I record, and helps me to better focus on the information presented. Plus the temptation of Facebook when I’m working on a laptop is just too great. I’ve also found that using a Dictaphone or other recording device isn’t the best idea, as it makes you lazy in lectures and means you’re more likely to tune out.

If you do write your notes out by hand, consider using coloured pens (not blue or black) as it can help you to retain more information first go. Using a different colour pen for key points makes them stand out in your mind.

What to write down

Be selective. You don’t need to write down everything the lecturer says, and your notes shouldn’t be a transcript of the class. Don’t write a sentence if a few words will suffice.

Limit your lecture note taking to material that you don’t already know (because you’ve done your readings before class, this means your notes will probably be quite short). Listen closely and consider whether the information is relevant to the course and the assessments.

In an information-packed lecture, it can be hard to know what information is important. Look out for:

  • Emphasis – you’ll pick this up from the time your lecturer devotes to a particular point, the way your lecturer says something, or the body language they use when saying it.

  • Repetition – it they say something several times, it’s probably because they want you to learn it.

  • Definitions

  • Things written on the whiteboard/ blackboard

  • Debates – Does your lecturer go into the reasoning behind the majority and minority judgments? The case is probably an important authority.

Create your own abbreviations

Using abbreviations will help you to take notes more efficiently. Use abbreviations that mean something to you and keep it consistent. Here are some of my frequently used abbreviations:

  • HCA High Court of Australia

  • SC Supreme Court

  • ct Court

  • P Plaintiff

  • D Defendant

  • judg Judgment

  • apl Appeal

  • maj Majority

  • min Minority

Some handy hints

Writing the information in your own words, rather than copying the lecturer’s wording will help you to grasp and retain the information.

Use dot points, indents and numbering to make the hierarchical relationship between different points clearer.

Spread your notes out – leaving space makes your notes easier to scan, and it’s helpful if your lecturer has a tendency to jump around.

If the lecturer has moved onto a new point and you haven’t gotten something down, just leave a few question marks next to the incomplete thought and fill in the gaps with a friend after class.

Consider columns

Another option for making your notes more study-friendly, is dividing the pages of your notebook into columns. Here are the two best column strategies:

  1. Divide the page into two columns. The right one should take up about two thirds of the page, and the left column one third. Write your main lecture notes in the right column, and put keywords or topic headings in the left hand column. This makes it easier to find important information when you’re going through your notes later.

  2. Divide the page into two columns of equal width. Write points from your readings in the left column, and related points from your lecture in the right column. If you’ve ever struggled with integrating your readings and your lecture notes, this is the strategy for you.

Have an after class routine

Type your notes up within 24 hours of the lecture. Turn key words and dot points into full sentences, and translate those abbreviations before you forget what they mean. Some studies have shown that if you revise the information within 24 hours of first hearing it, you’ll remember about 80% of it. Such a simple routine could make exam time a whole lot easier.

FROM THE ARCHIVES: This story was first published on Survive Law on 19 August 2011.

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