5.1 – Active Study Versus Memorization


Active Study versus Memorization

We've talked about how to read and understand cases and how to put them in context. We're going to start moving towards the process that you're going to go through to really get prepared for an exam. Right now, we're going to talk about an intermediate step along the way, which is outlining. I'm going to explain what exactly that means. Before I get into the details, I want to talk about a more important distinction I think it's useful to understand. It's a distinction between what I call active study, and just ordinary memorization. I want you to understand that to do well in law school, you are going to need to memorize some things.


Helps but more important to develop a deeper understanding

It's going to be helpful to have some rules, doctrines, kind of in your head. Even if you're taking an exam that's an open-book exam, you're going to be able to perform much better if you have stuff in your head and you don't have to look through your notes, because you won't necessarily have time to flip through your notes to find everything out. I don't want to say that memorizing stuff isn't part of law school success, but I think it's only one part and not even the most important part. You also need to develop deeper understanding. You're not just going to be tested on "Name a doctrine, name a doctrine, name a doctrine, what year did this happen?" Those facts that you can have in your head.

Importance of Actively Studying

Develops a deeper level of understanding for application-based exercises

Instead, you're going to be tested on your ability to apply rules, principles, ideas, arguments to new situations. You're going to be tested on ways you can see connections, you can move deftly between all the different things you've studied. The only way you can get there is by having a certain amount of memorization, but more importantly, a deeper level of understanding.

The way that you're going to get that understanding is going to require what I call active study. It's going to require additional work on your part that isn't just sitting there, stuffing your head full of facts. When you're studying to study most effectively and to study successfully, what you're really going to do is you're going to teach yourself the material. That doesn't mean that you're not getting anything out of class, you're not learning things in class, your professor is not teaching you things.

I don't mean to imply that, but you're going to have to take things to the next level, and really do some additional active studying work to get to the level of understanding where you really understand how all the moving pieces fit together.

Outlining comprehensively develops deeper understanding

Probably the most common way to do that, and I think the most successful way to do that, is what we call outlining. This is putting together some document at the end of the class that really brings together everything you learned into one comprehensive whole. It can look like a lot of different things. There's not one format of an outline that I'm going to tell you you have to do to be successful.

The idea is, it's something that you produce, and the thing that I want you to understand is that the process of producing whatever your outline is, that process is what's most important. That is actually how you're going to really, really learn the material in the depth that you need to, in order to perform at a really high level on your exams. It's not about, "Gosh, I produced the most beautiful outline that's ever been written," nobody cares. It's about the fact of outlining, the way you go through that process actively, is what's going to teach you the material and really get you to where you need to be.

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