5.2 – What Outlining Is Good For


What Outlining Is Good For

Process of creating outline helps in excelling at exams

Let me talk more about what outlining is good for. As I just said a minute ago, what outlining is good for is it's something that's going to make you go through a process of learning that will put you in a really good position to do well on the exam.

I think most students don't always necessarily understand this. I remember when I was in law school, sometimes you would hear other people murmuring, "Oh, I got this great outline for this class from my friend who got an A last year, and it's 92 pages. It's a really great outline." You might think, "Oh gosh, that's really going to give me a huge leg up in the class."

Develop your own outline, number of pages doesn't matter

To be honest, I don't think having someone else's outline is really helpful at all. I basically never use them. I never even really looked at them much when I was in law school, because the fact that someone else produced the document means you didn't. If you're just going to rely on someone else's outline, you didn't go through the process yourself of breaking everything down and teaching yourself the material. You can’t produce the outline without actually going through the process of active study and active learning that I was just talking about.

I would encourage you to just not worry about other people's outlines, and also not worry about if you hear, "Oh, this person in my section has a 142-page outline. She's really prepared for the exam." Just don't worry about it. The goal is not the creation of the outline. Now, you might use your outline to study. I'm going to talk about that a little bit, about how your outline can be used as a study tool.

In some ways, actually, having the longest outline is not an accomplishment once you really understand what an outline is for. When you outline, what are you doing? You're going to go through all the material from the class. You're going to go through the reading that you did, maybe the statutory supplements that you read, the notes from your classes, maybe there's PowerPoint slides your professor gave you. Basically, everything. You're going to bring it all together, and you're not going to just regurgitate it all. Instead, you're going to do two things.

How to Outline

(1) Organize material in a framework, (2) active thinking, (3) include only bare essentials

First, you're going to organize the material in some way that makes sense to you and that makes sense of the material, that isn't just a list of topic, topic, topic, topic, topic. It'll be in what we call an outline structure, where you think, "Oh gosh. Turns out, I think there were really three big questions we were focused on in this class. The first issue, it really had three big sub-questions. That's what we spent the first third of the semester on. The second part was really two big questions."

You're putting this all together in a framework. You're seeing how it all relates to each other, and that's helping you get it organized in your mind. Then beyond that, you're distilling it. You’re going to take maybe hundreds of pages of notes, a thousand pages of casebook reading, and who knows what other materials, and you’re going to distill it into something much more simplified. Each case you read, you're going to say, "What does this case really stand for? Let me just try to summarize that. Let me go through that process [that I described for you in an earlier lesson] of extracting the rule from the case."

That's going to require you to do a lot of active thinking. It’s going to require you to look at the case again, try to look at where it was in the class, understand, "Why were we reading this? What's the real takeaway here?" It's going to require you to make some judgment calls, and you think, "I think we read that because it really was meant to show the difference between this common-law rule and the more modern rule. I'm going to summarize that case this way. It boils down to that." You're going to do that for the whole class.

Actually, the more effectively you do that, actually, the shorter your outline might be. The people that end up with these hundreds of pages of long outlines, they actually haven't done the right kind of work. All they're doing is they're just copying and pasting stuff. They're spewing it all back into their outline, and I don't think that's actually helpful.

Your goal is actually to do more work to pare down, put everything in context, and really get the class down to its bare essentials. You're figuring out, "The things that I really, really need to read, I'm going to try to put them in this document." That process of doing that is going to help you understand so, so much more than you would before you've done that.

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