5.4 – How to Build a Knowledge Structure


How to Build a Knowledge Structure

Let's talk about how to outline successfully. I'm not going to tell you there's any one way to do it. I'm just going to tell you what I think is a useful way to think about the process. One phrase I use a lot in talking about outlining is, it's really useful to build a knowledge structure. Think about it this way: you go through your classes and you just have a lot of discrete classes, you learn doctrine after doctrine and rule after rule, context after context. In your mind, at the end of class, it might just seem like this is just a sequential list of different topics. That's not going to get you over the finish line in terms of your exams.

Relating different concepts, doctrines, and rules is key to successful outlining

It's not enough just to know a bunch of doctrines. You have to know how the different doctrines relate to each other. If someone writes a fact pattern that changes certain facts, you need to understand how all the different defenses are going to interact with each other, or you need to understand how different statutory language is going to change mens rea and so forth. You need to understand the different moving pieces and how they fit together in a class.

You need to understand, oh, gosh, that thing we did in Class 17 and 18, those were two alternative rules. Those weren't two requirements that every criminal statute must have. Class 17 was about one rule and Class 18 was about some alternative rule. Your outlining process really helps you do that. An easy way to do that is by doing something that gives you some kind of visual structure.

A built-in outlining software in a program like Microsoft Word does that really well, where you have headings, subheadings, sub-sub-subheadings. That process of just figuring out, okay, what are the different headings, subheadings of this class? If I were going to create this class, map this class visually in that way, how would it break down? That's going to make a lot of things start seeming clearer to you. It's going to make you understand, okay, these two things are both components of this other issue, and so forth.

You don't actually even have to do it with just words, necessarily. I knew one extremely successful law student who got a huge number of accolades and this person had been a management consultant. He actually created these outlines using PowerPoint that were diagrams. They weren't just written batches of text, they were diagrams that showed how different parts of the class fit together, they were flowcharts, almost. That was a really successful method for him because it really helped him understand how the different moving pieces fit together.

Outline to complement syllabus

I just use traditional paper outlines with the Microsoft Word outlining function, but you can use whatever method works for you. This process of having to create something and having to commit something to paper and say, these are the different key issues, and these are the different subtopics, and so forth. That requires some thought. There's some shortcuts to how to do it. One of the shortcuts is, look at your syllabus, and then look at the table of contents of your casebook. Your table of contents is likely to be organized in outline format with key headings, and subheadings, and sub-subheadings.

That might be a good starting place. Then you might want to look at your professor's syllabus. Maybe your professor teaches this in a weird order and puts things in a slightly different organization. Maybe that suggests your professor thinks these things should be mapped a little differently. Whatever it is, you need to go through that process of really understanding how you think the different pieces fit together. For me, I just always felt like I didn't really learn a class until I went through this part, until I had done this exercise of really putting everything into this larger structure in my mind, even though I felt like I've been paying attention well in class up to that point.

This is the moment for me where I was like, "Oh, gosh, I really now understand the material and have learned this class."

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