5.5 – Re-Reading Casebook Materials and Your Notes


Rereading Casebook and Your Notes

Don't passively reread materials for exams, but actively distill information into outline

As you are outlining, one thing you're going to do is you're going to reread notes you took in class and the materials in the case book. I want to clarify something at this point, and we're going to talk about this a bit more as we talk more about exam prep, but the idea here is not to just sit there and reread those materials passively, just sit there and process them. That's not the idea, and that's why I'm stressing that this is part of the outlining process, because just rereading stuff is actually a very poor way to learn things. Even if you had infinite time and you just sat there and reread all your materials and all your notes from class six times in a row, that would be a very, very ineffective way to prepare for your exam. I don't think it would be likely to lead to good performance.

It's very time consuming to do it that way, but most importantly, it's passive. Just reading stuff in and of itself doesn't necessarily get the stuff inside your head, which is where you need it. Instead, you need to actively go through that material and that's what is so critical about outlining. What is that going to look like? It means you're going to go through all this material, the readings from the class, the notes that you've taken, and any other materials like that, and you're going to process it in some way.

You're going to look it over and you're going to figure out where to put it, you're going to distill the information that's in there, you're going to boil it down, and you're going to put the important stuff in your outline. That is going to be a process of active learning. In the course of doing this, you're going to be looking back at this material and you're going to refresh your recollection, but then you're going to have a task, you're going to be going through this material in a way that you have a goal. You're trying to look at it and say, "What am I trying to get out of this? This is a ten-page case, what am I going to do with this so that I can put it in a condensed form into my outline? What are the takeaways?"

That is going to be an extremely effective way for you to refresh your memory from something that you read maybe two or three months ago, but don't remember very well, or maybe didn't even understand that well to begin with.

Rereading and Outlining Process

(1) Refresh memory, (2) summarize, streamline, and simplify, (3) handwritten method is preferrable

Let's talk about what that process is going to look like, the process of going back through rereading these materials and processing them into your outline. Let's talk first about your casebook, the materials in your book, and particularly, the principal cases in your book. You're going to go back through those cases, you're going to look at them, you're going to refresh your recollection, try to remember, what is this case about?

Maybe you read it a couple months ago, try to bring it back into your head and be like, "Oh, yes, this is that case about the guy’s dispute with his uncle." Then what you're going to do is something that we talked about in the previous class. You're going to try to remember and think about, why was this case assigned? Why was this case here in the book? What was it trying to teach us? What is the case really about? What is the takeaway from the case?

A lot of times, the answer to that will be, this case is there to summarize a rule, maybe it's a pretty straightforward rule. If you get to that point, you say, "Oh, I see, this case is really just about summarizing this pretty clear rule." And what you're going to want to do in your outline, you're going to find the right place in your outline where that particular legal issue goes and you'll just summarize the case really quickly, maybe just a sentence of facts, enough that you can remember it. It can be pretty simple. Man sues uncle because uncle refuses to honor a promise, or something like that.

Then just summarize the rule, the rule is, a one-sentence summary of the rule. In that case, you will have distilled maybe three, four, five, six pages of casebook material into really just two lines, three lines, in your outline, and you've really simplified and streamlined it. You had to do some work to get there. It wasn't just a matter of cutting and pasting, and that's an important thing to stress about outlining, is that it's not just cutting and pasting, it's not robotic.

It is an active process where you are thinking, you are making decisions, and in the course of doing that, you have to really develop a deeper understanding of the material, you'll develop a deeper understanding of what you were assigned, why you were assigned, and how it fits into what I've called this larger knowledge structure.

You do that with the principal cases, go through the notes after the case, if the notes after the case flag any other key legal rules, or if there's a squib case, which is a shorter version of a case that doesn't have all the facts, but it seems it goes into more detail, that's something you might want to think, "Oh, does this belong in my outline? Oh, look, this note after the case explains that other jurisdictions follow a different rule. Gosh, I better put that in." And I'll talk more about that in the next lesson.

You're just going to do that, basically, with all the material in the book. You're going to process everything in some way. You might have read 1,000 pages in your casebook over the course of the semester, and it might boil down to a lot less. It might boil down to ten, twenty, thirty pages of outline material, but you're going to go through it all.

The point is, you don't need to memorize every word that's in your casebook. Instead, you need to figure out what's really critical and what's less critical. What are the ways I can really boil this down to its absolute essentials? While you're doing that, while you're going class to class, topic to topic, in addition to looking at the materials that you're assigned, you're also going to want to look at whatever notes you took in class.

Now, maybe you were taking notes by hand, I've already talked about why I think that's a particularly effective method, maybe you're taking notes on the computer, maybe you missed class that day and you have somebody else's notes. In any event, you've got notes. Again, you want to do the same thing with those. You want to look at them, you want to read them, and you don't want to just cut and paste. You want to distill, you want to say what was important.

It turns out, some of the stuff in the notes might be less important. Some people take transcription-level notes, and they just write down every little stupid joke the professor says, and you don't want all that in your outline, because that's going to make it too long, too cumbersome, and you're not going to have done the hard work of figuring out what's critical. Instead, look through, and maybe you'll see at one point, okay, your professor said, "Actually, there's a different rule that I think you should learn, and that's X." Gosh, you see that, circle that, get that in your outline, that's really, really going to be important.

This is another instance of why I think handwritten notes help, because you don't have the crutch of being able to cut and paste. That's just not possible with handwritten notes. You have to, at some point, go through this process of reading them and typing them up, and in that process, you're going to make some hard choices about what goes in and what doesn't go in. You can still do that, if you have typed notes, but you might just have to make yourself a little bit more disciplined.

You might just have to say, "I'm not going to cut corners and just do a bunch of copy and pasting." Again, because that doesn't let you go through the actual hard mental work of making the choices about what really belongs in your outline, what is the really important takeaway from these five pages of notes.

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