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If you want to study like a first class law student, you NEED to stop taking notes. When we’re at school we’re never really taught how to study, and this leads people to adopting a default position. One where we rely on reading, re-reading, highlighting, underlining, summarising textbooks, writing down everything the lecturer says, and rote memorisation. Unfortunately this is an extremely passive way to learn and hundreds of studies have demonstrated that this is an extremely ineffective method of revising a subject. So in this article I will be breaking down the two-step method that every law student should take when trying to learn.
I remember the precise struggles of being a newbie law student. You’d be given a tonne of material to learn and virtually no guidance on how to learn it. Fortunately, there is a simple two step process for effective learning: firstly, you need to be able to understand the content and, secondly, you need a process of how to remember it. If you get nothing else from this video, just remember that understanding + remembering = good learning, which results in getting a good exam performance, and hopefully getting a sweet job at the end!
👌 Step 1: Understanding
The first stage of effective learning is understanding. Understanding involves focusing less on the note-taking itself, but more on breaking down the content into useful chunks of knowledge you can actually learn from.
Why Note Taking is Mostly Pointless
In particular, at this stage you need to stop taking notes like you currently do.
Firstly, in law lectures taking notes is, on the most part, entirely unnecessary. Most people sit in lectures like court stenographers eagerly tapping away at everything the lecturer says, but the only reason I would ever take notes in class would be to stay awake. Law lectures are usually pretty boring because lecturers don’t really care about undergraduate students – they are more focused on the research they are undertaking, with students being a distant secondary concern to them. Perhaps the only other reason to put pen to paper is to condense each slide into a single sentence and jot down anything the lecturer tells me is particularly important to focus on, as they could be hinting at the possibility this topic will come up in the exam. If you want to see more information on how I take notes in law lectures, check out my article on this.
Taking notes after class is also pretty pointless, which may sound quite controversial to some of you. At the end of the day, there are already so many different learning resources, so why make your own notes if there are pre-existing notes already? For example, just check out the law notes on this website, where all the core legal subjects are broken down for FREE in a really simple manner, so you no longer have to stress about condensing all of your modules ever again.
Some people will think that it helps them to learn the topic better by taking notes as they go along, but if you look at the incredible amount of evidence of summarising – by which I mean taking notes from your textbooks and journal articles – it is generally regarded as fairly low utility. For example, in one paper by Dunlosky et al in 2013, five study techniques received a low utility assessment, meaning they have very little impact on helping us to understand and learn legal content: summarisation, highlighting, the keyword mnemonic, imagery use for text learning, and rereading.
So why even take notes? I’m not saying to entirely stop taking notes, but stop doing it in a way that is entirely passive. As a law student, taking notes should be done as a way of consolidating information from disparate resources in one place and breaking down those resources so you can competently explain it to a friend. This leads me on to the Feynman technique, which I explained in more depth in my article on How I ranked first at law school.
The Feynman Technique
The Feynman technique involves collecting all the information you need from every relevant source – textbooks, lecture notes, websites, cases, journal articles, etc. – and putting them all in one place. I personally like to do this on an app called Notion. You then want to work towards breaking down this information and simplifying concepts until you have a very simple overview of each topic.
This is the only extent to which notes should be taken. Bringing all the information to one place, then simplifying, in a process that should last no longer than an hour for each topic. After that, your focus must be entirely on remembering and forget about taking any more notes on the subject.
🧐 Step 2: Remembering
Remembering is the second step in our effective two-step process of studying, and the crucial point to make here is to never rely on memorisation. By undertaking the understanding phase of study, you should have mitigated the potential to rely on rote-memorisation, but it is worth reiterating. Memorisation is bad, learning is good.
In the remembering stage you objective is to make everything an active process. In the same study by Dunlosky, it was stated that practice testing (or active recall) and distributed practicing (or spaced practicing) are both study techniques having high utility, and ones we should seek to embrace.
I talked more about spaced practice in a previous article, which involves reviewing topics at increasingly spaced out intervals to ensure you interrupt what Ebbinghaus dubbed ‘the forgetting curve‘. Although to begin with you will have to review your law notes quite often on a certain topic, over time you can increase the amount of time between revisions yet still retain the same level of comprehension. But, as I say, do check out my article on How I Memorised Everything in Law School if you want to find out more. It’s the active recall element of studying that I believe is more important to mention here.
Active recall involves actively testing yourself on the content as you go along. So instead of learning your law notes from a long set of boring notes, you want to turn everything you learn into series of questions. The notes you choose to make in the understanding phase are simply references where you have gaps in your knowledge, but it is active recall that will actually ensure you encode that knowledge into your long term memory.
For example, in the book Make It Stick, it talks about this medical student who by simply replacing his primary study method from re-reading content to active recall and self-quizzing, he was able to raise himself from the bottom of his med school class to the top.
So, if you want to remember legal cases and boring legal facts, then try and transfer all that knowledge into a question bank, which you can go back to periodically using a process of spaced repetition. In short, if you’re unhappy with your grades, just test yourself more. Stop taking notes, then waiting until the exams to revise the concepts again.
Studying like a first class law student really isn’t too difficult if you keep in mind these two components of effective studying: understanding and remembering. Hopefully, by following the techniques you too can be top of your class.