What’s The Right Way To Take Notes in Class?

John and I would like to introduce you to Nick Axelrod and Jonathan Bruno, two 2Ls who have been helping us with The Blog and The Commons. After we got some comments and questions about note-taking, they volunteered to write something on the subject. Their comments follow . . .

At this point you’ve been in class for a few weeks. No doubt you’ve noticed classmates using different note-taking techniques and have probably wondered which style is best. Needless to say, different styles of note-taking will work better for different kinds of students. Still, there are a few tips that we believe can serve every student well:

• Let’s face it: you’re tempted to copy down everything your professor says. We understand the urge. It’s natural, especially for 1Ls, because at this stage it can be difficult to distinguish what’s important or note-worthy from what’s not. Resist this urge! Your goal while note-taking is not to record information indiscriminately, but to identify and keep account of the issues that your professor is really trying to highlight—the “bumpers” you’ll need to hit on the exam.

• How do you know what the professor is trying to highlight? One way is to pay close attention whenever the discussion of a case, or a class, or a unit of the course, is coming to a close. These are moments when the professor is likely to be synthesizing or recapping the “take-aways.” Some professors may also give a quick summary of the last meeting’s key points at the beginning of class. More generally, be active in class. You needn’t (and probably shouldn’t) raise your hand every two minutes, but you should always keep apace, mentally, with the class discussion.

• Don’t stop paying attention simply because a classmate, and not the professor, is speaking! Many professors try to elicit key points through discussion. So remember: the classmate a few rows back might just be identifying the key point that your professor has been driving towards.

• Your notes don’t have to look boring! Feel free to change up your fonts and use different styles, colors, and sizes. Use bold and italics to emphasize the relative importance of different ideas.

• As for mechanics, be aware that one mammoth Word document may not be the most convenient way to organize your notes. If you’re using a computer, you might want to investigate a dedicated note-taking program like Microsoft OneNote or Circus Ponies NoteBook for Mac. Whichever application you use, remember to back-up your work!

• Don’t be afraid to eschew the computer altogether if you find it impossible to stay focused on class with the Internet at your fingertips. (For this particular distraction problem, you could also try an Internet disabling program like Freedom). Of course, some students prefer pencil-and-paper for different reasons; for example, “visual learners” may find it easier to incorporate charts or diagrams into their notes this way. The bottom line: there’s no right answer to the pencil-and-paper v. computer question. Figure out what works best for you and make an informed decision that will serve you well.

For more tips on making the most of class, check out Chapter 13 of Open Book. Have other ideas about note-taking? Please share them by posting a reply below or by e-mailing authors@openbooklaw.com!

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