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Outlines and Graphic Organizers: Making Sense of a Course


Many law students never outlined courses when they were undergraduates because tests were frequent and noncumulative so cramming from class notes worked well. Infrequent law school-style exams make cramming from class notes and briefs unwise.

First, one exam covering 15 weeks of material translates to hundreds of pages of briefs and notes. Second, briefs and class notes often discuss just cases and keep students focused on daily class preparation rather than synthesizing course material. Third, law school exams require application of the law to new scenarios rather than the rote memorization and “brain dump” strategies for undergraduate exams.

Outlines flip the student’s thinking to application and the “tools” needed to solve new legal problems. These tools include rules, variations on rules, exceptions to rules, definitions of elements, policy arguments, steps of analysis, and more. Outlines should be structured for understanding topics and subtopics and not include full case briefs. Cases become illustrations to jog one’s memory of tools and help spot issues.

How does one start an outline?

The easiest structure to begin an outline is with a skeleton that includes all of the topic and subtopic headings to be covered on the exam. The casebook table of contents or the professor’s syllabus can provide this skeletal structure. As each topic and its subtopics are covered in class, the student can flesh out the skeleton with the essential tools for applying the law to new legal scenarios.

When should one begin outlines? Like any investment, it is better to start early. Students should typically start outlines after the first class week. If that isn’t practical, it is still better to start today than tomorrow. And tomorrow is better than next week.

Students should add new material to their outlines every week. By doing so, they synthesize material while it is still fresh rather than having to relearn it later before they can even begin outlining. One week’s material can be outlined quickly—usually in less than 1 ½ hours. Outlining less regularly (for example, at the end of a multi-week topic) will actually require a greater time commitment because of the resulting memory loss. By outlining weekly, students can distribute their exam review throughout the semester.

How long or short should an outline be?

An outline’s length varies with the student’s learning styles and the amount of material covered. If the outline is too short, the student will lack any depth of understanding and have difficulty with analysis on the exam. If the outline is too long, the student will bog down in case trivia rather than focus on tools for solving new scenarios.

After learning a segment of the outline completely, condense that material to fewer pages. After the new version is learned well, condense the outline once more. For example, condense 50 pages to 24 pages to 15 pages after thorough learning at each stage. Mentally recalling the shortest version during the exam is far more efficient and will trigger remembering the details from longer versions. Ultimately condense the outline to a checklist on one sheet of paper. When the proctor begins the exam, write the checklist on scrap paper as a memory device.

One way to evaluate whether your outlines are the right length is to critique them after your final exams. Consider the questions on the exam and then highlight anything that was unnecessary in each version of your outline. Use this technique as a guide for future outlines.

How will the course material change the format of the outline?

In courses that are code- or federal-rule-based, students will want to reference (and possibly cross-reference) the code/rules in the outline. A tabbed code/rule book or a table of code sections/rules might supplement the basic outline. In courses that are problem-based, students will want to reference problem sets in the outline or supplement the basic outline with a separate binder of problem sets. If a professor teaches from PowerPoint slides, those slides may become the initial layer of information added to the skeleton outline.

How will different exam formats influence outline content and use?

Because one cannot explain the answer chosen, multiple-choice exams may require deeper understanding of topics than essay exams. Outlines including legal nuances enable students to determine the best answer among several good options. Essay exams require careful connecting of the dots for the reader in the IRAC analysis. Outlines delineating methodologies encourage students to present thorough analysis rather than mere conclusions.

Open book exams lull students into assuming they can study their outlines less thoroughly beforehand and simply look everything up during an exam. Beware this open book trap; there is never enough time to look up material. Students who have studied their outlines diligently need to avoid the temptation to double-check every answer. They will waste valuable time and may even change correct answers because of second-guessing themselves.

Multiple-choice exams looking for the best answer involve nuances in the law. Therefore, they may require a greater depth of understanding than essay exams because one cannot explain the answer chosen.

Why not just use a commercial outline or another student’s outline instead of making my own?

Personally processing the material and struggling with difficult concepts create deeper understanding of how the law works. Memorizing someone else’s work is superficial learning; you may be able to parrot it back perfectly, but will not necessarily understand how to apply the law effectively to new fact scenarios.

Your other outline source may not address your specific learning styles and be less helpful than learning the material through your styles. The outline’s quality may be suspect if you do not know what grade the student received in the course. If a professor changes casebooks or perspective on a course, the prior outline may not match the current version of the course. Commercial outlines are written for a national audience and may not match your professor’s structure, emphases, or jurisdictional focus.

It is perfectly legitimate to look at other outlines for ideas on format and to determine whether you have missed important concepts or nuances. However, depending on another outline is a shortcut that typically leads to less learning and lower grades.

Should I supplement my outlines with graphic organizers?

Students who are visual learners and benefit from spider maps, tree diagrams, yes-no decision flowcharts, and other forms of graphics can benefit from condensing segments of their outlines into graphic organizers. Visual learners often understand, retain, and recall information better with these supplemental versions of their outlines.

Graphic organizers help students to view the legal topic from multiple perspectives at once: the overview of the topic, the interrelationships among subtopics, the steps of analysis, and the nuances involved within each subtopic. For some students, adding color to the graphic organizers makes the visual even more understandable and memorable.

Students who fail to make outlines often miss important aspects of the course. They may miss the synthesis of the course and stay mired in separate cases and detail. Or they may only know the gist of the course and lack enough depth of understanding to do complete, sophisticated analysis. Outlines make an overwhelming amount of material manageable and focus the student on the most important aspects of the course that relate to solving new exam scenarios.


Vol. 42 No. 5

Amy Jarmon Amy L. Jarmon, assistant dean for academic success programs at Texas Tech University School of Law, is a professor and coeditor of the Law School Academic Support Blog . She is the author of Time and Workplace Management for Lawyers, which is published by the American Bar Association. She has practiced law in the United States and the United Kingdom.

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