So you’ve started lectures – or at least are starting them very soon. Chances are, unless you went to a few select colleges, you’ve never experienced this type of learning before – and it can be daunting. I completely understand.
The lecturer is talking at you super fast – in an accent that you may or may not understand – whizzing through slides, whilst throwing a hundred new terms at you, like ratio, obiter etc. And forget trying to even understand what they’re saying – you’re just trying to get the notes down quick enough before they move onto something else.
But here’s the thing – to excel in your exams, you need to do both; take down and understand your notes, at the same time. This means that there will be less groundwork to re-cover when it comes to revision, and you don’t have ‘learn’ anything – only revise.
And I’ll admit – I got off to a bumpy start with my note taking process – both pre, in and post-lecture. But I managed to fix it in time for my January exams, and it helped me massively. So I’m going to share; I’m going to run you through how I take my notes, and why I do what I do. I can promise you, that if you can do this, the whole of law will suddenly seem a lot easier.
I do a few things before I go to my lectures.
The first is read through the relevant pages of the handout, rather than trying to follow them during the lecture. Whether I understand them or not doesn’t matter – the aim is that you come out of that lecture with everything you read making sense. It allows you to gain a little headstart before you get into the lecture, and can, unsurprisingly, actually make the lecture easier to comprehend.
The second thing I do is very module dependent – it won’t apply to them all – and that is, that I read the recommended reading for the lecture. If I remember correctly, there was only one module that had recommended reading to complement each lecture last year, and that was Constitutional and Administrative Law, Semester 2. Again, this is mainly for the same reasons as above. It’s really just going to aid your understanding of the topic, and give a wealth of more in-depth information about it – whether you think you remember this extra reading or not is irrelevant. Because you do. When you’re sitting in that exam, that information will come back to you, and it could be what pushes you up to a first.
The other thing I do, before every single lecture, is that I find the relevant powerpoint, and copy the text into a word document. Now bear in mind, this is only relevant if you’re taking notes via laptop – I can’t comment for handwriting – but when taking notes by laptop, I find that doing this helps masses. It means that not only do you already have the outline of the lecture down, but it also means that you have an easy template that you can type information into as the lecture progresses, under the relevant headings / with relevant quotations and cases already down. It also means that there’s so much less faff after your lecture because you already have a well put together set of notes, that are super easy to revise from.
Also, as part of copying and pasting the powerpoint text, I also add a little formatting of my own. All cases and judicial quotes I embolden and change to red, and all legislation I embolden in blue. This, again, means that your notes are very clear and makes it easy to find both what you’re looking for and the key parts of the law, for your topic.
I’ll be honest, during the lecture, I don’t do anything other than taking my notes. And if you’ve followed all the pre-lecture steps, this becomes a very easy and simple process.
What I will say about taking notes during the lectures, is that personally, I think it’s much easier to type them than handwrite them. I appreciate that many people do prefer to handwrite, and that information tends to stick better when handwritten, but personally I tried it and it didn’t work. I type faster than I write, and at the pace that the lectures move, with the amount of information you need to get down, my hand simply couldn’t keep up – and my notes were a hell of a lot messier, without the added advantage of being able to command-f through them.
Another tip, I’d say, is that you should be writing down almost everything the lecturer says. Pretty much everything they say is relevant information, and you only need to miss out one sentence for a whole topic not to make sense, when reading it back. Trust me, I’ve experienced it. Again, this is why typing works out better for me, because I can get absolutely everything down, and then remove irrelevant stuff after, if needs be.
Also, as with the pre-lecture color coding, for cases and legislation, my notes correspond. Notes for a case will be in red text and notes for legislation will be in blue text – trust me, this helps so much, particularly when a tutor throws a random question about a case at you, in a tutorial and you’re trying to skim your notes for the answer.
This is arguably the most important part of the lecture – both in term of consolidating the knowledge and making sure you can use these notes to revise from – and I do a fair few things once the lecture has finished.
The first thing I do is clean up my notes. I might type fast, but I still make typos – tones of them – so I’ll comb through my notes, correcting spelling errors and grammatical mistakes WITHOUT using spellcheck. Why, you might ask – well because by doing it this way, it forces me to read through my notes again, replenishing the knowledge in my mind. This is so important, as is highlighted by the spaced repetition method, which science has shown is one of the best ways for you to learn and retain information. It basically follows the idea that we have what is called a forgetting curve – a period of time after which we begin to forget the material we have learned. We should be going over this material just when we are about to forget it, and thus each time you do this, the curve becomes longer, meaning more time can pass before you forget the material. This is a very brief summary, and if you’d like to learn more check out: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cVf38y07cfk The point is, reading through your notes in this way, can act as the first repetition and thus allow you to begin to process of consolidating that knowledge in your brain.
Then what follows, is that once a topic within a module has been completed, I condense it down, this time by hand. I usually do this on a weekend, and this usually takes between 1 and 3 hours. I usually limit myself to one side of handwritten A4, per 3 sides of typed notes – it’s really about collecting the core information and removing all the extras. This means that only key points that I need to know go in. For cases, if there are multiple cases for something, I’ll pick two. Also with cases, unless it’s a monumental case, I’ll only take down the ratio / legal principle – in an exam, this is all you’re going to need to know. Once you’re done with this, you should have condensed your topic down into around 1-3 pages. Once I’ve condensed a whole module, it can range between 5-13 pages, usually.
The point is, you now have this super succinct ‘cheat sheet’ of information, that’s useful for a number of reasons. Firstly, it means in terms of your spaced repetition re-reading it makes it much in easier, both in terms remembering the information because there’s less to remember, and in getting yourself to do it, because you only have say 3 pages to read, as opposed to 8 (of your original notes). But secondly, and more importantly, these condensed sheets of information will be lifesavers during your exams. Not only do they make things way easier to remember when revising (though you should already know it if you’ve been using the space repetition method), but they also make it so much easier to locate the information, and write practice papers fast and well.
As for tutorials, obviously your lecture notes will generally help, but I can’t really comment on this because I usually complete my tutorial work around 2 weeks in advance, which is usually before I’ve had the corresponding lecture.