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When to start outlining?

By Eleanor Clerc

As the semester starts ramping up, many law students are looking for the best ways to organize and study material learned in the first weeks of school. One method many students use is outlining, where a student recreates an in-depth, cohesive review of all the topics covered in class. These outlines may include condensed rule statements, case briefs, policy arguments, or notes a student has about a given topic. While it is important to decide what to put in your outline, students have long debated a different question: when to start outlining.

To understand when to start outlining, it’s first important to know why outlining is important. Information retention is often dependent on: 1) how strong a memory is and 2) how much time has passed since the information was learned or recalled. When you’re taking multiple classes in a day and absorbing a lot of information for each class, the memory of distinct rules or cases may not be very strong or consistent. You may be forgetting important pieces of learning long before you need them, only to relearn that information for the exam, which isn’t efficient. And, as law students, we know we need to be really efficient with our time given the time pressure we’re under.

Outlining supports memory retention in a few ways. First, unlike restudying, where a student may be just rereading their cases and notes, outlining requires a student to actively engage with the material by organizing it in a way that makes sense to them. By investing the effort to really understand the material, a student is more likely to commit the material to memory over a long period of time, and will be more likely to effectively retrieve that information. Second, the outline provides a convenient way to revisit the material in a time-efficient manner, thus combatting the forgetting curve and improving recall.

So when should you outline? Most students and professors agree that outlining your first week is not super helpful. You’ll only have one or two classes under your belt, and you may be covering changes in the law that aren’t even relevant anymore. A good rule of thumb is to start outlining once your professor has finished their first specific topic. For example, I started my Constitutional Law II outline two weeks ago, once we had finished talking about Freedom of Religion. Not only did this solidify my understanding of the topic, but it also forced me to revisit everything we had talked about before moving on to the next topic. By doing so, if I had any questions or if there were topics I didn’t understand, I could address them when the material was fresh in my mind, instead of waiting months down the road and potentially having questions about a range of topics we had covered in the meantime.

One reason we recommend this method is that outlining the material when it is still relatively fresh improves information recall. According to many psychologists, memory retention fades over time, although how quickly and to what degree is still highly debated. Regardless of the rate of forgetting, frequent spaced repetition has been shown to slow this “forgetting curve” and it allows us to retain that information at higher levels for much longer.

The figure above shows how spaced repetition, which involves taking information you’ve learned and repeating your exposure to it over spaced intervals, may mitigate the effects of the forgetting curve. Spaced repetition is more effective than “cramming” at the last minute.

Outlining, along with other recall methods such as flashcards or practice problems, is one way to incorporate spaced repetition into your study methods. By starting early, you can go back to your outline and engage with the material over and over again. By contextualizing a new topic in what you have already learned, not only are you reviewing old material, you are also making it easier to view the class as one cohesive narrative rather than a lot of small unrelated topics. This should help both your initial and long-term retention of the material.

In summary, we recommend that you start outlining well before your final, and that you return to your outline as frequently as you need so you have a solid understanding of the topics. Not only will it help your memory, but having a well-developed outline may help with some of the stress caused by exams. You won’t have to worry about last minute cramming because you have been effectively engaging with the material all semester, and can focus on practice problems instead of relearning what you went over in the first weeks of class.

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