Although this article is titled “How to Outline”, a better question to ask may be “When to Outline”. Why? I feel that outlining becomes much easier if you develop a regular habit of determining when you outline. So, this article will emphasize how important it is to develop a regular habit. Yes, there are still some tips and tricks to adopt when developing good outlines which will be covered as well. You may also notice a recurring theme throughout this article, look for it, and it will be discussed more fully at the end.
Why Outlines are so Important
Outlining is extremely important because it will be your main tool to prepare for finals. In law school, because most grades are solely determined by a final, it is important to follow a format that will help you best recall information in a quick and easy way. Often, outlines are condensed formats of course material that best help you visualize, in a big picture, how the law works. With an effective outline, not only will you be prepared for finals, you will also develop a greater understanding of the law.
When to Outline
Everybody is different. Some people enjoy outlining after the end of classes. Others enjoy outlining at the end of weeks. Others start their outlines at the middle of the semester.
I update my outlines after every lecture. At first, I was a firm believer in updating on a weekly basis. However, updating outlines became a taxing task of spending about one to two hours every Friday to ensure everything was up to date. Because of how taxing updating that frequently was, I couldn’t imagine starting midway through the semester, in a hope to remember essential details. Instead, I determined to update my outline daily, immediately after classes.
There are a few pros and cons to each method of outlining.
- Easily able to recall essential information.
- Minimal upfront time.
- Does not feel overbearing to do frequently.
- Often fits well in-between class schedules.
- It becomes easy to include too much information.
- Some non-essential information becomes included.
- Outlines will likely be longer and more time consuming to study for finals.
- Ultimately takes the most time (although this is not often felt).
- Information is still readily available.
- Non-essential information tends to be filtered out.
- Not too lengthy of an outline, but not too short either.
- Intermediate upfront time to update outlines.
- Often takes about 1-2 hours to fully update all classes.
- May accidentally leave out essential information.
- Outlines tend to be somewhat shorter and easier to review for finals
- Only necessary information becomes included.
- A lot of upfront time to update the outlines. Sometimes so much that students fail to create an outline.
- It is very easy to leave out essential information.
- If course notes were not well prepared, recalling good information becomes difficult.
- The time it takes to prepare these outlines may cause students to feel prone to copy and paste their notes. Although this may work for some, the majority of the time, this becomes a poor method to recall information when it comes time to take an exam.
How to Outline
Semester long Outlines
Everybody outlines a bit differently. I have seen very colorful outlines where a certain color means a different thing. Other outlines have extensive flowcharts outlining what happens for different rules. Some have subject headings with bulleted lists describing a principle.
I tend to follow the format of a syllabus to determine my outlines. I prefer to provide large headings that remind me of the big picture, smaller headings to introduce a principle, and bulleted lists describing the rules of law. This outline contains case names to remember along with a brief fact to introduce the background of the case and main takeaways from cases.
A power outline is a shorter, condensed version of a semester long outline. Most of the time, the power outline is based off of the semester long outline. Other times, students will study their semester outline, set it aside, and then write a power outline focusing on everything they can recall.
The reason for the term power outline is because this is supposed to contain the most powerful, essential terms of law. These are the things that are most likely to show up on a test because most of the rules are based on what you are able to best remember.
To see examples of all my outlines from my fall semester (semester long and power), click here.
Everyone is different
Every student studies in a different way. Every student also outlines in a different way. Find what works for you. I left a link to my outlines but I would recommend starting your own, with a way that helps you to recall information. Start your outline at the best time that works for you. Do what you know works and do not worry if others are working differently than you.
Good luck and happy studying!