Do you read a lot? Most days, I read until my eyes bleed then spend the rest of my time writing. Studying law is reading and writing intensive, which, for me, is one reason for being in the program. I also read and write professionally in nonprofit work and publish creative fiction. Full disclosure: my natural facility is with numbers and spatial reasoning, but I love words and language. That means constantly coaching myself to think and learn using words. It also means I might have to work a bit harder to improve my verbal capacity. Each day I’ve got to process quite a bit of information the best I can, and then reorganize it verbally. It’s taken a while to develop a strategy to do that and to speed up my efforts.
What’s the point of taking notes?
No really, it’s a great question to ask about before starting a study or work session. What do you want to accomplish with your notes? It is often very different, depending on goals for a particular session. One big reason for taking notes is recalling information. Another is to listen and engage with lectures, etc. while recording key points. Still, another is to synthesize and apply knowledge. We often need to present information, so ordering it based on a given thesis is also a consideration.
Okay, it’s confusing. But if you struggle to process the volume of information coming across your desk in post-graduate studies give note-taking some thought, especially when revising for exams. My strategy takes four forms: SQ3R, the Cornell System, mind mapping, and outlining.
I love a good outline, topic, and full sentence. Normally, I use topic outlines early in the term or at the beginning of a paper and progress to a full sentence outline at the end. As rewarding and satisfying as it is, outlining doesn’t always meet my needs. It is not the best process when reading or listening to a presentation. For me, outlines work best when organizing information, for example developing a paper. Tell the truth, when taking any kind of notes the sentence outline they will ultimately form is always on my mind.
When working with course study guides, my initial approach with the SQ3R method. It is helpful to generate questions for further research and summarizing. The Cornell system works well for research and lectures, and when I need to bring order to a new project like writing a book. This system involves noting keywords in one column with more detailed notes in a second column. SQ3R and Cornell are similar, but for me, they work well together particularly because of the requirement to summarize.
SQ3R (Survey, Question, Read, Recite, Review) might be considered a reading method, but again, it gets my material in a usable form that improves recall and provides sets of research and study documents. In the Cornell system, the keywords and notes are generated, then a summary and set of questions are produced. For me, available time can drive my choice as well as availability of the material. If I am in the library or have books on interlibrary loan, it can be useful to start with SQ3R. Identifying keywords as the Cornell system advocates is part of my summarizing process. My note-taking software also allows me to identify keywords. For me, it is helpful to develop a vocabulary of keywords.
When I’ve done the preliminary reading and note taking, then what? Often, a visual process like Mind Mapping is helpful. It reinforces knowledge for me, but it is also creative and always helps me find new points and relationships between ideas.
Producing a body of work that is useful, concise, and accurate for academic legal writing six months or a year after engaging with a primary source is not an easy task. I have found that, for me, multiple note-taking strategies and engaging with material several times is the most effective approach. It is the approach I also use in my professional projects. My notes are stored in my note-taking software and also in three-ring binders banded together in chronological order. I tried to go completely digital but I just can’t; paper and the act of writing is too appealing and productive for me to give up entirely. They say it is also more effective for recall so there’s some validation for my method and my madness.
Experiment with note-taking; research it, and find the methods that work well for your work product and for your personal learning and comprehension preferences. How we process, interpret, and present information is fairly personal. What works for me might not be helpful for you. I am always discovering ways to increase productivity, retention, and application of knowledge. Please let me know what you discover.