Monday, November 10, 2014

6 Basic Steps to Outlining

First let me say, there is nothing "basic" or "easy" about outlining. However, I frequently get to the point in the semester where I know I need to start outlining, but I just don't know where to start. Despite having done this many, many times, the amount of information that I have obtained over the semester is always overwhelming. These steps make it easy for me to step back and get an idea of what I really need to do so that I can effectively outline and not get overwhelmed in the process. 

1. Gather Your Notes

This may seem fairly obvious, and it should, but it is still something that you need to actively do. Generally this is the easiest step, but keep in mind any day that you skipped missed class and need to either ask someone for notes or find the email where they sent them to you. And it some cases, if you have a mixture of hand-notes and typed-notes you want to make sure they are all in one place. Personally I prefer to print out all of my notes because it is easier for me to go through them, as well as not having to go back and forth between screens when I'm making my outline. But, if you have two screens and/or staring at a computer doesn't bother you, that may be unnecessary.

2. Get Organized 

In addition to needing your notes to start your outlining, you are likely going to want the textbook, professor handouts, and any other supplement for the class. Now is a good time to gather everything you are going to need for every class that you intend to outline. It's much more fluid to go from working on one outline to another if you aren't having to stop and look for things all the time. As an overall organization tactic, it might be a good time for you to also make a study plan. Since you have all of your notes, books, and supplements gathered you probably will have a good idea of just how much time you want to spend on each outline and which ones you just want to get out of the way first.

3. Make a Skeleton Outline 

I generally prefer to go to the Table of Contents in the front of the textbook and use that as a skeleton or template for my outline. Occasionally there are other ways that I organize my outline, especially in a class where the professor tends to jump around from section to section in the book. For instance, our Con Law professor set out "Themes of Constitutional Law" at the beginning of the semester, so in that case I let that be my guide. Generally though, I tend to use the Table of Contents as a starting point. Even if I end up rearranging the information here and there, it is a good place to start when you don't know where to start. If you compared the picture below to the Table of Contents of my book, they would look almost identical. 

4. Go Through Your Notes and Highlight Important Information

After I've gathered all of my notes and made the Skeleton outline, then I go through all of my notes and highlight what comes across as important to me. This can be based on the emphasis you remember the professor putting on this certain topic in class, it can be a rule or something that is clearly important, or in a code class like Negotiable Instruments or Contracts it would be a provision of the UCC. Occasionally I will also highlight different things in different colors so I know how to treat them. For instance with our Con Law professor cases were very important, so I always made sure to highlight the case names as I was going through my notes the first time as a guide for what I needed to come back to.

5. Fill in Your Template with Substantive Information

After Step 4, this should be relatively easy, though very tedious. It can also be a difficult task if your professor doesn't tend to go "with the book" in his or her lectures. To that I would say, do the best you can and fill things in where they seem to fit. That is the best part about having a skeleton outline already complete, if something in your notes doesn't seem to match what's around it, look for somewhere else in the outline that it fits and makes sense.

6. Finalize and Format

Congratulations! You are almost done! This step can occasionally become the "if I have time" step, however, if you have at least a few days before the exam and you have completed the outline with information to your liking, I would strongly suggest taking a few minutes and formatting the outline so it is easier to read and follow along. Aside from bullets and numbering I don't like to do a lot of formatting as I go because if I don't want it to apply to the entire document occasionally I struggle with it trying to do just that. But, if you do it all at the end, it's a lot easier to pick and choose which sections you want to have bigger font, underline, etc. The exception is, if I want to make cases, rules, or something of the sort stand out, I do tend to put those in bold as I go because it's harder to catch them just by going back through.
For those of you that never really finish your outline, you can still spend a few minutes to do some formatting to make it easier when you are studying. A few of my friends always use their outlines as a "work in progress" and are never really finished. I, on the other hand, like to be completely finished and print mine, knowing that there may be somethings I would have added or taken out, but keeping in mind those things can always be written in or crossed out.   {Obviously I should have spell checked the document below before posting it on here, another key final step.}

I hope these steps have been helpful to you, I find it so much easier to start outlining if I just know where or how to start. What are some of the things you do when you are outlining to make it "easier" for you? 

Have a Great Day, y'all! 

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