Not just for sniffing
March 27, 2011 5:05 PM   Subscribe

How do I use a highlighter?

I saw two askme questions that may be relevant. I was just hoping to get more specific information:

I've been reading tons of law materials. Cases, commentaries, text. I read the shit, and I'm done.

But lately, I've noticed that people in my class highlight, make a full page of notes, make notes on top of the text, use those sticky tabs, etc.

WHAT? Why? How?

What needs to be highlighted, and what doesn't? What do I take notes on, what don't I?

I actually have never taken notes with any real benefit before. I used to start off a semester in college with brand new notebooks, and started writing as the prof started talking. 2 weeks into it, a pen would be in my hand, but I'd probably write one or two sentences. I would never read any notes again. I would do pretty well in the class. I have a good memory, and I believe its served me pretty well. When I read, I would usually circle, or underline something. In preparing for a final, I would thumb through a text that I read looking for stuff that I may have underlined or circled, and then finish reading stuff that I hadn't read before and then I'm done.

Now though, I'm wondering if I need to step up my game. If so, HOW?

Notes? What is more important? Do I need to highlight obvious overall ideas that I already know? Do I highlight all the details? What do I not highlight? Do I need to use different colors? WHY?

Do I take notes on the text or on a separate sheet of paper? What do I have to note? Am I rewriting stuff, am I putting my own thoughts there, am I synthesizing, what? What am I doing there?

Also, just to add another element to this. I have so much text to lug around, I was thinking about PDFing everything through an ADF multifunction printer, then put it on my ipad. There are several apps that would allow me to take notes on top of the pdf and even highlight. Should I do that, rather than have the physical papers? If so, can I just use default scanning settings or do I have to use OCR or what?

What methods work for you? What would you recommend to make this experience beneficial for me? I have to get through 400 pages per week, which is no problem...except that if I have to highlight/take notes it will take a lot longer...right?

So basically, any advice, tech help, personal anecdotes, or magic will get "best answer"ed by me since I'm kinda lost here.

posted by hal_c_on to Education (29 answers total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: My biggest mistake in law school was trying to change/"step-up" the studying and note-taking methods that had worked for me for years. (In my case, I started taking notes on the computer like everyone else and that TOTALLY FAILED for me -- I ended up just transcribing, not listening and digesting, and I need the handwriting process to help me remember things. I never need to go back and review my notes as long as I handwrite them the first time. And of course when class wandered off course for a few minutes and I got bored, I'd end up playing games and then not check back in mentally.)

Do what has always worked for you, with an eye towards the reviewing you'll want to do at the end of the semester. If you don't highlight, don't highlight. Personally, I don't really highlight because it distracts my eye when I try to go back -- I find bracketing or underlining works better. I do make margin notes, but limitedly. Those are all things I've done for a long time with success.

There's a lot of panic and "I'm studying more than you!" one-up-man-ship that goes on in law school. Don't buy into it. Do what works for you in the way that works for you and ignore all the extraneous stuff.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 5:17 PM on March 27, 2011 [4 favorites]

Best answer: If you're doing fine in class, there's nothing to worry about.

I've never found any reason to highlight anything. If the text is organized badly enough that section headings aren't useful for quickly scanning the text to find content, then I've generally had to do a Mind Map, or a flow chart, or a chart or diagram of my own devising.

If you follow the best practice of reading the material before the lecture, then you'll get the benefit of having the details of the lecture fall into the nice conceptual framework you've begun constructing. And you'll be able to catch the things the professor mentions that aren't in the text. Pay attention to the differences between the book and the lecture, because you can always re-read the book, but you'll have to track down the professor to hear the lecture again (unless there's a recording of it).

But if you like the grades you're getting doing what you're doing, then keep doing it.
posted by wires at 5:20 PM on March 27, 2011

Best answer: You're in law school? One of the major dangers is seeing people around you studying in their way and freaking out about the possible inadequacy of your methods. Do you understand and remember what you read? Can you follow what your professor is saying in class? If so, you're probably fine. Some people use five colors, ten supplemental outlines, and whatever else. Some people don't do the reading at all, don't go to class, and read an outline someone else made the day before the exam. There is not one right way to study. The outcome matters; the process doesn't. Don't let the compulsive nerds around you psych you out.
posted by prefpara at 5:23 PM on March 27, 2011 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Well, if you have a good memory, you probably don't NEED to do that stuff. I highlight and bookmark the stuff that I want to remember, but probably won't remember come tomorrow. The entire point is to make giant arrows towards what you don't find easy to recall.
posted by jenfullmoon at 5:25 PM on March 27, 2011

Best answer: I take notes on texts I'm reading using Microsoft Word's Outline View. This is the easiest way I've found to do it. And like Eyebrows, I rarely look back at those notes. Just the physical act of writing something down is often enough to commit it to memory. Using an outline format helps me hide the details so I can see the broader categories.

In class, listen for cues from the instructor about what's important: "You should know ...", "To sum up ...", "We will be talking about blah today and how it relates to foo, specifically in these areas ...". I'm continually amazed that students rarely write anything down when I say things like "This would make a good test question". (How much more obvious can I be??)

Your classmates probably don't trust their memories, or are marking a passage they need to go back to because they don't understand it, or are trying to look cool. I wouldn't worry about them.

But, I've never been to law school, so feel free to ignore me!
posted by SuperSquirrel at 5:26 PM on March 27, 2011

Best answer: In a room of 12 people, there will be 12 ways of reviewing and assimilating written information. Highlighting is a tool used by some people. Not everyone needs it.

The occasional highlight is really no different from the occasional circle. Use what you know. But use pencil. You want to sell those books when you're done. They will be of no use to you in the practice of law.
posted by megatherium at 5:27 PM on March 27, 2011

Best answer: I don't know that you actually need to change your methods if they're working reasonably well for you.

But for me, actually writing notes (vs handouts or typing, etc.) is what helps me set things in my memory. Sounds like you don't work that way, necessarily. I use quick highlighting to draw my eye to things (color-coded) when I review, but it's not critical for me.

Just to reiterate, it doesn't sound like this is something you need to study. Don't fix it if it ain't broke.
posted by asciident at 5:27 PM on March 27, 2011

Best answer: Taking notes never worked for me in college, but I did enjoy doodling while listening to lectures. I would have pages and pages of drawings in all my notebooks, with maybe a few words here and there (usually terms I had never heard before, just to get the spelling right). My friends always thought I was not paying attention and clucked at me for not bothering to take notes, but my grades never suffered.

For some people, writing and reviewing notes is how they best retain info, but if you're not one of those people I wouldn't worry about it so much.
posted by Menthol at 5:30 PM on March 27, 2011

Best answer: Reading a case to extract the holdings is a valuable skill and you don't want to shortchange yourself the training. I had no rhyme or reason to highlighting cases; I also made copious notes in the margins of my law books, rendering most unfit for resale at the end of the semester. Some of my classmates used a multi-color system: blue for facts, pink for holdings, etc.

This is what ended up working for me; turning me from a straight-B student into consistent Dean's List student:

For each class, keep a Cases document and a Notes document on my laptop. The Cases document was simply a summary of the case. Very often I'd just copy the Case Summary after looking it up on Lexis. Once I extracted the relevant info from the case, I was done with it (for class purposes; recall that you'll need the skill in the real world). This may or may not be right for you. The Notes document (in a strict outline format) was the black-letter law, and included content from class/study group discussions and reviewing from hornbooks/outlines. That was my exam-study outline, it just grew and I refined it every day as the semester went along. You start it the first day of class.

How do you know whether your system is working? You need to see how you're doing relative to the folks in your study group.

Another tip: develop a consistent system of shorthand for your note-taking: P (Plaintiff), D (Defendant), T (third party), etc. Symbols, too: "P-->D" = suit. "P<>D"= P sues, D counterclaims
posted by holterbarbour at 5:34 PM on March 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Sometimes just writing stuff down helps it stick in your mind better, too - and good notes are supposed to be a summary/condensation/paraphrasing of the key ideas, which also forces you to think and pick out said key ideas and bits of information.

So don't be too worried about not re-reading your notes.
posted by Lady Li at 5:36 PM on March 27, 2011

Best answer: I never highlighted in law school. The idea didn't make sense to me: I'd see students with most of a page highlighted. I always thought: gee, wouldn't it be easier to just cross out what's unimportant?

I never even considered color coding. That would not work for me at all. It would just add to my burden by forcing me to constantly remember which color meant what. Law is fundamentally not about colors; the law only ever needs to be stated in black and white text (or speech). So, use colors if and only if you immediately find that they make things easier for you.

I started out by writing up "briefs" on cases in documents before class, saying in my own words the facts, procedural posture, rule, application, and outcome of each case. It's also good to note the rationales underlying the rules, but don't get bogged down with that.

"Synthesizing" is fine if it means "writing down a clear, concise statement of a rule that we're seeing applied in multiple cases, abstracted from the odd details of the individual cases." But don't let the word "synthesizing" scare you into feeling like you have to turn your notes into a magnificent, original work of art. You want to get the job done with as much ruthless efficiency as possible.

Sometime in the middle of my second semester, I stopped writing up case briefs and switched to writing little icons ("F" for facts, "P" for procedural posture, etc.) in the margins of the casebook, and underlining. Again, this should be done before class.

In class, I took nearly verbatim notes on a laptop. (Yeah, I know people put this down as being a lowly "stenographer"; I don't care. It helped me zero in on what was being said; my mind would wander if I wasn't typing.)

When preparing for the exams, I'd take those notes, the casebook, commercial guidebooks, and outlines written by students in past semesters, and synthesize them all into an outline for each class. Of course, back up your documents all the time.

This was all wildly different than how I had done things in college, and wildly different than the advice in the first comment to keep doing things the way you've done them before. Law school is different from anything you've done before.

I would not try to turn things into PDFs to lighten your load. Do this only if you have an easier time reading PDFs. Most people have an easier time reading on paper. If the weight is a problem, get a little suitcase with wheels.
posted by John Cohen at 5:40 PM on March 27, 2011 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I have one class where the prof's "casebook" is a binder, so I did scan, etc and have those on my iPad. And i'm always ahead re the reading schedule in that class because it's easiest to read, highlight, notate while running on the treadmill. But I wouldn't waste the time of doing it to my bound casebooks. I could be reading them.
I have friends who do the color coding thing, who do the write every word they hear someone say in class down, etc. I too used to fully brief cases-now I circle, underline and margin note in the casebook mostly and then take quality notes in class. And i'm crazy dutiful about updating my outlines.
Speaking of.....
posted by atomicstone at 5:49 PM on March 27, 2011

Best answer: The classic: How to Mark a Book by Mortimer Adler.
posted by davcoo at 5:56 PM on March 27, 2011 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Scanning your casebooks is way more time and effort than it's worth, IMHO.

I never highlighted or took notes in undergrad, but I do in law school. Haven't color-coded since early 1L. Way too time consuming. I just use one color. I mostly highlight what I think might be important to make it easier to reference if I get called on. However, I also highlight sort of to make myself re-read the sentence as I highlight it. I also highlight in books or put an arrow next to a passage that the prof specifically mentions during class, especially if it's going to be an open book exam. I sticky tab stuff if it's an open book exam and it's something I would need to reference (though I mostly only sticky tab my own outline if we can bring them to the exam, so I can flip easily-- a godsend in classes like civ pro and other classes where you need to reference a certain test or procedure you need to apply [another ex. for me was media law]).
posted by elpea at 6:12 PM on March 27, 2011

Best answer: Do whatever works for you.

I circled or underlined stuff that was unclear on a first pass as a handy way to quickly access information I needed to be more familiar with. I often bought used textbooks and would come across pages so highlightered-up you could land airplanes with them. That seemed counterproductive, or at least indicative of a student unable to extract the salient bits from the supporting bits. But I also tended to draw epic battles of stick-figure Thor fighting stick-figure Silver Surfer instead of taking good notes in class, so maybe my advice isn't the best.

But as long as you understand the material, don't sweat the technique.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 6:45 PM on March 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I used to freak out because I never took notes or highlighted anything. I would just stick in little odd pieces of ripped paper in the book whenever I saw something of interest. Then I realized, I didn't have to take notes or highlight. It was not my style and did not help me. I managed to get through an elite college and a couple of masters degrees.

One thing I did do that helped: when I took Classical Greek, I copied by hand the passages I needed to translate. This really helped me with the translation.
posted by fifilaru at 6:45 PM on March 27, 2011

Best answer: When I was in law school, first year I was kind of lost because I studied the way everyone seemed to expect me to study. Some bizarre formulaic four-step thing where you had to write the "holding" is all I really remember of this.

Second and third years, I abandoned that, and devised my own method, which was to summarize EVERYTHING I read, in my own way. I didn't summarize according to any clunky formula, but rather, I digested everything in a way that made sense to me, and once I had summarized it, I really did not have to return to the source. It was time-consuming, but it gave me a much better mastery of the material than the canned law school study methods ever did.

Highlighting has always seemed absurd to me. Many of my classmates would have been better served to highlight the things that were NOT important, since they seemed to highlight 75% of the page.
posted by jayder at 6:48 PM on March 27, 2011

Best answer: Oh, and my grades were much better once I devised my own method.
posted by jayder at 6:48 PM on March 27, 2011

Best answer: Definitely just do your own thing.

I underlined in my books and made little stars in the margins for things I thought were important. I don't think I briefed anything outside of the legal writing class that required us to hand in a brief. I took copious notes on my laptop (when I wasn't reading Metafilter). After class--within a day or two--I'd distill the notes and review the cases again, and write it all up in a big outline.

In my experience, diligently making an outline was a much greater determinant of success in law school than briefing. I saw lots of people marking up their books with six colors of highlighter, and then looking haggard at the end of the semester when they tried to turn highlighted pages into an outline by sheer force of espresso-fueled will. When reading period came around, all of my outlines were done, and I spent a week just figuring out what it all meant as a whole.

I did very well--though again, just do what works for you.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 7:02 PM on March 27, 2011

Best answer: Can you read, understand, and properly digest your law materials? Can you put them down, come back to them in a few weeks, and still get the valuable information out of it? If so, then you don't need to change your system. Note-taking (and highlighting, and study guides in general), are about putting in the time now to save time later. It might take some people 15 hours to learn the concepts, and so it's better to spread that out over time rather than cramming all 15 hours in the night before a test. Other people only need 6 hours to learn the concepts. If you're really one of those people that only needs 6 hours to understand something and then it'll be in your brain for as long as it needs to be, then there's no point in devising methods to add extra work just so you're even with everybody else. The key is not to fool yourself into thinking you're a 6-hour person when maybe you're actually a 9-hour or 15-hour person. If you're happy with the results of your current method, there's absolutely no reason to change.

If you're not happy with your results, then it's time to change your method and look at taking some notes. Note-taking systems are highly personal because they remedy the brain weaknesses of one particular person, so adopting somebody else's method wholesale isn't going to do you a lot of good. You'll need to spend some time observing how you read and learn so you can identify your brain's particular weaknesses. Some questions you should ask yourself:

-How do you plan to use the reading material in the future? I'm not in law school, so I don't know to what extent you'll return to the material after the test, in another class, or even 5-10 years down the line. But there's no use in marking up a text to high heaven if you're never going to use it again.
-Do you have a good long-term memory, or a good short-term memory? If you do need to return to the info at some point in the future, will you still be able to remember the details, or will you have to entirely reread the case? It's easy oftentimes to say "yeah I'll remember that" and not think about how much information your brain is actually dealing with on an everyday basis. If you're not somebody who loses a lot of information over time, there's not a lot of need for extensive notes.
-Do you do better physically writing or do you feel more comfortable with a computer? Handwriting helps your brain process better, but can be too slow if you're a quick thinker.
-Are you better at making connections, or learning isolated facts? A lot of note-taking is based on making connections to other things you've read; "this reminds me of (subject)" or just "(subject)" in the margins.
-Can you hold onto those connections over a large chunk of time? It's easy when you've made a breakthrough on a difficult concept to go "I'll always understand this!," but over time you can lose those flashes of brilliance and be right back where you started.
-Do you remember text based on where it was on the page? People that use sticky note flags generally don't have the ability to remember "it was somewhere on the top of an odd-numbered page..." and don't want to have to spend time rereading everything over again, while the people with that ability can narrow their search for information based on that memory.
-Do you sometimes have problems zoning out when you read? If so, some kind of physical manipulative, like a highlighter, can help you pay attention by making yourself ask "do I need to highlight this?" And when you've reached a point where you've highlighted everything, it also gives a sign that you're generally not paying attention anymore.
-Do you sometimes just read without analyzing? If so, you might need to be making margin notes about where you agree/disagree with something, or where you're surprised by something, or where something struck you as odd.
-Can you process information equally well by hearing it as you can by reading it? In-class notes help visual learners focus and translate lectures/discussions into a format they can better interpret and interact with.
-Do you worry that you're not getting everything you need out of a text? Sometimes, for those of us who are especially anxiety-prone, a thick chunk of notes serves no purpose except as a comfort that yes, I did do the work on this, so yes, I know it, so now I can stop freaking out. It's like a baby blanket.

A side note: never ever take notes on or highlight things you already knew before you started. That's just wasting time and effort.
posted by lilac girl at 7:48 PM on March 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: If you don't care about reselling your books, you could just (carefully) rip out pages to carry with you rather than lugging the whole text around. I rip out and carry around the current chapter so I can study discreetly at odd moments during the day. Then after each unit test I just keep each chapter and its related notes in a file folder to refer back to.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 7:49 PM on March 27, 2011

Best answer: So, it sounds like you already got a system in place.

I am a highlighter-kind-of-person, so here's why I do, if you decide to later incorporate highlighting into your studying:

1) I pay attention to what sorts of things I'm likely to forget, that are really important. (This is something that's going to vary according to the person) If I'm going to have an easy time remembering or finding this info, no need to highlight.

2) I highlight portions of the sentence that matter- enough that I could scan just the highlighted words and get the whole idea. This lets me scan back through the book and catch the key parts.

Example from a roleplaying game I highlighted in the same fashion:

"If, when working as a group, you succeed without the need for a reroll, you may at your own discretion, agree to a series of passion checks so another player may take a second reroll."

(obviously, most texts are not as horribly written as that sentence, but bad writing goes a long way to forcing you to highlight for clarity...)

3) I typically only have 1-3 of these things a page, at most, and most of the time only a few times a chapter. If there's something like a whole section or paragraph that is crucial, I use the highlighter to draw a bracket around it.

The thing you absolutely don't want to do is go around highlighting paragraphs after paragraphs or tons of sentences and have a book full of highlighted words. The basic rule of graphic design applies here as well- "If you emphasize everything, you emphasize nothing"- too much highlight and the point of having it stand out disappears.

If I have a book that I need to reference specific sections on a regular basis, I'll use a colored sticky tab. That said, if your system is working and you don't find yourself having to reference/re-reference books, this is not really necessary.
posted by yeloson at 7:51 PM on March 27, 2011

Best answer: IANALS (and never was), but Nthing:

- the process of handwriting notes during lectures was always way more valuable than actually going back and reading them, although I did study from them a bit. Main value is to focus the brain while the lecture is happening. Also, you tend to write down the most important parts, and most professors will comment at the time they're lecturing "this part here is really important," which is practically a giveaway that it will be prominent on the test. So that note always got arrows or stars in the margin of my notebook paper (the part to the left of the red line and the 3 hole punch).

- use whatever system works for you. A lot of highlighting is useless. I think when I did do it in notes or in a textbook (rarely), it was to punch up something because I believed it would be on a test or salient to a essay or paper I was putting together.

- and geez Louise, if your system is working for you, leave it alone. I noticed when I was a student myself that some students seemed to make a point of appearing to be working hard. I worked hard in college; I attended all classes unless there was an unavoidable conflict, I took reams of notes over the years, and I studied. But I always took the shortest route home, which isn't always a trait of college students, especially average to good ones. And sometimes, I suspected, they did it in an attempt to impress profs.
posted by randomkeystrike at 8:38 PM on March 27, 2011

Best answer: Everyone above is right -- do what works for you.

But, demystifying the highlighter: I find that highlighting helps me decide what's important as I'm reading more than it helps me find important things later on.
posted by i_am_a_fiesta at 11:34 PM on March 27, 2011

Best answer: As others have said, if it works then you don't need to change it.

When I was teaching study skills, I tried to get my students to think about what they were doing in terms of how it was helping them now, and how it was helping them later. Mostly I find that highlighting isn't doing much of either. At best, right now it gets you to pick out key information (but most people highlight far too much for that) and later it allows you to read just the key bits (but I have never encountered a text where everything is summed up well by reading a few key words).

My best compromise when I'm reading scientific papers is to scrawl marginal notes as a commentry/outline. It feels a bit like I'm deconstructing the text down to an essay plan 'This method is good because <4>', 'However, so-and-so argues it doesn't address x problem', 'Our method better because <2>'. I then write a 1-2 sentence summary of the paper above the title.

The marginal notes force me to focus on the line of argument and key details. If I'm reading for a particular research project I'll also note/comment on things that are most relevant to me. This helps me focus my reading/understanding as I go along. It also means things are easier to find later, and it's much easier to write a summary if I need to. The one line summary helps me later when I'm constructing a lit review because that's normally the bottom line of why I should care about the paper.
posted by kadia_a at 11:14 AM on March 28, 2011

Best answer: I was also never much of a note taker, and I kept that up through law school. So I agree with all the above. Do what works for you, and ignore the obsessive highlighters/note takers/tabbers. You do not need to step up or change your game in any way.

BUT, note that reading a case is not like reading a novel. There is frequently one sentence or so in the case in which the court sums up its "holding". Sometimes there is some magic language to tip you off, something like "Therefore, we conclude that ..." I found highlighting the holding to be useful, both in class ("Mr. Mercatoria, what was the holding in Jones" ...), and for studying.

In practice, it's not often the case that you can boil a precedent down to one concept. In law school, however, that's precisely what cases are used for. Highlighting the holding helps you make the association between case and the legal concept for which the case was included in the casebook.
posted by lex mercatoria at 1:25 PM on March 28, 2011

Best answer: Can I just comment on how amused I am by this turn of events?

- The question is "How do I use a highlighter?"
- The first 19 answers are all marked as best (highlighted).
- The answers after that are all plain.

In my personal experience, especially when reading Camus's The Plague in high school, that is pretty much exactly how I used a highlighter.
posted by cardioid at 7:46 PM on March 28, 2011 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: In my personal experience, especially when reading Camus's The Plague in high school, that is pretty much exactly how I used a highlighter.

HA! No, I just hadn't visited the thread...and now that I'm back...I highlit everything!

Thanks for all your help guys!

If anyone has anything else to contribute, I'll highlight that too!
posted by hal_c_on at 1:58 PM on March 29, 2011

I never mastered the whole highlighter method in law school, but now that I'm a lawyer, I use highlighting. The difference is that in law school, nearly all the cases - and everything about the case- is important: the facts, the holding, the rationale, the posture, and...whatever the fifth thing was.

But in practice, I research online, and cut n paste the case style, the little paragraph preamble that gives the posture and decision, and the actual proposition of law I am looking to support. Sometimes, if the proposition is controversial or requires some reasoning, I will cut n paste some of the relevant facts and rationale. Then I print out the case(s) for my boss and highlight everything I cut n pasted (and used in a memo or brief) for him. If I cite to authorities in anything I submit to a judge, same thing. Print out the rule, statute, treatise or case, and highlight the part cited or referred to. When you are handling dozens or so authorities, highlighting the relevant part and notating the relevance at the top saves so much time.
posted by Jezebella at 6:26 PM on April 3, 2011

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