You Need to Stop Outlining In Law School Active Recall

HOOK: Students’ most popular study methods: notetaking, re-reading, highlighting, and outlining are actually the least effective (Roedinger and Karpicke, 2008; Miyatsu et al., 2018). I will present you with the evidence and give you actionable steps

INTRO: Hi, I’m Savannah; I’m a lawyer and the “black suit” half of White Coat Black Suit. We’re a doctor and lawyer couple here to help you conquer your career and find balance. If you enjoy evidence-based productivity and learning tips and insights for a happier workday, then you’re in the right place. 

Active Recall

Summarizing, outlining, and organizing notes on lecture slides are not effective techniques for learning or retention (Blunt and Karpicke, 2011). These are what we call passive recall. They create perishable knowledge, degrading almost immediately, so it’s not retained in long-term memory.

Active recall is the process of remembering information, which is exactly what you’re doing on test day. You spot ordinary negligence, and you recall the elements of negligence: duty, breach, causation, and damages. That’s active recall, and it is the most effective method for learning and retention.

Most people think you learn by repeated exposure – reading, listening to lectures, and notetaking. It’s actually retrieval that helps us (1) retain and (2) learn the information. That’s what Dr. Jeffrey Karpicke set out to test in 2006 when he began testing the assumption that retrieval was a neutral event – neither promoting nor inhibiting learning. 

  1. Active Recall Promotes Retention

Karpicke’s first study showed repeated self-testing, or retrieval, enhanced retention by 150% (Roedinger and Karpicke, 2008). Karpicke studied the effect of repeat studying (reading, listening, note-taking) compared to repeat testing on foreign language vocabulary. In his study, all the students learned 40 Swahili to English words. Once the students recalled the vocabulary correctly, it was either:

  • Dropped from studying but still self-tested ❌📚 (SnT)
  • Dropped from self-testing but still studied ❌📝 (STn)
  • Or dropped altogether from study and self-testing ❌❌ (SnTn)
  • The control group studied the entire vocabulary the whole time and self-tested the full time 📚📝 (ST)

In the final experiment, Karpicke tested the student’s retention after a 1-week delay to see which group had retained the knowledge. The students that dropped testing but still studied scored just 36%. The students that kept self-testing scored 80%.

Recalling information by self-testing is the most efficient way of moving information from short-term to long-term memory so that you can easily draw on it again when you need it most. If you want to build durable, long-term memory, you must use active recall (Roedinger and Karpicke, 2008). 

(2) Active Recall Promotes Learning

Karpicke’s follow-up study found repeated exposure to the material did not promote learning (Blunt and Karpicke, 2011). Karpicke had four groups of students:

  • reread the text once 📖
  • reread the text in four times 📖 📖 📖 📖
  • read the text once, then created a mind map 📖 🧠
  • read the text once and then tried recalling as much of the information as they could 📖❓

Students then took a test including both verbatim questions, which assessed conceptual knowledge stated directly in the text, and inference questions, which required students to connect multiple concepts from the text. Not surprisingly, the students who practiced recalling information outperformed all groups. 

What is surprising is that rereaders outperformed students who made concept maps were outperformed by on inference questions (Blunt and Karpicke, 2011). 

Karpicke challenged common assumptions about how learning happens. Most people think you learn by repeated exposure: reading, listening to lectures, and note-taking. But it’s actually retrieval that promotes learning and retention. “Retrieval is not merely a read-out of the knowledge stored in one’s mind; the act of reconstructing knowledge itself enhances learning.” (Blunt and Karpicke, 2011).


You want to focus on repeat testing, not repeat study. Here’s how you can apply it:

  • Multiple Choice Questions
    • Multiple Choice Questions are where I like to start. They can help you with issue spotting, and they make up half of the UBE. I’m grateful I used multiple-choice questions throughout most of my law school experience. Stay tuned for the fifth in the series on multiple-choice questions.
  • Essays from Prior Exams
    • Essays from prior exams are an obvious choice for self-testing. Many supplements have essay questions and sample answers, but I recommend you take the exams to your professor for review early and often.
  • The Feynman Technique
    • Explain a concept to someone else using the Feynman Technique. There are four steps to the Feynman Technique:
      • Choose a concept you need to know
      • Explain it to a 5-year old (or anyone)
      • Identify gaps in your knowledge
      • Refine your lecture and simplify it further
    •  The key behind the Feynman technique is to synthesize information to explain it simply. After all, as Einstein said, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”
  • Flashcards
    • Of course, you can use flashcards for active recall. (You’ll want to stay tuned for my favorite tool). 

OBJ: I know you’re saying, “But I was taught how to outline on Day One of law school. We spent two hours in orientation – learning how to outline! Some YouTuber told me it was important to outline – starting Day One!” 

There’s a lot of advice out there that draws upon the experience of teachers, students, and coaches. It’s a mix of theory and intuition. But not all advice is grounded in science – it’s not verifiable. Cognitive psychologists have built a body of evidence over the last century on how learning occurs, and over the past decade, it has been greatly expanded upon. Based on this research, my advice is to focus on where you get the best return on your time investment, active recall. 

Now, according to a literature review, there are some benefits to commercial outlines or teacher-generated outlines (Miyatsu et al., 2018). But studies show student-generated outlines are only beneficial when participants undergo a weekly outline training process over 6-7 weeks. That course must include certain best practices (Miyatsu et al., 2018). One of these best practices is active recall by using the outline as a cue (Miyatsu et al., 2018; Roediger & Karpicke, 2006a). 

Takeaway: My advice is to use commercial outlines as a supplement because there are a lot more effective strategies that take less time. Prioritize self-testing and stay uncomfortable because that’s where learning really happens. 

Teaser: More on staying uncomfortable in the next video.   

CTA:  Find links to references on the blog linked in the description. 


Jeffrey D. Karpicke, & Henry L. Roediger III. (2008). The Critical Importance of Retrieval for Learning. Science, 319(5865), 966–968.

Jeffrey D. Karpicke, & Janell R. Blunt. (2011). Retrieval Practice Produces More Learning than Elaborative Studying with Concept Mapping. Science, 331(6018), 772–775.

Karpicke, J. D. (2017). Retrieval-Based Learning: A Decade of Progress. Grantee Submission.

Henry L. Roediger III, & Jeffrey D. Karpicke. (2006). The Power of Testing Memory: Basic Research and Implications for Educational Practice. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 1(3), 181–210.

Miyatsu, T., Khuyen Nguyen, & McDaniel, M. A. (2018). Five Popular Study Strategies: Their Pitfalls and Optimal Implementations. PERSPECTIVES ON PSYCHOLOGICAL SCIENCE, 13(3), 390–407.