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Study Skills



So how did you do on your midterm grades? Not what you had hoped? If not, then perhaps you need to reconsider your studying techniques.

Many high school, and later college, courses require you to remember a large amount of information. So what is the best method to process that information? I remember law school in which we would read a huge number of cases and articles and our entire grade would be based on one exam at the end of the course. So we had to effectively organize a large amount of information. That’s why “outlines” are standard study methods in law schools. With outlines, you arrange the information you have gathered and learned into structured organizations of information. This is better than trying to remember facts by “flash cards,” since studies have shown that you are more likely to remember information if it is connected to something else you know. Thus, you are more likely to recall material if you systematically organize it in ways that connect concepts to other known concepts. Flash cards, in contrast, typically present information fact after fact, unconnected to other facts.

Study Tips

Another method of studying involves how you take down notes, both from class and from your reading. Adam Robinson, a co-founder of The Princeton Review (a premier test review company), researched the study techniques of top students and wrote What Smart Students Know. Robinson discovered that top students see their goal in a class as mastering the material. So to that extent, they viewed everything as a resource. The cla textbook is a resource. Other texts are resources. The teacher’s lectures are a resource. Online sources are a resource. The teachers themselves are resources. Top students would study and organize whatever information was available to them through a variety of resources to find out what they needed to know to master their subjects, filling in weaknesses in their knowledge by accessessing other resources. That’s why they were “A” students. Meanwhile, lesser students would just do what their teachers said without making an effort to deeply understand the material, and then wonder why they didn’t get “A”s in their classes.

A+ Grade

So what do you do with all that information you’ve gathered about quadratic equations, or the parts of a neuron, or Newton’s Laws of Motion, or the French Revolution, from the variety of your resources (e.g. from notes from your textbook, other texts, class lectures, and online sources)? You organize all that information into an outline, preferably by the Cornell Method of note taking. The Cornell Method is rather simple: you create essentially a large “L” on your paper with space along the left column and space on the bottom. On the left margin, you jot down simple words and concepts that are more fully described to the right of them. To the right, the information is described, but preferably (in my humble opinion) in outline form so that you have concepts broken down and organized into categories and subcategories which, studies have shown, the brain is more likely to remember (rather than scattered information). 

Underneath the “L” at the bottom of the page would be a summary of the page. So when you’re studying for your upcoming test, you can look at the bottom of the page to quickly see what the subject of the page is. If it’s something you know well, you can just turn to another page that addresses information you may not know so well. When you find such a page, you then scroll up the left column to look for topics you need to study more. If there’s a topic you know well, then you can skip it and focus on topics on the page that you need to study more. 

This is a very efficient and effective system that saves you time from having to reread material that you already went over. Also, the very process of organizing all the information in structured outline form will make it more likely that you will remember the material, as studies have shown that mammal brains like ours like to organize information systematically. Furthermore, by using a variety of parts of the brain to do this (e.g. organization, writing, conceptualization, summary, etc.), you are more likely to later recall the information, as the information is then stored in more parts of the brain to be retrieved when needed, like Post-its with important information plastered all over your home. 

And this system works. Studies have shown that students who follow the Cornell System remember material better than other systems, and when you combine Cornel with outlining, the results are even better. I once tutored a student at her home who was getting a “D” in her history class. All I did was have her outline each subsection of her textbook, and she then became an “A” student in the class. Her mother later told me that she then had her outline all her classes, and she became a straight “A” student. She called me a “miracle worker,” but all I did was have her outline the material she needed to study and remember.

This technique can’t be overestimated. It helped me significantly in law school, and I have seen it help many others. It takes time, but if you really want to excel in your courses, it’s worth the time. Later we’ll talk about other study techniques that have been found to be effective.

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