Nov 24, 2008

How To Make A Study Guide

Last week, we covered a few techniques that help maximize study time based on personal learning style. But whether you are a kinesthetic, audible, or visual learner, chances are you will be doing some writing for your next test. This week, we will show you how to make the perfect study guide.

OK, you have your notes from class, the slide show from the lecture, a slew of reading assignments and a ton of handouts. How can it be possible to make sense of this mound of information? The first thing you need to do is break down the material you have into more manageable chunks. Find a good, open place to study and spread everything out. Then start organizing in a way that makes sense to you. This could mean separating each type of document into its own pile (one for homework, one for notes, etc.), putting information in order of relevance to the test, or arranging things chronologically (either the order in which your teacher covered the material or the order things happened in history). Color-coding can help a lot, as do sticky notes. You should be able to identify on the fly where pertinent information can be found.

Once your information is organized, it’s time to do a little writing. Take a blank notepad or make a new document on your computer and start listing broad topic subjects. Try to keep these as general as possible. Quickly go over all your information to make sure you don’t miss anything important. Think of these as the chapter titles in the novel of your study guide (don’t worry, you won’t have to write a whole novel!).

When you have a general working outline, start narrowing your focus. Go from each broad theme or topic and concentrate on picking out pertinent information. To do this, organize together the documents that cover that particular topic. Scan over each document for key words plus definitions, important dates, highlighted passages, and recurring themes. Put these down under the broad topic subject.

Here is an example of an outline you might use for a test on the American Revolution:

From here, the study guide would go on to explain the remaining two events that pushed the colonies to war (the Prohibitory Acts, and the British hiring of foreign mercenaries). Notice how the guide becomes more and more narrowly focused, from a broad subject, to an explanation of events, to specific examples and passages. Make sure you end each topic with specific information, either paraphrased or copied and cited directly from the source. Include any web links or page numbers so you can go back later if you get confused.

Also, be sure to look at past tests for clues about the next one. Did your teacher test on material from the readings or information from the lecture? Imagine what kind of study guide you would like to have had for the last test, and apply that model to your next one.

Once you finish the study guide, take a break! Go play a video game, throw a frisbee outside, get a bite to eat. When you come back to studying, your guide will be done, and you’ll find that it will be both easier and quicker to cram in all that info.

Nov 17, 2008

How To Write a Paper

For many of us, few things are more boring than writing a paper. Unfortunately, all students are condemned to this menial task at one time or another. Here’s a step-by-step guide on how to get it out quickly without suffering in the grade department.

The first step is to find a topic. Writing papers may not be fun, but with the right topic, the process can at least be interesting. Try to see the paper as an opportunity to learn about something that you choose. One option would be something your teacher touched on only briefly or not at all. Another is a connection between the material and something outside of class that you have special knowledge about. Choose your topic early and clear it with your teacher to make sure it is what they are looking for.

After picking your topic, it’s time to create a thesis statement. The thesis is the argument that you want to prove in your paper. A good thesis statement is “debatable”, or in other words, it should entice the reader to form opinions of their own. Always state your thesis at the beginning of your paper. Think of it as the starting point from which to launch your arguments. Also, make sure the thesis is as clear as possible - in many ways, it is the most important part of the paper.

With these two first steps finished, a general outline can be constructed. This includes researched arguments that you will use to convince the reader that your thesis is correct. Feel free to spend a lot of time on this step. A good outline will save you a lot of stress and effort when you are writing the actual paper because you won’t be grasping for an argument or supporting evidence-you’ll already know what it is.

Get a feel for how much information and space you need for each argument. Write down where to find important book passages and Internet sites so that you can quickly reference information. If you find yourself frequently “fluffing” up your papers to reach the minimum length, figure out how much space each argument will fill, then adjust the number of arguments you have accordingly. Anticipate counter-arguments wherever you can. A successfully thwarted counter-argument will go a long way towards convincing your reader that your thesis is correct. Set up a mini-debate within the paper.

Another important tip is to make sure you write for your specific audience. The style, vocabulary, exposition, and even topic of your paper should be geared towards whoever will be reading it. For example, if you want to write about the book On The Road by Jack Kerouac, a history teacher might be more interested in the time period in which the book is set, while an English teacher might be more interested in character development.

Once your paper is written, it is time to edit it. Go back over your thesis and arguments and make sure they flow together. Look at how each argument ties back into the thesis, and the way that each paragraph transitions to the next. Try reading the paper aloud to yourself. Finally, take lots of breaks. Looking at the same words over and over will not help. Try to edit with “fresh” eyes.

Nov 10, 2008

How To Take a Test

You know the test is important. In fact, you stayed up all night studying for it. Now it’s staring you in the face and your mind is blank as beads of sweat begin to form on your brow. Information that you memorized a thousand times suddenly leaves you stranded. Surprise questions leave you guessing.

It happens to everyone. Lack of preparation, or even improper preparation, can bring any test-taker to the breaking point. But try not to worry- stress has a bevy of negative effects on the brain, including reduced memory (additional information on the effects of stress can be found here). Instead, prepare with these proven learning tips and tricks, because it’s not always how much time you spent studying, but how effectively you studied.

First off, know your learning style. How do you learn things best? This is determined by the way that your brain processes information, and can be broken down into three separate categories: kinesthetic, auditory, and visual. There are many free tests that you can take to help you determine which type of learner you are.

Once you know what type of learner you are, prepare for each test in the way that will help you the most. This means different learning methods depending on what style you are. For example, if you are an auditory learner, record each lecture that your teacher gives. Cheap tape recorders can be found at garage sales or bargain electronic stores, and many laptops come with built-in microphones. Once you’ve recorded the lecture, replay it while you study. Silently repeat in your head what you hear- create an internal dialogue. Finally, reinforce information by writing it down. This way you can associate what you hear with what you write.

If you aren’t an auditory learner, find other ways to apply your learning style. Most people are a combination of kinesthetic, auditory, and visual learners, so try different methods to see what works best for your unique brain.

Another way to increase the effectiveness of your study time is to tailor your approach to the test format. Find out what kind of test you will be taking. Will it be multiple choice? In-class essay writing? Short answer? Think of study time as practice. For example, if the test is an in-class essay, try to predict what the prompt will be. After compiling a list of possible topics, create a few outlines. You’ll find that even if you didn’t predict exactly the same prompt you are given, some parts of the outlines you made before-hand will fit right in.

Also, most test-takers do not realize how much the brain depends on the rest of the body. But the facts are clear: physical and mental performance go hand-on-hand. Take care of your body and you will learn more efficiently. Sleep can also play a major role in cognitive agility. Make sure you get plenty of rest before test-day. While you may be tempted to pull an all-nighter, lack of sleep could actually hurt your grade worse than not studying at all.
Finally, remember that as important as your next test may be, there are sure to be many more in the future. Treat each test like a learning experience, not the apocalypse.