- Do you feel like you can’t seem to grasp the gist of what you are studying?
- Do you marvel at how your friends seem to breeze through complex ideas instantly, while homework alone is a constant battle of catch-up for you?
- Do you get poor grades despite working diligently?
I’ve seen other students struggle with the workload or the complexity of a task more than they should, merely because they were not aware of how to study effectively.
Therefore, I will reveal the routine that has helped me cut down the time spent studying by 50% while improving my results on class tests.
I’ve learnt most of the techniques in this article by experimenting with different strategies in the runup to my IGCSE exams, but credit goes to Cal Newport, author of “How to Be A Straight-A Student” for the Q/E/C note taking method.
Section 1: Organise your thoughts
Cognitive psychologist George A. Miller discovered in 1956 that the average person can store around 7 chunks of information in their short-term memory. This key concept is often referred to Miller’s Law.
If you connect Miller’s highly respected article on human psychology to your learning, you may be shocked by the dramatic effect on your test scores.
A careful analysis of this Miller’s ideas reveals that we can not expand the capacity of our working memory infinitely, and that even a small improvement may require a considerable effort.
Fortunately, we can deduce a more viable option from Miller’s Law. While we can not simply remember more facts, we can group facts into large, interconnected chunks, as the effort needed to learn a chunk is simikar to that of learning a fact.
Let me prove my point:
Remembering the 7 letters that make up the word “website” will not require more time than consolidating the 3-letter word “car”, provided that you are familiar with both terms.
In other words, the underlying principle of more efficient learning requires you to combine small snippets into mental models, or main ideas. You can achieve this by creating logical links between building blocks to develop a complex concept.
Stack ideas by asking how and why
Most journalistic texts attempt to cover the answers to six basic questions, usually in the sequence below:
However, when studying, two of these questions are commonly overlooked – why and how – leaving a gap in our understanding of a certain concept. Therefore, you should endeavor to seek answers to these questions while studying; it helps to combat arising confusion later on.
Forming knowledge clusters in mathematical courses
In mathematical and technical courses, focus on the general process that is applied to obtain an outcome from a certain input. In other words, identify the steps to solve a problem, and then question why these steps need to be applied in their exact arrangement to obtain the result.
And please heed these two rules:
- Establish a solid foundation before investing time in learning ideas based on the core concepts.
- Make your notes so sufficiently simple to reteach you the material in ten years time.
A convenient strategy for concept-based classes
Creating a mental model or a “narrative” of a non-technical concept starts by taking good notes that cluster ideas.
Cal Newport, author of the Study Hacks blog and “How to Be A Straight-A Student”, introduces the art of Question/Evidence/Conclusion note taking.
This involves splitting each large concept into three parts: the question, the evidence, and the conclusion.
When taking Q/E/C notes in class, try to understand what key concept the teacher wants you to understand.
For example, in geography class, they may say something along the lines of:
Major advances in transport and communication have reduced the impact of geographical barriers in separating countries and people. Nowadays, the internet allows for the instantaneous flow of information, whereas before the development of electricity in the 19th century, information could only travel as fast as its transport medium ie. a letter would be transported by a horse-drawn wagon and would travel at approximately 16km/h.
This idea is known as time-space convergence, and it suggests that heightened connectivity has changed our perception of time and distance.
But how would you take Q/E/C notes?
Begin by identifying the key question your teacher is posing. If you can’t distill their question immediately, start by noting down the evidence, e.g.:
- Major advances in transport have reduced impact of geographical barriers in separating countries and people.
- EXAMPLE: Before the development of electricity, messages could only travel as fast as their medium ie. a letter would travel as fast as the horse-drawn wagon that transported it. Nowadays information flows instantaneously via the Internet.
- Heightened connectivity has changed our perception of time and distance
Then see what question and matching conclusion you can come up with. In the end your notes may look something like this:
Question: Explain what is meant by time-space convergence.
Evidence: Major advances in transport have reduced impact of geographical barriers in separating countries and people.
EXAMPLE: Before the development of electricity, messages could only travel as fast as their medium ie. a letter would travel as fast as the horse-drawn wagon that transported it. Nowadays information flows instantaneously via the Internet.
Heightened connectivity has changed our perception of time and distance
Conclusion: Time-space convergence is the change in the perception of time and distance and the virtual erosion of geographical boundaries due to improvements in transport and communication technology in recent times.
NB: If you can’t come up with a satisfactory conclusion on the spot, either ask your teacher to clarify any confusions, or come back to the problem later.
Section 2: Review clusters
In Section 1, you gained an understanding of everything that you need to know to do well on a test. This means that all that is left to do is to refresh your memory on these topics.
How? By practice testing.
The Q/E/C Strategy
If you’ve taken notes using the Q/E/C method, allocate time to reviewing each topic (consisting of 5-15 questions with evidence and conclusions).
First, read through your clusters once. Take a short break in which you do something not related to work (but without using electronic devices). Then cover up your notes, allowing only for the questions. Try to fill in the conclusion, and most of the evidence, so you can build a convincing argument. You should answer all the questions OUT LOUD.
After reviewing your Q/E/C problem sets, repeat the questions that you could not do. Continue redoing the questions you could not answer until there are none left, which means that you are done for the day.
It is helpful to review your problem sets on a regular basis until you can answer all questions correctly during your first review of the day.
The Magical Write-Out
If you are not fond of taking Q/E/C notes, or you don’t like to study out loud, I can offer you an alternative: the write-out.
As with the Q/E/C review, you read your notes once, and then take a short break. Then sit down at your desk with only pen and a blank piece of paper and try to reproduce the gist of your notes.
Compare what you produced to your original notes, and identify anything you missed. Sit down again and write down anything that you skipped. Once your new notes are a replica of your original notes, you are done.
But I’ll bet that even after reading this (hopefully) useful guide on taking notes, you still haven’t uncovered the real purpose of this mysterious technique. (Hint: Note-taking is not for capturing important information).