Superb Study Guides and Mini Moleskines

(A more concise version of this will be published in my college’s newspaper on Thursday. I will likely add or link diagrams and examples to this post, so you can check the original here.)

As a tutor, many students ask me for tips on making study guides. Generally, my response is that, “it depends”.

But hold on. Before we continue we should discuss what the purpose of a study guide really is.

Study guides fall into two main categories: study guides that prompt you to find/think about information and study guides that directly organize the information you need to know. Some professors provide you with study guides of the former kind (i.e., you’re not given the answers), and it’s essentially your job to create your own study guide of the latter type. Both categories serve the purpose of organizing information you already have in order to synthesize a study tool that best facilitates your comprehension and memorization of the information at hand, just at a different stage in the process.

Before you even start, it is helpful to be aware of the level at which you are required to know the information for your test. The most basic of these is recalling definitions, which can accomplished by use of flashcards. Other information you’ll have to know will require you to compare ideas or apply them. Think of your learning process as literal → interpretive → applicative, meaning you will need study guides that help you visualize, draw relationships, and understand material so you may memorize less in a way that helps you answer more, and better than straight memorization ever could.

Concept Map:

These can be anything from a basic branching diagram to a complex mind map. This type of study guide allows you to compare information in a more spatial manner than strictly linear. Let’s be honest; sometimes linear learning is unrealistic, because our world is not truly linear. This format allows you to start from the basic, bare bones of the topic you’re studying and expand into very specific details and examples. This way you can get a really solid overview of the information and delve deeper as necessary. At least for mind maps in specific, Mindly is a beautiful and highly functional mind mapping app for iOS. It’s worth the small price, I can tell you that.

Comparison Chart:

Another visually-oriented type of study guide, comparison charts are the easiest way to map out similarities and differences for various topics. The biggest advantage of this method is that you can easily find the important similarities and differences of the subjects in question without having to reread a chapter or search through your piles of notes. It won’t help you visually connect topics like a mind map would, but this very simple tool is important and useful in its own rite.

Index Cards:

Before you skip over this because you think you know what I’m talking about, this is not the same as a flashcard. Flashcards have the very basic purpose of helping you memorize information, and little else. Index cards, however, are like flashcards on steroids because they contain much more information and are used primarily to summarize key information in a portable way that allows you to easily locate more details if necessary. Allow me to break down how you might want to use this method.

Front:

  • Middle: Main idea [e.g. alveoli]

  • Upper Right: Organizational term [e.g. respiratory system]

  • Bottom Middle: Source of information [e.g. Chapter 17, pg. 479 or Notes from 11/26/2013]

Back:

  • In your own words, what’s most important to know about the concept.

  • Include examples, summaries, diagrams, definitions, etc.

  • Be detailed! Remember, this is not about strictly memorizing.

  • Make sure the content corresponds to level of understanding your professor excepts

Diagram:

This one is pretty self-explanatory, but is extremely dependent on the topic at hand. This could be anything from a chemical reaction scheme, a cycle, Venn diagram, etc. You may even consider making a timeline, which is great for chronological organization of ideas. This is not limited to history, though! You can also organize information from classes such as anthropology, psychology, biology, anatomy, physiology, ecology, etc. If it has a specific, linear order, it can be made into a timeline.

Question Prompts:

This method I find works very well if you use the Cornell note-taking method. If you’re using Cornell notes, you would write your prompts in the left hand column next to where the answers are located, then just cover up the answers when studying. For example, for something as simple as a definition you could write, “What is _____?” For something more complicated such as a comparison chart, you could write, “What are the key differences between _____ and _____?” If you want, you can even ask questions that aren’t directly answered in the adjacent text such as, “Why is [idea] important to [concept]?”

Now that you know what formats you might use for your study guides (remember you don’t have to stick with just one), you may wonder where you can put this information. The basic answer to that question: anywhere. Many people like to draw these things on computer paper. You may want to type some of these things. If you’re using Mindly then you would be inputting the information into an app. I would like to offer up the suggestion of little mini notebooks for each class. I personally make these study guide materials on paper or a computer first, then when I’m satisfied with the result, I copy it down into my pocket-sized Moleskine notebooks. I personally prefer the squared, dotted, or blank notebooks, but whatever suits your fancy. The benefit to these little notebooks is that you have all of the information you need to study for in a small, convenient little book that you can easily keep in your backpack all the time because of its size. (Ladies, it will even fit in a clutch!) Study on the bus, waiting for class to start, when eating at the cafeteria, while waiting for your laundry to finish, etc. Not to mention, this will help you avoid losing papers because they’re all in one place.

Just try not to lose the notebook.

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