Columns, Imagine That

A secret about learning how to learn

Laura Mann

The professor warned us that her communications class would be no walk in the park, and she wasn’t kidding. I struggled with the challenging material, and I wasn’t alone. One day after class, I was cornered by classmates who requested my help. “You really seem to know the material,” they said. “Will you tutor us?”

At first, I was confused by their request. I explained that I was having just as much trouble as they were. What made them think that I had a good grasp? My classmates explained that, because they saw me taking detailed notes every day in class, I must know my stuff, right?

Taking good notes isn’t something we’re taught in primary education, but it’s a tool that can give students an edge. Countless studies have proven that, when we write something down, we’re more likely to remember it. According to the U.S. Air Force Academy, if we take notes on a topic, then go back later the same day and review the notes, we retain 70 percent more information than if we just listened. In other words, note-taking helps students learn how to learn.

Keeping track of the facts

Because note-taking isn’t taught in many schools, it’s up to parents to instill good study skills during homework time. Paul Bogdan, a math teacher who writes for the Edutopia foundation, says that there are a few basic tips that will help kids learn how to take good notes. Bogdan suggests having the student write ‘p1pa1’ (i.e., page 1, paragraph 1) in the upper lefthand margin of the page. When the student has finished reading the paragraph, they should write a short summary, in their own words, of what that paragraph tells us. They should then write ‘p1pa2’ below that, then summarize paragraph 2, and so on. This forces the student’s brain to process the information right away, after each paragraph they read.

Frequent writing keeps the brain focused, especially during those boring lectures that might cause our minds to wander. Although students might end up with pages and pages of notes, the more notes they take, the more they will remember.

Inventor Thomas Edison took more than five million pages of notes during the course of his career. His notes were meticulously organized and easily searchable despite their volume. By labeling each note with a page and paragraph, students can easily go back and find the notes they’re looking for during harried cramming sessions.

Textbooks often have key vocabulary words highlighted in bold, then listed at the end of the chapter. One strategy that has worked for me is to have a vocabulary section in my notes. Look for the words in bold letters, write them down, underline them, and write the definition next to each word. This might seem pointless since the words are already listed at the end of the chapter, but it has worked to help me remember key terms — if I’m behind in my studies, I’ll copy the key terms and definitions before I do anything else, to make sure I’m retaining the important stuff.

When my fellow students approached me about tutoring them, I was hesitant at first, but I agreed. Having a study group after class couldn’t hurt, right?

So a few of us got together, and I found that, by referring to my notes, I was able to tutor my friends, and in the process gain a deeper understanding of the material myself. In the end, the success of my classmates and the “A” I received in the class convinced me that note-taking and review of the notes is a cornerstone skill that can help us learn how to learn. And the secret to learning how to learn is not a real secret after all. Imagine that!

Laura Mann is a freelance writer and blogger, and a student in Emerging Media and Communications at the University of Texas. Mike Mann is an award-winning storyteller (www.storymann.com), a speaker for the MediaWise Movement, and a father of four, including Laura. The father and daughter collaborate on “Imagine That!”

© Michael Mann, 2010, all rights retained. Printed by permission of the author.

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