Mind Maps

Mind maps are a great tool for visual learners. They are much less rigid and more customizable than other note-taking methods. Not only can mind maps be used for taking notes, they also come in handy for studying, brainstorming, and planning. Here’s how to use this intuitive technique for all areas of your life.

HOW TO MIND MAP

Mind maps start with the main topic in the middle of the page. That central idea then branches off into several subtopics. Those subtopics then branch off into smaller subtopics and additional points and elaboration, and so on, until you have as many branches and as much detail as you need. The best thing about this method is its flexibility. You can draw clouds or boxes around your text, doodle, add color, and change the structure as you wish. You can also keep your map simple and clean and black-and-white, and it’ll work just as fine. To give you a better idea of what I’m talking about, here are some great examples of mind maps.

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A mind map about how to mind map? That’s super meta.
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You can make mind maps with pen + paper or with digital apps. My favorite digital mind map maker is a website called Coggle.

NOTE-TAKING

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Start with the topic or chapter you’re studying in the middle of the page. Branch off into smaller subtopics– these would usually be the bolded headers in your textbook. Here are some ways the topics and subtopics could be applied in various classes:
  • “Communist Russia” as a main topic; “Government”, “Economy”, and “Society” as subtopics
  • “Romeo and Juliet” as a main topic; “Characters”, “Themes”, and “Symbols” as subtopics
  • “American Government” as a main topic; “Legislative”, “Judicial”, and “Executive” as subtopics
  • “Sustainable Energy Sources” as a main topic; “Solar Power”, “Wind Power”, and “Water Power” as subtopics

Although mind maps can work for any class, they are usually best suited for non-technical, conceptual classes such as history and English. They’re great for getting the big picture, but they might not be the best for writing lots of nitty gritty little details. Here’s the mind map I made based off of traditional outline notes from the Cornell notes post:

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made using Coggle

More mind map notes examples can be found here, here, and here!

STUDYING

This is my personal favorite way to use mind maps. My classes tend to be very detail-oriented and there’s simply too much information to use mind maps as my daily note-taking system. However, I still love the broad overview that they provide, so I use them as part of my active learning process to study for exams.

All I do is close my textbook, put away my notes, take out a blank sheet of paper, and try to create a mind map of the chapter/topic from memory. I use a ton of branches and arrows because I attempt to include every last fact I can remember. This forces me to recall all the information, reinforcing it in my memory. It also helps me organize everything I’ve learned into a cohesive structure inside my head. I usually do this process a couple days before a big test and again the night before, and it’s worked wonders for me!

BRAINSTORMING & PLANNING

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You can also use mind-maps to generate ideas and create a plan of action for both academic and non-academic areas of your life. Some ideas include:

  • “Goals” as a main topic; “Family/Friends”, “School”, and “Health” as subtopics
  • “Business Ideas” as a main topic; “Babysitting”, “Lemonade Stand”, “Walking Dogs” as subtopics
  • “Things to Do” as a main topic; “Academics”, “Events”, and “Errands” as subtopics
  • “Birthday Party” as a main topic; “Guests”, “Refreshments”, and “Games” as subtopics
  • “English Essay” as a main topic; “Introduction”, “Body Paragraphs”, and “Conclusion” as subtopics
  • “Places to Travel” as a main topic; “Europe”, “South American”, and “Asia” as subtopics

The possibilities are truly endless. Go nuts and have fun with your mind maps, because they’re meant to be a reflection of you, your crazy ideas, and the unique way you think. Best of luck!

Thanks for reading! All of my reader interactions and personalized advice can be found on my Tumblr. If you have questions, feedback, or post requests, feel free to drop a Tumblr ask or contact me.:)

—Sophia

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Cornell Notes

Cornell notes were invented in the 1950s by a professor at Cornell University. The system allows you to quiz yourself directly from your notes and to quickly reference your lectures in the future. It’s comprised of three sections: the main notes, the cue column, and the summary. The diagram below shows how the three parts fit together:

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SETTING IT UP

Split your paper into three sections according to the diagram above. I’d recommend setting up the system on several sheets of paper before class so you don’t have to worry about drawing straight lines in the middle of a lecture. Alternatively, you could print out a template or buy a Cornell notes notebook.

MAIN SECTION

This is the largest section of your notes. Here, you’ll write the contents of your lesson just as you would normally. I usually structure this in a bulleted outline format, with a hierarchy of broad topics and little details, although you don’t need to make it so rigid. Feel free to space things out, draw boxes, connect things with arrows, etc. Put the teacher’s lecture into your own words. Use straightforward language and lots of abbreviations to write more quickly.

CUE COLUMN

At the end of class or later that day, fill in the left column with some questions and cues. Reword important concepts into question form (6CO2 + 6H2O + sunlight energy = C6H12O6 + 6O2 becomes What is the formula for photosynthesis?) Formulate the types of questions your teacher would ask on an exam. Write down vocab words, big events, influential people, and key facts.

When you’re studying, cover up the right side of the page and quiz yourself with the cue column. Don’t simply read each question, think “Oh, I know that”, and move on. Instead, force yourself to say the answer/definition/explanation out loud, and elaborate on your response as much as you would if this were a test question. This quiz-and-recall is an active learning technique that’ll strengthen your memory more than passively reading your notes over and over.

SUMMARY

Either at the very end of class or within a day or two of the lecture, write a brief 2-3 sentence summary at the bottom of the page that includes the most important points from your notes. You can write a summary for every page of notes or for every lecture, depending on how specific you’d like to get. Finding the big ideas in what you’ve learned and seeing how they tie into the big picture will reinforce them in your mind. The summaries will also help you find a particular topic when you’re flipping through your notes.

EXAMPLE

Lastly, here’s a sample notes page I made to show you what a finished product might look like!

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Thanks for reading! All of my reader interactions and personalized advice can be found on my Tumblr. If you have questions, feedback, or post requests, feel free to drop a Tumblr ask or contact me.:)

—Sophia

Studying Math

Welcome back! Today’s post was requested by one of my followers earlier, so if you’re struggling with a particular subject you’d like advice on, please send me a request and I’ll try my best to get a post out in a timely manner. Now without further ado, I’ll teach you how to take notes and efficiently study for the mother of all necessary evils, math class.

TAKE GOOD NOTES

It can be difficult to take notes during fast-paced math classes. However, remember that you shouldn’t (and probably can’t) copy down every single little thing that was said. After all, you’re a student, not a court stenographer. Ignore all of the filler information and focus on getting down two things: formulas/theorems and example problems.

Formulas/theorems

Mark these with something noticeable (stars, boxes, highlighting, etc) so you can easily find and reference them later.

Simplify theorems so you can understand them. For example, this is the binomial theorem written formally:

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Looks intimidating, right? Would you still understand what that means two weeks after the lesson, when you’re studying for a test? Instead of attempting to decipher and memorize that confusing chain of hieroglyphics variables, break it down for yourself into straightforward language. You might say to yourself, “Oh, so it looks like the exponent of x starts at 0 and increases by 1 every term until it reaches n. And vice versa, the exponent of y starts at n and decreases by 1 every term until it reaches 0. And the coefficient of each term is just n choose k, where k increases by 1 every term.” Better, right? Put theorems and definitions into your own words to make them much more tangible and graspable.

Similarly, aim for understanding, not memorization. Try to write a proof for every formula/theorem. If you don’t cover the proofs in class, I highly encourage you to try to prove them yourself. There are also tons of great proofs on the Internet you can search for if you get stuck. Also make sure you know when to apply each concept. Memorizing the quadratic formula is peachy and all, but if you don’t know that the formula can only be used for a quadratic in standard form that’s set equal to 0, you’re going to run into some issues. Understanding the reasoning and applications for what you learn will tremendously improve your retention of all those complicated formulas as well as challenge you to think outside of the box.

Example problems

If you’re really, really rushed, just copy the problem and answer. You can fill in everything in between later.

Ideally though, you’ll want to show your work. It’s helpful to add short comments next to each step to explain what you did and why you did it (“u-substitution”, “multiplied by denominator to cancel terms”, “subtracted 7x on both sides to use Zero Product Property”). Don’t show each itty bitty step if you don’t need it, but write down enough so that you could follow your train of thought if you were to look back at these notes come finals season.

Lastly, make sure to include units with all of your answers, follow any conventions your teacher tells you to (rounding to a certain decimal place, rationalizing denominators, etc), and always use correct notation. Develop these habits now so you won’t be kicking yourself for forgetting to include units on a test, when it actually matters.

After class

At the end of class or as soon as possible afterwards, quickly review your notes and fill in clarifications, corrections, or explanations you missed while everything is still fresh in your memory.

PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE!

They say that math isn’t a spectator sport, and they’re right. In other subjects, you might be able to get away with passively sitting back and hoping something the teacher says will work its way into your brain. But in math class, flipping through your textbook will not help you. Highlighting your formulas in different color schemes will not help you. Watching Sal Khan solve problems on YouTube without picking up a pencil yourself will not help you.

The only way to become a successful math student is to be actively involved in solving as many practice problems as you can get your hands on.

So where can you find practice problems?

  • your homework problems
  • your textbook
  • any problem sets or worksheets you recieve in class
  • the Internet, especially Khan Academy, IXL, and Kuta Software
  • if you ask your teacher nicely, I’m sure he/she will direct you to some helpful resources
  • if your school has two or more teachers who teach the same level math and use different problems, see if you can get extra worksheets from the other teacher/a friend in the other class
  • you can use problems from smaller quizzes and tests to prepare for midterms and finals

While working through the practice problems, simulate test conditions as much as possible. Close your textbook and notes. Put away your calculator, unless you’re allowed to have one on test day. Show all appropriate work and use correct notation for each problem. Maybe even set a timer for yourself if you’re someone who tends to work too slowly.

If you have an answer key, check all your answers at the end. If you get a problem wrong, attempt to solve it at least one more time before asking for help (see section below).

ASK FOR HELP (THE RIGHT WAY)

You can get math help from your friends, parents, tutors, teachers, online resources, or a combination of any of the above. (Or even me, if I’ve taken your level math before.) However, even if you’re completely bewildered, don’t just slump back in your seat and whine, “I don’t get itttttttt” because that won’t help anyone help you. First, as mentioned above, always attempt a problem at least twice before asking someone else for assistance. Oftentimes an incorrect answer is due to a silly error that you could catch by doing the problem again. When asking for help, instead of vaguely gesturing at a problem and shrugging, tell whoever’s helping you which parts you were able to follow, which step tripped you up, which formulas you understood, and which ones you didn’t–  the more specific, the better.

Never be afraid to ask for help! Each concept in math builds off of previous ones, so if you hold in your questions and remain confused, you’re going to have more and more trouble in the future. As long as you start early, practice consistently, and clarify confusion as soon as it arises instead of the night before a test, you should be well on your way to excelling at math!

Thanks for reading! All of my reader interactions and personalized advice can be found on my Tumblr. If you have questions, feedback, or post requests, feel free to drop a Tumblr ask or contact me.:)

—Sophia

Getting Better Sleep

Sleep is essential for refreshing your mind and aiding in learning, as well as for your general wellness and day-to-day function. Unfortunately, many students have trouble getting enough quality sleep. This post will offer practical tips to help you catch those ZZZs.

1. GET ENOUGH

The National Sleep Foundation recommends the following numbers of hours of sleep each night:

  • Ages 6-13: 9-11 hours
  • Ages 14-17: 8-10 hours
  • Ages 18-64: 7-9 hours

Every individual’s sleep needs will vary, but aiming for these general recommendations is the best way to start off. If you find yourself consistently sluggish, drowsy, or cranky throughout the day, you may need to increase the number of hours you sleep.

2. KEEP A CONSISTENT SCHEDULE

Sleeping/waking at around the same times every day regulates your body’s internal clock, helps you fall asleep more quickly, and improves sleep quality. So as tempting as it is, sleeping in until noon on Saturday mornings will likely only make you feel more fatigued and “jet-lagged”. Try to keep your weekend sleep schedule within an hour or two of your normal one.

During the night, you undergo several phases of sleep, ranging from light to deep sleep. If you’re woken up during a deep sleep phase, you’re more likely to feel groggy, and your attention, memory, and decision-making skills will be deficient for several hours. To ensure you’re not interrupted during deep sleep, use a bedtime calculator to find what time you should go to bed if you have to wake up at a certain time, or vice versa. Alternatively, use an app that will track your movements during the night and wake you up during your lightest phase of sleep.

It’s normal to feel sleepy in the afternoon, but taking long naps during the day can prevent you from falling asleep later at night. Limit your napping to a 15-20 minute catnap anywhere from 1-3 pm.

3. AVOID CAFFEINE

Stop drinking coffee, caffeinated tea, energy drinks, and soda 6 hours before bedtime. Use these natural energy boosters instead:

  • take a nap (my personal favorite; see above section)
  • drink a glass of cold water
  • listen to upbeat music + have a quick solo dance party!!
  • go for a walk
  • or even just stand outside and bask in the sun
  • eat a healthy, low-sugar snack

4. AVOID DIGITAL SCREENS

The blue light from the screens of your devices suppresses the release of melatonin, a sleep hormone, essentially tricking your body into thinking it’s daytime. Try to put away your phone/tablet/laptop/television 1-2 hours before bedtime. E-readers that don’t have a backlight, such as the original Kindles, are fine to use, but those that have lighted displays, such as the Kindle Fire, are not.

This often poses a problem for students, who usually work in the evenings and often have to use their devices to type essays and conduct research online. I’m not great at following this rule either (yours truly is typing up this blog post at 9 pm), but my tip is to finish the assignments that require a laptop earlier in the afternoon/evening, then devoting the later hours to math problems, worksheets, note-taking, and other paper-based tasks. If you must use your device close to bedtime, turn on the Night Shift feature on your iOS device and download f.lux for your other devices— these will limit the amount of blue light your screens emit after a certain time of day.

5. EXERCISE

Exercising during the day can help you fall asleep faster and sleep more deeply. During a scientific study, the National Sleep Foundation reported that 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity a week improved sleep quality by 65%. Even a quick 10-minute walk can benefit your sleep. However, it may take several weeks of an exercise regime before you begin to see improvement, so stick to it and don’t get discouraged!

6. IMPROVE YOUR ENVIRONMENT

Design a bedroom that’s conducive to quality sleep with the following steps:

  • Keep outside noise down with earplugs, a fan, ambient sound, or a white noise machine.
  • Keep the room as dark as possible (unless you like a nightlight) with curtains or a sleep mask.
  • Make sure the room is the right temperature for you. Most people sleep better in a slightly chillier room, around 65 degrees Fahrenheit or 18 degrees Celcius. If it’s stuffy, open a window to improve ventilation.
  • Get a mattress and pillow that are supportive and comfortable. Make sure your blankets aren’t too thick or thin. Wash and change your sheets regularly so they’re clean and soft.
  • An essential oil diffuser, humidifier, and stuffed animals are nice accessories to make you more comfy! :)

7. RESERVE YOUR BED

For most of my life, I kept my desk and my bed together in my room. Each night, I would finish my homework, walk literally three steps to the right, and collapse into my bed. I often had trouble falling asleep, because my mind would still be churning from all the work I’d just completed and the piles of unfinished assignments sitting just a couple feet away. I began to associate my bedroom with stress and schoolwork, a mindset I couldn’t switch off just by turning the lights out. But when I moved my desk from my bedroom into a separate room, my sleep immediately improved. I fell asleep faster, slept more soundly, and started associating my bedroom with peace and relaxation instead— all because I put a little bit of distance between my bed and the rest of my life.

Moving furniture into separate rooms isn’t always feasible for everyone, but you can take measures to help your brain associate your bed with sleeping. While in/on your bed, don’t study, check email, scroll through Instagram, or do anything else that will stress you out or keep you awake. Reserve your bed for sleeping only, and your brain will automatically go into a “sleep context” when you get into it every night.

8. PREPARE FOR THE NEXT DAY

Oftentimes, people have trouble falling asleep because they’re worried about the next day. Maybe you’re already dreading waking up in the morning or anxious about tomorrow’s test or your head is spinning thinking about all the things you need to do, want to do, ought to do. The best way to prevent worry and sleeplessness is to spend some time each night preparing for the next day, which could include:

  • packing your bag with everything you’ll need tomorrow
  • setting out tomorrow’s outfit in advance
  • doing a huge brain dump of everything you want to do or remember, so it’s out of your head and onto paper
  • updating your planner; cross off completed tasks and add new ones
  • visualizing yourself succeeding at everything you have to do tomorrow, so you feel confident and ready
  • telling yourself, “I’ve prepared as much as I could. It’s out of my control now. Whatever happens, happens.”

9. UNWIND

Relax, de-stress, and get yourself ready for bedtime with the following activities:

  • journaling
  • stretching
  • coloring
  • breathing exercises
  • taking a shower/bath
  • meditating
  • reading a book
  • listening to soft music or an audiobook

10. MAKE IT A PRIORITY

I can’t emphasize this one enough. So many people treat sleep as an optional activity, or even a luxury. It’s often the first thing to be sacrificed when life gets hectic. But sleep is extremely important to all aspects of your wellbeing, and you must prioritize your health. When you don’t get enough sleep, you have less energy, less focus, and less capability to learn. This can lead to a vicious cycle of sleep deprivation and poor performance, which have irreversible long-term effects.

So make your bedtime sacred. Take it as seriously as you would any other task in your planner. I have a rule: if it’s not done by 11 pm, too bad. I have to go to bed. Getting enough sleep gives me the energy to keep up with the next day’s classes and catch up on any work I didn’t finish the night before, if necessary. Make a conscious decision to respect your sleep schedule each and every day, and your body and mind will thank you.

Thanks for reading! All of my reader interactions and personalized advice can be found on my Tumblr. If you have questions, feedback, or post requests, feel free to drop a Tumblr ask or contact me.:)

—Sophia

Annotating & Taking Notes From Literature

Annotating and taking notes from literature is an essential skill for students. In today’s super duper long post, I will attempt to answer the questions: “What’s the best method for taking notes from a novel?” and “What the heck am I supposed to write anyway?”  Let’s dive right in.

WHAT YOU’LL NEED

A copy of the book

Even if your school lets you borrow copies of the assigned novels, I’d highly recommend buying your own cheap copy from Amazon. I love the freedom that comes with being able to mark up the text and margins as I wish. Plus, I usually enjoy all the novels we study, so it’s nice to have my own copy that I can read again and again. If you don’t have the means to purchase your own copy though, use sticky notes and page flags to make notes while keeping your book clean.

A standard pencil or black pen

I use this for all of my original thoughts— questions, reactions, responses, analyses, etc.

Highlighters and/or colored pens

I use these to indicate important quotes and descriptions, themes, symbols, and other literary devices (more on those later). You can be general or very specific with your color-coding system, depending on how many colors you have. For example, you can mark all the symbols with one color and all the themes with another, or you can dedicate one color to tracking one specific, prominent symbol throughout the book. But don’t go crazy with an entire rainbow— try to limit yourself to 3-5 distinct colors max. When you’re pressed for time and frantically flipping back through your book, I can guarantee that you’re not going to be able to differentiate between Baby Pink and Cotton Candy Coral.

Page flags or sticky notes

As stated, these are essential if you’re not allowed to write in your book. I also use them to mark sections of text that are too large to be highlighted or underlined.

Index cards

Sometimes I need to make a note or response that’s too long to be crammed into the margins. In these cases, I’ll take out an index card and write my thoughts there. Make sure to also write the page number and passage/paragraph you’re talking about so you can flip back to that section later.

A dictionary

Pretty self-explanatory. Chances are that you’re going to encounter some unknown words, especially if your novel is set in a different time period.

Your assignment

Always, always keep in mind the task at hand. Every teacher is different, and your teacher might need you to pick up on aspects of the novel that this guide won’t cover. Plan accordingly and adjust your technique to suit your unique end goals. Your note-taking needs will change depending on whether you’ll be writing an essay, presenting a book report, participating in a class discussion, or doing something else entirely after you’ve finished taking notes.

WHAT TO LOOK OUT FOR

Plot

If you’re studying literature in high school or beyond, the focus is usually more on analysis and less on summary, so don’t spend too much time trying to memorize all the itty bitty plot details. I usually draw a quick story mountain, scribble down what happened next to each part of the story, include page numbers for extremely important events, and call it a day. My notes on the plot are solely for refreshing my memory and helping me find sections of the book; I focus 90% of my attention on actually analyzing the literature using the other tips in this section.

Characters

My English teacher once told us, “The first sentence about a character often tells you everything you need to know about him or her.”

Example: Here’s the first time Atticus Finch is mentioned in To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee:

“We were far too old to settle an argument with a fist fight, so we consulted Atticus. Our father said we were both right.”

Yes, Atticus’s character does continue to develop throughout the novel, but these two sentences really capture the essence of who he is. He’s the calm voice of intelligence and reason, the opposite of physical violence. He is diplomatic and just, able to understand both sides of a conflict. His children call him by his first name, showing that he regards them as equals. These traits define him as a character, influence his actions for the rest of the book, and are all revealed in just the first two sentences.

Most of the time, you won’t even realize how meaningful or prophetic an introduction is until much later in the story. But if you’re looking for a character’s important traits, his/her introductory sentence is a great place to start.

As the story progresses, identify the main characters’ traits, how they change and grow, and the plot events that cause these changes.

Common ways for characters to develop include:

  • gaining/losing morality
  • coming of age
  • falling from grace
  • challenging the status quo
  • overcoming an obstacle
  • becoming empowered
  • discovering him/herself

And some common catalysts for those kinds of development are:

  • shouldering newfound responsibility
  • gaining/losing power, wealth, knowledge, abilities (i.e. superpowers)
  • being prematurely exposed to a great challenge
  • gaining/losing an influential person/thing
  • transitioning into a new place or new stage in life

Themes

Themes are the central, underlying ideas behind a piece of work. They are the messages the author wants you, the reader, to take away. To identify the themes, ask yourself, “What is the author trying to express about the human condition?” Topics that fall under the “human condition” umbrella include:

  • society
  • race, sex, and class
  • family
  • friendship
  • war/peace
  • good/evil
  • love
  • lust and temptation
  • power
  • wealth
  • freedom
  • justice
  • death

However, the words listed above are not themes. They are merely topics, aspects of humanity that authors frequently comment on, and any two authors can present the same topic completely differently. On the other hand, themes are complete statements– they cannot be expressed in a single word. In order for the topics above to become themes, they must be attached to some sort of insight into human life or experience.

Example 1: “Temptation” is a topic.

“Giving into temptation often results in tragedy” is a theme.

Example 2: “Societal class” is a topic.

“People’s accomplishments define who they are, not their position in society” is a theme in Harry Potter.

“You are who you’re born, and attempting to move between classes is futile” is a theme in The Great Gatsby.

As you can see, this is a case where two novels take the same topic and turn it into two opposing themes.

As you read, track the development of themes and the events the author uses to convey them.

Symbolism

Simply put, symbols are things that represent other things. They function to add a profound, figurative layer of meaning above the literal one. Symbols could include objects, actions, colors, weather, seasons, you name it. Common symbols include (the things they frequently represent are in parentheses):

  • red (love, passion)
  • doves (peace)
  • fork in the road (decisions)
  • storms (turmoil, conflict)
  • seeds (hope, new life)
  • chains (repression, burden)
  • springtime (youth, rebirth)
  • nighttime (death, fear)

Of course, not all symbols are so obvious and cliché. Deciphering symbolism in literature often takes much more thought.

Examples: Mockingbirds in To Kill a Mockingbird symbolize innocent people.

The green light in The Great Gatsby symbolizes an unattainable dream.

Fire and ice imagery in Jane Eyre symbolize the struggle between passion and authority.

As you read your novel, identify the symbols, note when they occur, and reflect on the meaning they add to the story.

Diction & Syntax

Diction and syntax are closely related. Diction is the choice of words an author uses in a particular situation. Syntax is how the author arranges those words into sentences and paragraphs. Together, syntax and diction serve to add emphasis onto certain ideas and artistic effect. Choosing to use one word instead of another might add a nuance that changes the tone of the scene. Inverted word order may stress one particular word over another one.

Example: This is the first sentence of To Kill a Mockingbird (which, if you hadn’t noticed by now, happens to be my favorite book):

“When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow.”

Your diction and syntax alarm should’ve started blaring as soon as you read that. Something sounds off, right? The phrase “got his arm broken” is weird. If Jem fell from a tree or crashed his bike, wouldn’t it say he “broke his arm”? Why the use of passive voice? In this case, the way the sentence is phrased implies that Jem’s injury was no accident– something else, an outside force, broke his arm. Which, if you’ve read the book, is exactly what happens. To astute readers, the climax of the novel is actually foreshadowed in the very first sentence. That’s the power of diction and syntax.

Identifying diction and syntax usage is tricky, but it’s especially difficult in plays, poems, and old books. After all, every Victorian novel sounds weird and every Shakespearean play is nearly incomprehensible to begin with. But if a sentence or passage sounds overly descriptive, stilted, or just plain awkward within the rest of the text, it’s probably worth making a note of the diction and/or syntax.

As you read, mark important uses of diction and syntax and identify what meanings or nuances they contribute.

THE NOTE-TAKING PROCESS

So you’ve gathered your supplies, reviewed your assignment, and understood what you need to look out for while reading. Now to tie it all together, I’m going to run through my entire process of taking notes from a novel, from start to finish.

  • Get through the exposition, where the main characters and setting are introduced (usually the first 1-2 chapters), before even picking up a pen. Trying to keep track of new names, new places, and a dozen language devices all at once is much too overwhelming. Familiarize yourself with the basics of the story, then go back to take notes on the first couple chapters.
  • Along the same lines, read and take notes in chunks. Don’t read a sentence, put down your book, write a note, pick up your book, read a sentence, put down your book, write a note, pick up your book, read a sentence. Your attention will be constantly diverted and you’ll interrupt the natural flow of reading. Try to take notes at the end of each scene, act, event, flashback, chapter, or other natural structural element. It’ll be easier to identify what’s important when you have a bigger picture of things.
  • When it’s time to take notes, use the margins or an index card and your pencil/black pen to define any unfamiliar words, write questions you need clarification on, or note any kind of prediction, inference, reaction, etc. At this stage, nobody else has to see anything you write, so go nuts. I’ve doodled hearts next to Mr. Darcy’s name in my copy of Pride and Prejudice and I’m not ashamed. Whatever helps you better understand the book and enjoy the reading process.
  • If you come across a significant passage, description, or quote, leave a page flag there. Jot down a short note about why it’s important, but don’t worry too much about detailed analysis just yet.
  • Using your colored pens/highlighters and whatever color-coding system you chose earlier, mark up all the examples of character traits and development, themes, symbols, diction, syntax, figurative language, and any other devices your teacher may require you to find. Beside each, write something straight-forward and concise to explain the effect that device has on the story.
  • Any time you run out of room in the margins, grab an index card or sticky note and keep on groovin’.
  • As stated earlier, adjust your note-taking to the requirements of your assignment. If you know you’ll have to write an essay specifically about character development once you finish this book, perhaps you could draw a chart on a separate piece of paper that has columns for each of the characters’ traits that you can fill in as they change.
  • Finally, once you’ve finished the book, go back through your highlighting and page flags to pull out the information you need. If you followed this guide, you should have plenty of great examples to pick from. Use your margin notes and index cards to jumpstart your analysis and begin to put together your assignment or project in its final form.

And you’re finished!! *throws confetti*

I’m not even sure if this explanation of my note-taking process made sense outside of my head, so if you need further clarification or more examples of anything I mentioned, don’t hesitate to ask. And as always, this is just a summary of my personal technique, not a rock-hard set of rules. I highly encourage you to adjust and experiment. In fact, I’m really interested in learning about other people’s study methods, so reach out to me if you’d like to share your unique note-taking system or fangirl about books together.

Thanks for reading! All of my reader interactions and personalized advice can be found on my Tumblr. If you have questions, feedback, or post requests, feel free to drop a Tumblr ask or contact me.:)

—Sophia

Spaced Repetition with Anki

Hi guys! Today I’ll be sharing an app that’s drastically improved my active studying process, increased the rate of my learning, and saved my butt before countless vocabulary quizzes— Anki. Anki is essentially a flashcard app, but what really separates it from others such as Quizlet and StudyBlue is that it takes advantage of the concept of spaced repetition to maximize the effectiveness of each review session.

WHAT IS SPACED REPETITION?

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The graph above shows how your retention of learned material declines over time when you don’t review it again. The more you review something you’ve learned, the slower you’ll forget it, and the more likely it is to become permanently ingrained in your memory.

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Each time you answer a flashcard on Anki, you rate how difficult it was to come up with the answer: Easy, Good, or Again. If you answered correctly and quickly, choose Easy. If you were incorrect, unsure, and/or took a long time answering, choose Again.

The key is that rather than going through all of the cards in the deck in order, Anki will have you review each card at the specific point in the forgetting curve you’re most likely to forget it. So the more challenging a particular card, the more frequently you’ll review it. If you labeled a card as Easy, you won’t see it again for a while, because the curve of forgetting will be less steep for that card. Focusing on the cards you struggle with most, instead of devoting equal time to all of them, allows you to spend less time studying and/or to learn more things.

For more information about the science behind spaced repetition and instructions for the app itself, click here.

PROS

  • Extremely efficient: Thanks to the spaced repetition algorithm, I’ve noticed a definite improvement in my vocabulary test scores, as well as a reduction in study time.
  • A form of active learning: Great for long-term retention!
  • Highly customizable: Anki can be as simple or advanced as you need it to be. It can handle decks of 100,000+ cards. There are lots of add-ons available to extend its capabilities. You can add pictures, audio, different colors, and scientific markup via LaTeX within your cards. You can adjust the algorithm to change the frequencies of cards. If you know how to code, you can even change the cards completely to suit your needs. For example, with some basic code, I changed the default “see answer” to a field for text where I can actually type in my answer and check my spelling, which is super important while learning foreign languages. (see picture below) But it also works great immediately upon downloading with the default settings, so don’t be intimidated by all the customization options if you don’t need them.
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  • Tons of decks of cards already made by other users that you can download
  • Very easy to search, edit, replace, and delete cards
  • Save time + paper with digital cards
  • Syncs between all platforms for easy on-the-go access

CONS

  • Not ideal for cramming: Spaced repetition works best when you’re consistently reviewing a few cards every day over a long period of time. While Anki does have a “cram” setting if you’re in a rush, the app in general is not made for last-minute studiers.
  • There’s no social component with fun games like the type Quizlet has. However, you can make your cards in Quizlet and use an add-on to easily import them into Anki if you want the best of both worlds!

GET ANKI

Note that the Anki software is open-source, so there are many versions made by different developers. The above links are to the ankisrs.net apps I personally use, which I’ve found to have the best spacing algorithm and the least bugs. But a huge drawback is that their iOS app costs a whopping $25. If you want a free iOS app, consider ankiapp.com, but keep in mind that Ankisrs and AnkiApp will not sync between each other, and AnkiWeb is only available for Ankisrs!

Thanks for reading! All of my reader interactions and personalized advice can be found on my Tumblr. If you have questions, feedback, or post requests, feel free to drop a Tumblr ask or contact me.:)

—Sophia

Active vs Passive Learning

Not all studying is made equal. There are actually two different types of learning, active and passive. This post will discuss the differences between them and explain how you can use active learning to get the most out of your study sessions.

PASSIVE LEARNING

Passive learning is when you’re merely sitting back and absorbing the information, like a sponge absorbing water. This includes:

  • reading a textbook
  • rereading/rewriting notes
  • highlighting
  • listening to a lecture
  • watching a documentary or demonstration

All of the above methods essentially involve just exposing yourself to the material and naïvely hoping some of it will stick. This is not effective for long-term retention or critical analysis.

Of course, quickly skimming over your notes might be helpful the morning of an exam, and it is certainly better than not studying at all. But if your tests involve writing essays, analyzing arguments, or building off of concepts to create new ones, passive studying is not recommended. Instead, you should use…

ACTIVE LEARNING

You learn best when you are forced to actively engage with the material. Active learning strategies include:

  • testing yourself with flashcards
  • answering practice problems
  • identifying patterns and cause/effect relationships
  • creating connections between topics
  • explaining concepts to others
  • formulating questions that push your learning further
  • revising notes (Note that this is different from rewriting, which is a passive learning technique. Turning your lecture notes into different forms, such as mind maps, sketchnotes, and summaries is an effective learning method. Copying your textbook onto lined paper and going over it with gel pens + Mildliners is not.)
  • discussing, debating, and challenging

These methods require you to analyze, synthesize, and evaluate information, strengthening both your memory and comprehension. That sounds a little intimidating, but active learning is easier to implement than it sounds. For example, my favorite way to study for history is to pretend I’m the teacher and explain a topic out loud to my invisible “students”. Flashcards and writing unique sentences is great for foreign languages. For math, I’ll always try to prove every formula or theorem I use instead of merely memorizing it. If you’re not used to using active learning methods, the extra effort may present a challenge at first, but I promise it’ll lead to improved understanding and better grades in the end!

THE LEARNING TRIANGLE

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The learning triangle ranks learning techniques based on how much information we retain afterwords. I’m not sure I agree with all the exact percentages, but it’s safe to say that the general order and concept is correct. If you want to improve the effectiveness of your study sessions, try to use learning methods near the bottom of the triangle, as well as all the active learning strategies I mentioned earlier. Personally, I created a list of my favorite active learning strategies to hang up above my desk as a constant reminder to be an active studier.

And there you have it! Active learning will help you improve recall and comprehension in a very short amount of time. It’s one of the best ways to study smarter, not harder. Next time you sit down to study, go give those active learning methods a try!

Thanks for reading! All of my reader interactions and personalized advice can be found on my Tumblr. If you have questions, feedback, or post requests, feel free to drop a Tumblr ask or contact me.:)

—Sophia