Outlining Made Simple

As we dive further and further into the school year, and I dive further and further into my first year of grad school, it feels like a good time to review one of the best study methods in the known universe –

Outlining.

Yeah, I know, not super complicated, and yet somehow so many of us seem to have pushed this simple technique aside. I feel like, for many students, this is simply because schools no longer teach how to outline, they simply expect you to know how to do it.

But creating effective and easy to understand outlines that you can use as reference material and study sheets is not something that comes naturally to most people.

So how do you do it then?

Start with Notes

Going straight from text or a lecture to an outline is like trying to create an airplane from a fan – you are missing a couple of key components there. The landing wheels, the wings, and, just as importantly, the fuselage or ‘body’ or the plane that keeps you safe and connected to this contraption as it flies through the air. Trying to make an outline straight from your textbook will not help you to understand the material better. It can give you a skeleton to work off of, but it will not improve your comprehension of retention.

Start by taking notes on the subject that you need to study. These can be as rough or as neat as you need them to be. I use something called the ‘3 Pass’ method whenever I take notes, which I went over briefly in the video below but we’ll go into more detail another time.

In order to create an effective outline, you need to know what the important areas of focus are, which means you need to already be at least somewhat familiar with the material. So start with notes, then move on to creating your outline from there.

The Big Three

Whenever you are note taking and then subsequently creating an outline, there are three main areas that you need to focus on.

Concepts

I am starting with concepts not because it is simple, but because it is difficult. But many of the things worth doing are.

Concepts can be simple or abstract but they are common in almost every subject. In science it may be an important concept that cellular division is a cyclical process. In math the Order of Operations is undoubtedly an important concept. In history class, the ways in which economics impact voting patterns are important concepts to understand.

Sometimes these concepts will have clear cut names and be readily explained. Often times however they may be woven throughout a chapter or a lesson touching many different subjects and be more difficult to pull together into a concrete thought. This is where taking the notes before hand helps the most. It is easier to recognize patterns when you write something several times than it is to see them when you reread something several times.

Names / Dates

Perhaps the most simple of the big 3, names and dates, along with other information that requires route memorization, is still important. Especially if it is something that you personally tend to forget or glance over.

I, for example, have a terrible head for dates. Years tend to blur together for me. But names I can recall at the drop of the hat (of people in books, not people in real life… I still mix up my nephews sometimes). The general rule of thumb is that if a name or date is referenced three or more times, or if it used a section or even chapter title, it is probably worth remembering.

Vocabulary

These are usually the easiest to pick out from a text book but can be more difficult to remember during a lecture. Just like with the rest of your outline, you should be reviewing these terms first so that you know which ones are actually important or need to be reviewed. If one chapter has twenty three vocabulary terms, that isn’t an outline anymore – it is a dictionary.

Unlike the rest of this material, however, I don’t really recommend including vocabulary terms in your main notes. Use them, obviously, when needed, and even highlight them or write them in a different color. But vocab terms are just so much easier to go through as flashcards rather than on a reference sheet. As you make your notes make sure to create vocab flashcards to go along with them and as you review. When you get to your outlining stage include the terms that are critical, you still have trouble with or are just used multiple times. This saves you rewriting 23 vocab terms when you only needed to know 8.

Write in Code

This is something which, if you are sharing your notes or outlines in a group, will frustrate your classmates to no end. It is also ABSOLUTELY something that you should do.

Your notes or outlines or study ques do not need to make sense to anybody else but you. They don’t even necessarily have to make sense to you, as long as the association is there.

Let’s say you once looked at a picture of George Washinton and thought his hair looked like sheep’s wool and need to remember the name of Bunker Hill for a test. If the first thing that pops into your head is a cartoon sheep sitting on a bunk bed… draw a cartoon sheep sitting on a bunk bed.

No, I’m not kidding.

What triggers your memory and what helps you may or may not make sense, but that isn’t the point. The point is that it helps YOU create an association in your brain. So while your classmates may not appreciate your deeply artistic cartoon sheep, if it means you get that question right on a test then that is really all that matters.


Creating an effective outline is one of the single best things you can do to help you prepare for material over the long run. And get this… it isn’t even so you have the sheet to review, that’s almost ancillary. The most imporant part of creating an outline is… creating the outline.

The act of reviewing, condensing, and re-framing all of that information is an active learning process that is so much more effective than simply flipping through pages and hoping you’ll remember it for the test.

Whatever works for your, as long as your outline helps you to digest and break down the subjects into manageable chunks that make sense to you, you’re doing well.


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