Learning

Take the Test from the Inside (Part II)

Predict what will be on the exam

So, you’ve got good study notes with good questions and killer summaries, and the exam is looming. You’re good to go, right? One more thing. Predict what’s going to be on the test.

I mean, why gamble? Why let it be a surprise? Predicting the test questions is usually pretty easy to do. Look over the syllabus, which is the design of the course. Review what has been discussed in class. Ask yourself, “What has this professor been emphasizing?” Role-play, pretend you’re the professor: what questions would you put on the test? To make sure your predictions are sound, ask the professor outright: “Yo, Teach, what’s gonna be on the test?” (If you really say “Yo, Teach,” though, I won’t answer for what happens to you.) But before you ask, do make your own predictions. Then after you ask and the professor answers, see how accurate your predictions were. This is another study technique: predict and discover—it tunes your analytical skills. If you make the effort to think about and forecast what the professor is going to put on the test and only then ask, you’ll better understand the answers you get and the implications of what’s going to be on the exam because you’ll already have thought about it yourself. Even if the teacher contradicts one or more of your predictions, it still won’t be news to you; you will be intellectually comparing inaccurate conclusions with accurate information, which is an excellent way to learn. Want to do extremely well on tests? Get on the same page as the professor; develop the facility of being able to think like the professor when you need to, as well as the discipline of thinking for yourself all the time.

The actual studying for the test is now easy. Return to your notes (see Part I). Cover up the answers and summary, and quiz yourself by reading and thinking about the left-column questions you wrote. Next, write new summaries and compare them to the old ones. If you study with one or more friends, together try to come up with questions that draw forth the most complex, complete answers, and summaries that explain the most both briefly and elegantly.

When at last you sit down to take the exam, you will have already thoroughly explored every corner of it. You might feel nervous going in, but when you begin to see questions that are just differently worded versions of questions you yourself have asked and answered, questions that you accurately predicted would be here, the jitters will fly away and you will feel at home. Take the test from the inside. It’s easier.

Everything suggested here is just what any good cat burglar does all the time. You want the ginormous diamond in the laser-guarded museum? Tirelessly case the joint for months, leave no blueprint unexamined, gather exactly the right equipment, and practice doing the job. Is it hard work? What’s it worth to you?
 

The Pink Panther

Take the Test from the Inside, Part I

Powerful study techniques and the art of higher-order questioning.

Here’s an oldie-but-goodie note-taking system1 that works especially well for a course that has exams.

Draw a line vertically down the page so that one third of the page is on the left and two thirds are on the right. Also draw a horizontal line across the page about a quarter of the way up from the bottom. You can also buy notebooks that are configured this way.


Note-taking sections

In class, take notes on the right side, in the right column. After class it’s best to review and, more important, continue your notes the same day if possible, when they’re fresh. It’s the follow-up work on your notes that will make the difference when it comes time to study for exams.

The first follow-up step is to write in the left column a question to which the note on the right is the answer. For example, let’s say you took notes on Freud’s definitions of id, ego, and superego. Next to the definition of id (in the left column), you could write, “What is the id?” But there are other questions you could write that would help you more. You want to come up with questions that stimulate you to think about the concept rather than simply retrieve factual data like a computer. Questions that begin with “How” work well, because they ask you to think about process and coming-into-being and cause & effect. “Describe the relationship between…” is another good way to begin questions, as is “What does x have to do with y?”

But exams often ask for definitions, so why not write: “What is Freud’s definition of the id?” Well, you can, but then you’ll be relying on brute force memorization (and for memorizing, flash cards are probably more useful than discursive notes). By contrast, the question “What is the relationship between the id and the superego?” is asking you to think about more than one thing:

  • the definition of id
  • the definition of superego
  • the attitude of the superego in relation to the id, and vice versa
  • how the id and superego function
  • what each is like metaphorically (and here you can get creative: the id is like Cookie Monster or Caligula, while the superego is like the sanctimonious angel on my shoulder or my fourth grade teacher)

… And many more subtle things. Process and relationship questions are higher-order in the sense that they implicate multiple layers of meaning, not just one-to-one labels (e.g. “The id is the primitive part of the mind that seeks sensual pleasure and violence for their own sake” is a simplistic this-equals-that formulation). Higher-order questions develop complete pictures of concepts in interconnected webs. In short, coming up with good questions requires solid understanding of the concepts in the first place, and those same questions will promote solid understanding later on when you’re studying for exams.

After you’ve written questions in the left column for your notes that are in the right column, it’s time to summarize on the bottom of the page. Cover up your notes and questions and explain the main ideas with as much intellectual oomph in as few words as possible. This is one way to tell whether your left-column questions are really useful: when you understand the material well enough to ask good questions, you’ll be able to summarize the material confidently. These are your rules of thumb for studying: if you can’t think of higher-order questions and you have trouble writing a summary, you haven’t grasped the concepts sufficiently; when you can ask the questions and when you can give a summary lecture and teach the concepts, you’ve mastered the material.

Now you’re prepared for the exam! In fact, you’re prepared in more ways than you may be aware of. In Part II you will learn how to predict what’s going to be on the exam.


  1. Based on the “Cornell Notes” system, devised in the 1950s by Dr. Walter Pauk of Cornell University. 

How to Get the Reading Done (Enough): The UBER Method

Here is a tried and true outside-the-box method for doing course reading that works for people who feel weighed down by reading assignments.

Riddle yourself this: How often do you complete enough of your assigned reading to be able to go to class feeling confident that if called on you’ll be able to look the teacher in the eye and respond directly from your knowledge of the text? Restrict your answer to one of these two:

  1. Often enough to do as well as I want to
  2. Not often enough to do as well as I want to

If your answer is “a,” don’t mess with a winning streak. No need to spend time on this post; go do your reading.

If your answer is “b,” however, then the UBER method can change your academic life.

If you’re actively choosing not to read for class, then at least you’re exercising free will. But many of us don’t read (or not much), yet wish we could magically absorb books. We want to have done the reading, but somehow can’t manage to do it. When I played the “super-power” game for the first time in my life—“If you could have one super-power, what would it be?”—my answer was, “The ability to read a 500-page book in an hour with perfect comprehension.” All these years later, my answer is still the same.

My super-power wish betrays a common preconception: that reading needs to be done from beginning to end without skipping anything. Reading every word from start to finish is ideal, at least in the respect that most literature, fiction and nonfiction, is written to be read this way. If I’m reading for pleasure, I read from beginning to end (though not everyone does this; it’s a matter of personal preference). But reading for course work involves an important utilitarian consideration: if I understand the substance of the reading, who cares if I didn’t read every word? And what difference does it make if I read the pages out of order?

The essence of the UBER method is simple and practical. Be goal-directed. Read what you need to read.

Reading every word and following every thought in a text step by step is a beautiful thing. But when we’re having trouble getting reading done, we have to be willing to sacrifice beauty. We’re going to read in an ugly but efficient way. That’s the UBER method: Ugly But Efficient Reading.1

The first thing to do when using the UBER method is—don’t read the text!—at least not yet. Walk around it for a few minutes; survey it. You’re not going to dive into the reading, you’re going to figure out what you need to get out of it, and then go fishing in the best spots. You’re not going to wade slowly but dutifully through all the pages; you’re going to look things up.

The UBER (Ugly But Efficient Reading) Method

  1. Consider the context. What do you already know? How does this reading relate to the course material? (This latter question you can ask your professor outright, if it’s not clear to you.)
  2. Gather clues. Also known as “pre-reading,” this is when you read all the easy stuff and learn as much as possible as fast as possible. The first things you should read are:
    • the book cover
    • the summary on the back cover (or the abstract of the article)
    • the table of contents
    • pictures and captions
    • charts, graphs, tables, notes
    • questions at the end of the chapter; and then…
  3. STOP. What do you know now? More importantly, given what you’ve learned from the clues you’ve gathered, what do you now want to know about this reading? Ask questions.
  4. Find out where the text is going to end up. Read the last paragraph (or two). Then read the first paragraph to see where and how the text begins, and ask more questions: What is important in this reading? What is the last paragraph saying? What don’t you understand yet? What do you need to find out more about?
  5. Finally, read whatever parts of the text you need to in order to answer your questions. In other words, read to learn what you need to know.2

The key to the UBER method is making sure you have accomplishable goals in front of you at all times. Finding answers to questions you have, especially when you have the text that the answers are in, is an accomplishable goal. For some of us, the prospect of a dense 40-page article on a subject we don’t find interesting feels daunting enough that we avoid even starting it. Now compare having to read that article straight through to having an untimed open-book exam on it. Passing an open-book exam is an accomplishable goal.

So, open your books and get out of them what you need. Ugly But Efficient Reading is much more enlightening than perfect reading that doesn’t get done at all.


P.S. Try the UBER method out on this post. Read the title and the footnotes, the lists, and the phrases in bold type. Then read the final paragraphs, then the first couple of paragraphs. See how much you can learn just from these?


  1. The reading strategies in this post are not original on my part; in fact they’re well known among reading teachers. However, the acronym “UBER” for “Ugly But Efficient Reading” is my own invention. 

  2. Now, don’t be a dope: what you need to know is not defined by what you learn until you get bored; it’s what you need to know to participate intelligently and confidently in a class discussion. 

Process Writing

Process writing (A.K.A. process notes, A.K.A. metacognitive writing) is the quintessential self-learning tool.

After doing any freewriting exercises, reflect on the writing and thinking process you were just engaged in. Did anything surprise you? What was your experience while you were writing? (—anxious, liberated, fuming, vulnerable, giddy—whatever it was, elaborate on it). What was interesting about the arc the writing took?

Process notes are especially useful and revealing when they reflect on the composition of an essay or the creation of a work of art. Because essays and art projects are long, involved processes, it is best to pause and do some process writing at various stages throughout the project. For instance, you have an Economics assignment on stock investing that initially you’re not sure how you want to approach; but later, while watching an ice hockey game on T.V. it all suddenly becomes clear to you: Of course! an investment is just like the puck, getting slapped up and down the ice! (value fluctuations)—and the players are investment brokers, checking each other on the boards and trying to score! (Can you tell I’m not an economist?)… Anyway, after you scribble down your brilliant idea (in a focused freewrite, of course), follow up with process notes on just how stumped you were when you first got the assignment, and then how you became inspired.

Process writing is done as a narrative, not as an outline. (In that respect, the term itself, “process notes,” is a little misleading, because they’re not the kind of notes you can jot down on Post-Its.) One way of thinking of process writing is to tell the story of what happened in your thinking process and in your writing process;—a story more like a personal essay, less like a report;—a story about how your intimations arose from the primordial goo of your brain, and were fruitful and multiplied, and how and by what/whom they were influenced, and how you nurtured them into ideas, and lo, how you brought them forth and arranged them just so onto sheets of paper, and they were good.

The reflective aspect of process notes is key. Imagine you were going to write about an experience you had with your family: you’d write it reflectively, thinking about what happened and why, just as much as (if not more than) merely recounting the bare events. In this very same way, your process notes should talk about the conception and writing/making of your essay or art project as your experience, not merely as an assigned activity. Why do process notes take this tack? Because an assigned activity ultimately belongs to the class that assigns it, whereas a writing or artistic experience belongs to the writer/artist: you. Process notes are a way of taking full ownership of what you’ve created.

It is true that students and even many faculty have found the exact purpose of process notes elusive. You might feel that this metacognitive exercise is arbitrary and redundant: “I already wrote the paper! You want me to explain it again?” Like response journals, process writing is a method of inquiry and learning, except whereas in response journals you’re writing about the assigned reading, in process notes the subject you’re writing about is yourself—you as learner and author. Patricia Hampl in her essay “Memory and Imagination” makes the distinction between “writing what I know” and “writing to find out what I know.” The benefits of process notes come more into focus if we augment Hampl’s statement to: writing to find out how and what I’ve learned, how and what I think, how and what I write. This kind of reflection is usually not manifest in the essay itself.

In process notes the writer becomes the object of examination and analysis. Some people have found this image helpful: To write the essay, I read, take notes, compose, edit. To write process notes, I step outside of myself and observe myself reading, taking notes, composing, editing… in order to gain insight into the evolution of my thinking. The question remains, though, to what end?

One of my mentors and a former colleague, Jamie Hutchinson, offered this as one of process writing’s many useful purposes: “[To learn] how to make a case for what one has written, both its form and content.” The ability to articulate a case for something you yourself have written implies a capacity to see yourself in a broader context of other learners and authors; to be able to think of yourself on the same plane as and in relation to, for example, Patricia Hampl, or the author of the text you’ve just been assigned to read, instead of being content to sit back and shout praise or criticism at books from the grandstand. In a more immediate sense, articulating a case for your writing enables you to see and think of yourself in relation to fellow learners and writers (including faculty) in your class at your school.

Perhaps more than any other type of writing assignment, process notes build intellectual community. Certainly metacognitive writing directly fosters the conscious (as opposed to impulsive) development of authorial voice.

Despite all these Utopian pedagogical sentiments, many people nevertheless find process notes difficult either to do or to explain how to do, or both. Really the only known remedy for this predicament is to practice process writing until their benefits become self-evident, as when the obscured image suddenly emerges out of a “Magic Eye” pattern. Once you’ve beheld their effects, process notes might very well become a learning tool you never want to do without.

Believing & Doubting (and “Negative Capability”)

Believing & Doubting is when you write on two opposing sides of an idea, an assertion, an interpretation—something an author says that can be agreed or disagreed with.

The most basic way to do this exercise is to freewrite a “pro” paragraph followed by a “con” paragraph.

The more difficult (but more rewarding and far more useful) way to do this exercise is really to discover and be able to understand (as in stand under and support) two opposing points of view with equal conviction—allowing yourself to become “of two minds” (after all, two minds are better than one). The idea is to articulate your point of view first, and then to do your best to imagine the opposite point of view as fully as possible. It helps to pretend you are someone who really believes this opposite point of view, and write as if you are that person (use first person!).

This is a very powerful exercise of the imagination, leading to all kinds of surprising insights. One potential outcome is a higher synthesis of the two opposites (which are, respectively, thesis and antithesis): a perspective that rises above and encompasses the contradictions. Another sublime outcome is what the Romantic poet John Keats called “Negative Capability,” which, in a letter to his brothers, he described this way:

… at once it struck me what quality went to form a Man of Achievement, especially in Literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously—I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason—Coleridge, for instance, would let go by a fine isolated verisimilitude caught from the Penetralium of mystery, from being incapable of remaining content with half‑knowledge. This pursued through volumes would perhaps take us no further than this, that with a great poet the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration.

Welcome to Streams of Consciousness

I am happy and brimming with excitement to welcome you to The Conscious Learner’s weblog, Streams of Consciousness.

I started The Conscious Learner in order to pursue my mission of helping people connect with and articulate for themselves how they learn and how they want to make use of what they learn in the ways that are most meaningful for them. I take joy in supporting others as they become, through their education, more fully who they are and more empowered to do what they feel called to do.


Mark teaching mythology at Delphi, Greece

My calling is teaching. I’ve been doing it for most of my adult life, and I love what I do. I myself strive to be a conscious learner. When I teach, I learn; if this is a cliché, it’s because it is so often true and so often said by teachers. To me teaching and learning with another person (tutoring) or a group of people (in a classroom) feels more like play than work, though I work hard at both teaching and learning, and continuously learn how to do both more effectively. (A favorite book of mine, one that influenced me early on, is Learning to Learn by Idries Shah.)

In this blog I will share with you what I’ve learned about learning. Here you will find posts on such topics as…

  • Surviving and thriving in college, high school, and grad school
  • How to choose what you do rather than procrastinate about what is to be done
  • Under-the-hood peeks at how learning happens, and how you can facilitate and reinforce your learning engine
  • How to play to your strengths and draw on your talents to make learning easy and enjoyable
  • How your attention is unique to you, how to take advantage of your gifts, and how to cope with your challenges (often diagnosed as Attention Deficit Disorder)
  • What your creativity has to do with critical thinking, and vice versa
  • Mind-bending Gedankenexperimente (thought-experiments)
  • Why you are not Borg
  • Why some commonly used teaching methods aren’t working for you

… plus abundant references to outside resources.

As many of my former students will tell you, I’m a conversationalist and questioner, not a lecturer. This blog is intended to spark conversation and inquiry, as well as to provide practical tools of learning and propose new ways of thinking about education. You are cordially invited to peruse, watch and listen from the back row, dip in, and join in.1

 
Mark Vecchio
The Day After Labor Day, 2012


  1. To comment on posts, you’ll need to register as a user, the sole purpose of which is to prevent spam-bots from disrupting the conversation. 

How to Take Notes While Reading an Essay (Annotation)

In the margin of your text, write at least one note next to every single paragraph. Each note can be just a few words, or a short sentence. In your entire set of notes, include at least one (preferably more than one) of each of the following kinds:

  1. Main idea in this paragraph (a good way to find the main idea is to start by writing: In this paragraph I hear the author saying… and seeing what comes next)

  2. Purpose (what is the author trying to achieve in this paragraph?)

  3. Intended audience: to whom is the author directing (all or one particular part of) this paragraph?

  4. Rhetorical strategy (rhetorical strategies include asking questions, giving examples, creating an image, making a metaphor, defining a term or phrase, comparing/contrasting, threatening with something worse, offering something better, praise, satire, personal report/confession, laying the groundwork for an argument…&c.)

  5. Logical device (logical devices include syllogism (if A is true and B is true, then C must be true), appeals to authority (e.g. if a Nobel prize-winner says it, it must be true), guilt, etc.)

  6. Any interesting comparison you notice to statements in other things you’ve read (e.g. Compare this to what Orwell says on page…)

  7. Anything else that feels important to note.

Go Fish in
Streams of Consciousness:

absenceacceptanceaccomplishmentADHDaimsanalysisannotationanxietyAPAappearanceappleappreciationargumentartistaskingattachmentattentionawarenessBatmanbeingblank mindblissboatboring!brainstormingbraverycandlescenter of gravitychoicechoosing collegecognitioncommunicationcompassionconclusionconfidenceconsciousnessconversationcreative writingcreativitydawdlingdiagnosisdoorsdramadreamdrinkingecologyemotionenergyessaysessentialevidenceexamexcitementexecutive functionexerciseexperienceexpositionfailurefearfeelingfightfigurationflowfootballfrederick douglassfreewritinggamegedankenexperimentgesturegetting startedgoalgrammarhappinesshealinghearthonorhopehumanideasimaginationimagination_exerciseimplexinnovationinspirationinstinctinterestjubileekinestheticknifeknowledgelogicloudlovemagicmanagemasterymeaningmechanicsmedicationmeditationmetacognitionmilitarymindmistakesMLAmothermotivationmountainnontraditional collegenote-takingnotesorganizeout-of-the-boxparticipationpartspassionpatiencepeak-experiencepedagogyperseverancepersistencephysicalizeplanplayingplaywrightingplotpoetrypositive pointingpre-writingpreferenceprepositionpresenceprioritiesprocessprocrastinationprofessorsproofreadingputteringquestionsreadingrealityreflectionrelationshiprelaxationrepresentationreservesresourcesresponseresponsibilityrevisingsanctuaryself-actualizationself-assessmentself-relianceseptembershort storysocratic methodsoulspacestorystrengthsstressstudyingsuccesssummariessynthesistalkingtasksteachingtechniquetest anxietytest-takingThanksgivingthemethesisthinkingtimetolerancetomorrowtreetrusttruthunderstandingveteransvisualizationvoicewaldorfwelcomewholewillwillpowerwomenwordsworkingwriter's blockwritingyearningyesterday

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