As we’ve already discovered, our aim here is to identify and extract the hierarchy of ideas, a process which involves selecting and rejecting material according to its relevance and importance. Although by now this sounds obvious, it’s surprising how many students neglect it or just do it badly. As with most study skills, few of us are ever shown how best to structure our thoughts on paper. Yet there are simple systems we can all learn.
Some students never get beyond the list of isolated points, devoid of all structure. Or, worse still, they rely on the endless sequence of descriptive paragraphs, in which a structure hides buried beneath a plethora of words. This makes it difficult to process ideas even at the simplest level. Without clear structures we struggle just to recall much more than unrelated scraps of information. As a result students do less well in exams than they could have expected, all because they haven’t learnt the skills involved in organizing and structuring their understanding.
They sit down to revision with a near hopeless task facing them – mounds of notes, without a structure in sight, beyond the loose list of points. This could be described as the parable of two mental filing systems. One student uses a large brown box, into which she throws all her scraps of paper without any systematic order. Then, when she’s confronted with a question in the exam, she plunges her hand deep into the box in the despairing hope that she might find something useful.
Sadly, all that she’s likely to come up with is something that’s, at best, trivial or marginally relevant, but which she’s forced to make the most of, because it’s all she’s got.
On the other hand there is the student who files all of her ideas systematically into a mental filing cabinet, knowing that, when she’s presented with a question, she can retrieve from her mind a structure of interlinked relevant arguments backed by quotations and evidence, from which she can develop her ideas confidently. And most of us are quite capable of doing this with considerable skill, if only we know how to do it.