Over the years and across dozens of posts, I’ve taught you how to study effectively and efficiently. From flashcards to test taking strategies to memorization techniques, they will absolutely improve your grades and school performance. However, these methods heavily rely on the ability to identify and target which information is important. If you’ve ever wondered how to do that, today is your lucky day. In this post, we’ll go over a step-by-step process to help you identify the most important information in your classes or textbooks, and how to best organize and study that information.
1 | Identify Your Goal
The first step is to take a step back, no pun intended, and identify in a broader sense what goal you are trying to achieve. And I don’t mean “getting an A in organic chemistry.” I’m referring to the micro-goals each time you sit down to study or attend lecture.
Allow me to explain. The issue that several students face is that every bit of information seems equally important. When everything looks important, essentially nothing is. It’s like highlighting an entire page of a textbook. You might as well have not highlighted anything at all.
By instead identifying the main goals in any single study session, you’ll be able to create a framework of general principles and core concepts in which you can fill in smaller details that are relevant. In doing so, you’ll be able to filter out the less important details and focus on the critical areas that are most likely to show up on your test, and ultimately get a better grade.
When identifying your goal at each study session, ask yourself, “What is the topic of this chapter or lecture? What do I need to know in order to understand it?” This practice sets a purpose to each study session or lecture.
When first starting out, begin by skimming or pre-reading the chapter before you dive in, or by looking through the lecture slides before you attend lecture. Focus on the headings and subheadings, paying close attention to bolded words or phrases. This exercise primes you to identify which key concepts are most important. You want to create a mental scaffolding of sorts, where you have the foundational concepts as the core structure, and you can fill in relevant details where appropriate.
As you get better at this, you’ll be able to forgo pre-reading and be able to better identify important information on the fly. Until then, however, start with pre-reading. In doing so, you’ll be better equipped to identify your goal and set a purpose to each study session.
2 | Pay Attention to How the Information is Portrayed
This one may seem obvious, but is too frequently overlooked and underutilized by students. In lecture, pay attention to two factors from the professor. First, how long are they spending on a certain topic or idea? Usually, if a topic or concept has a greater percentage of class time allocated to it, it’s more important. Second, are they repeating any concepts or ideas? If a professor says something multiple times, that’s a reliable indicator that it is important and you need to know it for test day.
If you’re reading a textbook, the same principles apply. Longer sections diving into a certain topic mean that you need to understand that concept. Similarly, if it’s repeated or stated in multiple ways or explained from multiple angles, it’s safe to assume it’s something to prioritize.
There are, of course, exceptions to this rule. Depending on the professor, they may choose to put something highly obscure on the test that didn’t seem important and wasn’t heavily emphasized. Don’t worry too much about this, as it shouldn’t make that big of a difference to you in most cases. Such questions are usually uncommon, and if present, they should not be the difference between an A and a B – more likely a difference between an A and an A+. If you focus on the core and important principles, you’ll get most of the way there. This is the Pareto Principle applied, also known as the 80/20 rule. Focusing on the core 20% of information will get you 80% of the results you desire.
3 | Organize the Information
This one goes without saying – effective note taking and organization is critical. Organizing the information in a logical manner helps to separate and compartmentalize concepts, which ultimately helps with not only recall but also with identifying what information is most important. I suggest using a nested outline format, where subconcepts are nested beneath larger concepts. Doing so allows you to easily identify the key concepts and subconcepts in any lecture or chapter.
It’s also important to note that your notes should not be verbatim what the textbook or professors says. Rather, your notes should be shorter and in your own words. This is important not only for effective recall and active learning reasons, but also for aiding you in identifying the key core concepts and most important information. There’s a lot more to note taking, and I’m considering doing an entire video on how to take notes most effectively. If you’d like to see that video, leave a comment down below so I can gauge interest.
4 | Condense the Information
Remember that systems produce results – not our goals, desires, or dreams. Telling yourself that you’ll focus on important information isn’t going to cut it. You need to create the system that facilitates the results you want. People often think of discipline or constraints as highly limiting. But when you use them intelligently and to your advantage, they are paradoxically freeing, and help you much more than you would expect.
So how do we create a system that helps us focus on the important high yield information and filter out the lower yield details? Condensing the information.
I’m a big fan of condensing information as an effective active learning method. By condensing the information, you’re applying helpful constraints that force you to identify and focus on the key pieces of information. If you’re doing group study, use the Feynman Technique to teach others in a highly interactive and efficient way. If you’re studying alone, I recommend creating summary sheets, also known as condensed notes, which I’ve covered in my Study Less Study Smart post.
5 | Understand Previous Test Patterns
If you’ve had this professor before or taken his or her other tests, this one should be much easier for you. Each professor has their own teaching and testing style, which should help you identify which pieces of information to focus on.
More often than not, you won’t have previous experience with the professor. In those instances, there are a few ways to get a better idea of their style. First, speak with other friends or upper class men who have taken this professor’s courses in the past. Get their opinion on teaching and testing styles. Secondly, see if you can get your hand on old copies of their tests. This not only is an excellent way to study for an upcoming test (remember, active learning!), but also one of the best ways to see their testing style in action. Ask friends or check with your school, which may contain a bank of old tests.
6 | Use the RIGHT Study Tool
Ok, so now you’ve identified which pieces of information are most important. That’s great, but it doesn’t matter if you’ve identified all the important information if you don’t know how to study it effectively. Not all information is created equal. Not only in relative importance, but also in the best way to study that information.
I’ve gone over how to use flashcards, how to use memory tricks, and several other study methods. Knowing how to use these techniques is just as important as knowing when to use these techniques. Here is a simple guideline:
1) Conceptually heavy information → use condensed notes and practice problems
2) Memorization heavy information → use flashcards, mnemonics, or memory palace
This is a very rudimentary guideline, and obviously there’s much more to it than that, but that’s a topic for another post.
Good luck studying!