Monthly Archives: November 2020

Annotation, the second most important study habit

In 1988, I started my first semester in college. I entered that first classroom with my new notebooks and highlighters and sat in the very front row. It was a mid-sized lecture hallĀ  of maybe 100 students. The professor came in with a big black trash bag. He systematically walked through the class collecting all our highlighters, walked out the back door, and threw them in the trash. He returned and announced, “highlighting is passive and I just saved your asses.”

This was my first lesson from someone who thinks deeply about learning.

In 1998, I began my journey as an educator by working with Dr Michelle Simpson (University of Georgia, division of Academic Enhancement). Our initial question was very simple – “What are undergraduate students doing with their time?”

We began tracking student behavior, by assigning them pagers they carried around for a few weeks. (Which really dates this study…). Every so often (I believe it was 30 minute intervals), the pager would vibrate and the student would record what they were doing in a little book they carried with them. The short not-very-climactic answer to this question is that students spend an inordinate amount of time waiting. (They’re waiting in line for food, waiting for class to start, waiting at the ATM, waiting for a friend to show up, etc, etc.)

These short stints of waiting add up to a big chunk of time during the day, and Michelle had enough experience to know that this was an undiscovered treasure box for students.

She designed a class. It met once a week throughout the term. I taught one section. The entire purpose of this class was to train students to most effectively use these wait times.

Some background: In the 1960s, there was a study done on memory. (I’m anecdotally describing this because I haven’t read the actual study in many years…) In this study, a group of students were exposed to new information in a lecture. (Some sort of humanities, if I remember correctly, although students were from any field). An exam on the lecture information was to take place approximately 6 weeks later. Following the lecture, one half of the students were instructed to study for 1 hr total: this was broken into 2, 30 min chunks. One 30 min chunk 2 days before the exam, and one 30 min chunk night before the exam. The retention in this group averaged around 70%. The other half of the students were also told to study for a total of 1 hr. Except this group studied for 5 minute chunks at regular intervals, starting immediately after the initial lecture. Both groups had a total study time of 1 hr. The second group scored an average of 90% on the same exam.

Summary: The easiest and most effective study strategy is to study in very short chunks. (Note that it is also significant to review new material as soon as possible after lecture. Immediately after if possible.) This simple strategy to more effectively utilize study time results in a 2 letter grade increase, on average. Those 2 hrs you have set aside to study tonight? Research suggests that 8, 15 min sessions spread throughout the day will be much more effective.

OK, this brings us to the second piece. How do you practically utilize 5 min study sessions? (It’s not realistic to haul around your physics book all day…) The course I taught with Michelle Simpson focused on this by training students to annotate.

Here’s how to annotate:

Supplies: some 3×5 notecards, pens/pencils (it’s OK if these are colored), sticky notes, your source material (lecture notes, problems, book.)

Step 1: Read a very small section of your source material. (When you’re learning, this may be as small as a few sentences, but can build to a few paragraphs over time.) Cover it with a sticky note. Ask yourself, “what did I just read?” What was the main idea, plot, or point? Write this on the sticky note. This should be your own summary, and can include abbreviation, a flow chart, etc. (Note: This is an active exercise and replaces highlighting.) Take the sticky note and stick it to a 3×5 card.

Step 2: Repeat with the next small chunk of information.

Step 3: Bring these 3×5 cards with you to utilize wait times throughout the day.

Step 4: Round out your cards by adding problems. You know that math problem you’re stuck on? Write it on a card. Stare at it a few times a day. You’ll be amazed at what your brain is capable of when you’re not paying attention.

Annotation takes time, and this is frustrating. Stick with it!! However, if you’re only going to try one strategy, start with studying in small units of time and save annotation for later.

Finally, I’d like to mention that textbooks used to come with huge wide margins on each page. These were meant for annotation. I still annotate regularly, when I read academic papers. I don’t use sticky notes, but I do make my own summary in the margins. I have not purchased a highlighter in my entire adult life, and I know who to thank for that.