How to make sense of reference material?

A close look at the learning strategies that will help make sense of reference material by Lesley Phillips.

There are some excellent strategies that you can employ to maximize your benefit from learning situations.
The following learning strategies will be explained:-

  • Mind Maps
  • Reading Strategies – Summarising, Skimming, Scanning, SQ3R.
  • Memorising Techniques
  • Note Taking

mind map

Mind Mapping

This is a method of collecting many ideas or thoughts from a central theme, and creating links between them, and branches from each idea. It can be a great starting point for planning an essay, or a research document, for example.

Mind mapping is quick and makes links and associations, in much the same way as the human brain collects and stores information. Mind maps contain key words and short sentences only representing a lot of information in a small space.

The example below is a mind map of a reading method known as the SQ3R technique (see below).

SQ3R technique

Source: Nikki Brown

Reading Strategies

Skimming, Scanning and Summarising.

Skimming is when you read through information quickly to see if there is anything useful or interesting, before reading in more detail. You skim when paging through a magazine before deciding to buy it, or when you decide if a reference book contains the information you need.
Scanning is when you only look for particular words or information. You would scan when searching for a certain name in a long alphabetical list. When studying you would scan the introduction, or contents page of a book to find the location of the information you need.
Summarising is when you produce a shortened version of a document, also known as an Abstract or Précis. Summaries contain the key ideas and main message of a piece of writing, and form an essential part of making sense of information for review, or examination purposes.

SQ3R Method for active reading (refer to the mind map of above).

Passive reading is the kind of reading you would do for enjoyment,and you need to train your mind to read actively so that you can learn new concepts, and learn material effectively. SQ3R involves the following stages for interacting with reading material (also refer to the mind map above):

Quickly look through the text to identify key ideas or themes. These can be found quite easily by looking at main or sub- headings, introductions, conclusions, and graphic information (pictures, diagrams and tables). Underline them or highlight them so that they stand out.

Now go back through the key ideas and turn them into questions. If there are already questions as part of the article, write them down as well.

Read the article more slowly and carefully, looking for answers to all of the questions you have written down.

Close the book and aloud answer all of the questions that you identified, making sure that you have covered all of the main ideas. If there are any questions that you cannot answer, find the information and re read it until you can answer the questions without looking at the text.

Go back and review your answers to the questions frequently so that you retain the information. Use of a memorising technique will help you to remember better.

Memorising Techniques or Mnemonics

Lengthy and complex written information is difficult to learn because our brains store information more readily as images and associations. We can greatly enhance our ability to retain information by employing imaginative visualisation. Visualisation is the development of strong colourful images in our minds of the information we want to learn, and these images can then be associated or linked together in a sequence, a story or a mind map.

Acronyms can also help us to remember important information, for example ROY G BIV is well known for remembering the sequence of colours of the rainbow. Sequenced rhymes or stories can also be used, for example in trigonometry this strange saying has been used: “Some Old Hens (Sine=Opposite/Hypotenuse) Can’t Always Have (Cosine= Adjacent/Hypotenuse) Their Own Acorns (Tangent=Opposite/Adjacent).

You can further explore memorising methods by visiting

Note taking

When listening to lectures it is good idea to take down notes because this will help you to stay focussed, and to engage your mind actively with the topic. Note taking is a powerful way to learn material, because you are translating verbal information into something you understand, and can therefore learn from.

Below are some useful tips for good note taking:

  • Don’t attempt to write down every word you hear. You won’t be able to keep up!
  • Develop and use abbreviations that you understand e.g.  (leads to or produces), + (and), NB (note well).
  • Listen out for summaries and main points, at the beginning, during and at the end of the lecture, or sections.
  • Listen critically with a questioning mind and be aware of opinions, as well as factual material.
  • After the lecture organise and file your notes systematically so that they can be accessed easily for reference and revision.

Watch a documentary programme or a movie and practice taking notes from the dialogue. Did you capture the main points?

Oct 2013

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