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Monday Master Class: Conquer Complicated Material with the Mini-Textbook Method

TextbooksComplicated Concepts

A reader recently asked me for some study advice. He was facing an exam in a course with unusually complicated material. The concepts were numerous, and tricky to understand, and connected to each other in non-obvious ways. It was clear that there was too much information to be efficiently handled by standard quiz-and-recall, so I referred him to my favorite under-appreciated study technique: the focused cluster method.

This was still, however, not enough. As the reader was quick to observe, there was so much material connected in so many different ways that even creating a quick rapid-fire question for each key point would soon spiral out of control. There would be way too many review questions.

Fortunately, I had another technique to suggest — an approach I call the Mini-Textbook Method. It’s slower than quiz-and-recall and focused question clusters, but, for complicated classes like the one haunting this reader, it’s arguably one of the best ways to conquer the material.

It works as follows…

The Mini-Textbook Method

When faced with a course with large volumes of complicated material, reduce your notes to a collection of textbook-style chapters. Write these like a real textbook. That is, use complete sentences and logical explanations. (You don’t, however, have to waste time on making the writing “good” or, even, grammatically sound. It’s only for you.)

Your goal should be to reduce and synthesize. A good rule of thumb is to have at most one succinct chapter per each week of notes.

Things you might include in the sample chapter:

  • A high-level description of the concepts covered in the chapter.
  • A list of definitions.
  • Good, succinct descriptions of the big ideas, theories, or frameworks.
  • A discussion of how the different elements from the previous item connect or compare and contrast.

The chapter writing process itself provides a powerful review, as it helps you construct a structure that transforms copious notes into coherent and compact form that is easier to review.

The next step of the process is to construct a chapter prompt sheet for each of these chapters. On the prompt sheet, record a basic outline for the chapter.

Finally, to review, do the following. For each chapter consider the corresponding outline. Load up your favorite word processor, and, using only the outline as a guide, attempt to type, from scratch, a new draft of the textbook chapter. Don’t peek at the original chapter.

Note, your goal is not to reproduce the exact wording of your original chapter. Indeed, every time you attempt a blind writing it might read much different. The key is to make sure you coherently explain all the ideas, definitions, connections, and discussions listed on your outline.

After your done, check your result against the original chapter; just like in the quiz-and-recall method, go back and try again later if there are areas where you had trouble.

Why This Works

For classes with a large volume of complicated, interconnected material, the advantages of this method are two-fold. First, condensing the material into textbook chapters reduces the amount of information to review. A synthesized chapter will be more succinct than a long multi-page list of the type of rapid-fire questions used in a technique like the focused-cluster method.

Second, typing the sample textbook chapter can prove quicker than trying to explain things out loud.The reason: it’s easier to express complicated ideas by typing rather than speaking. With typing, you can edit sentences, and go back and rearrange your structure as needed. When speaking, on the other hand, if the concepts are tricky and connected in intricate ways, you’re prone to getting tripped up.

Use With Discretion

This technique might be overkill in many situations. For upper-level classes, however, writing your own textbook from scratch, though somewhat slow, might still be the fastest way to actually master the material.

12 thoughts on “Monday Master Class: Conquer Complicated Material with the Mini-Textbook Method”

  1. From experience with a summer cell biology class that I am currently taking, I can say that after trying “Question Clusters,” the bulk of the information was not organized in a way that would accommodate the extent of the material in such a short time. However, the act of typing and sorting the information into clusters could very well be a benefit in itself.

    Maybe I will try this during a semester, but as far as this nearly month long summer class goes, I prefer/plan to understand and explain individual powerpoint slides (similar to the method explained in “How to Take Notes on Powerpoint Slides”). Besides that, I have answered model multiple choice (similar to those on exams) in order to flag areas or topics in which I should allocate more time.

  2. I am Occupational Therapy graduate student and currently taking 4 classes. Course work is generally anatomy/body mechanics focused. Each class has large volume of material to be read week. Typically we have an exam every 2 weeks. Is this particular method useful for this type of volume and course work?

  3. I might not be the best fit for high volume information. Do a search for “focused question cluster” in the search box to the right; my article on that might provide a better fit.

  4. I use a similar strategy when going over my biology notes. We’re given the PowerPoint slides the lecturer used, and after lecture I type up the notes using guidance from the textbook, and then I read the notes out loud, as if I’m giving the lecture myself. Questions that I’m confused about immediately pop up, and I ask my professor those questions later. For me, typing notes alone is okay, but I find it easier to come up with questions I have when I try to explain the notes out loud.

  5. Oh I do this ALL the time. But not the reproducing it from scratch bit though. Usually what I do is I combine the notebook method with this. But you’re right it might be overkill. :S

  6. Hi, I will be starting a *fast pace* nursing school next week and I have been looking up study strategies , retrieval cues, time management etc for over a month due to the fact of talking to other nurse graduates and hearing about the massive amount of rapid information and quizzes. I saw your post because its something I soon plan to use as one of my study tools. (Condense, condense condense). I know in the nursing programs they expect us to read huge chapters each night + lecture notes and + clincials. Know its impossible to try to keep up but I will try out in addition to my book list, have additional resources such as study guides and chapter summaries for what I’m studying. They are a condense version of key important facts. Then create a practice questions from my color-coded condense We will see how it goes.


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