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Q & A: Coming Up With Innovative Activities, Skimming Fiction, and Making the Morse Code Method More Studyable

From the reader mailbag:Questions and Answers

I read your article on activity innovation. Here’s my question: how do I find the “ultimate” activity for my field of interest? I mean, I look at the examples you give and think: “Wow, I would never have thought to do that.”

Cal responds:

Don’t expect to think up your awe-inspiring project from scratch. Instead, following the program laid out in my activity innovation article: you need to first gain access to the relevant insider world by joining a related club and then paying your dues. This will probably take at least a year. Maybe two. Just keep taking on projects and completing them.

As time progresses you’ll learn more and more about the insider details of this world. After you’ve paid your dues, you can then package some of this knowledge into a project custom-built to invoke the failed simulation effect in outsiders; i.e., defy their ability to explain how you did what you did. There is no shortcut here. You have to gain access and prove yourself first before you can think up the flashy stuff.

For example, you told me you’re interested in environmentalism. Let’s pretend that your college has a student club that publishes an environmental science journal. You join the club. For the first year or two, you climb the ranks; helping to edit and do layouts and sell ads. Eventually, you become an editor. At this point, one of your insider connections — let’s say the club’s faculty advisor — mentions that the college is hosting a big environmental science conference. He notes that it might be nice to have a student conference held at the same time. Because you’ve paid your dues, you jump at the chance and pull this together. You make it happen by using the access and connections you’ve built over your past two years in the club.

It would be hard for you to think up the conference right now, as a rising freshman with no insider experience. But two years into a club and holding a leadership position, such possibilities will abound.

From the reader mailbag:

I read your chapter from Straight-A about just reading the introduction and conclusion of your assignments and then skimming the material in between. That all seems well and good…but isn’t it only applicable to social sciences, hard sciences, or other non-fiction assignments with logical structures? With a few weeks before classes start I need to read The Odyssey and The Illiad, and a course I will be taking will be a humanities course in which I will have to read classic works which are also fiction. What do I do?

Cal responds:

You read the whole book. Carefully. And relish it. My advice is to find a quiet and contemplative environment. Preferably somewhere with wood paneling and musty old books. This will put you in the right mindset.

My tips for efficient reading, as you note, are only for non-fiction. If you’re taking a course that assigns literature, you have to read it.

From the reader mailbag:

I used the morse code method to take notes on my reading. How do I now study it? Do I put it into Q/E/C format or — gasp! — do rote review?

Cal responds:

For the uninitiated, the morse code method has you read an entire assignment at your natural pace without stopping. To take notes, you make pencil marks in the margin. A dot signifies “important point” and a dash signifies “detail related to the most recent important point.” The motivating idea is that more elaborate notations would slow down your pace, which leads to mental fatigue.

To study your morse code notes, you have to (eventually) go back and transform the dots and dashes into something more useful. My suggestion was to paraphrase in your notes the points indicated by the dots. For the dashes, also add a paraphrased note, but indent this with a bullet point to offset it from the relavent “dot” note. Typically, lots of internal editing occurs here. You’ll likely toss out 25 – 50% of your dots and dashes. Finally, try to throw in a question and conclusion around your points so that you can later study using quiz and recall.

Of course, this effort is only for articles you need to understand well; perhaps for an exam or a paper. If a passing familiarity is fine, don’t bothering taking any additional notes. Just skim your dots and dashes right before class to bring you up to speed.

6 thoughts on “Q & A: Coming Up With Innovative Activities, Skimming Fiction, and Making the Morse Code Method More Studyable”

  1. I have a little variation on the morse code method that helped me speed it up (and avoid having too much noise to sift through):

    1. I dot or hash at the start of the sentence (rather than the margin). I found this helped avoid having to search for the point on lines with many sentences. Also lets me mark inside sentences, near key phrases.

    2. As I go along, I write a four word blurb in the margin that sums up the paragraph. This helps me focus, minimize ‘clarifying’ dots and hashes, and easily find the key points that I want to record in detail.

  2. Cal,

    Do you recommend flash cards as the best way to memorize definitions of terms? (Religion course, all terms are in the book, but its not a textbook. The professor warned against looking up the terms because their definitions are specific to the context in the selected book.)


  3. Dear Cal, I have two dying questions I have been wondering for a LONG time.

    1. What can you offer/suggest to those whos reading comprehension isn’t as great, or “receptive” as some other smarter students? Re-read the text? Because currently I am a psychology major where all my classes assign a lot of reading, and sometimes I can’t always highlight the “RIGHT” information like my friends can. It’s a tad depressing.

    2. Second, do you recommend retyping highlighted readings into notes onto the computer into Question, evidence, answer format? Or would re-reading the highlighted/marked text be enough? Thanks!


  4. What can you offer/suggest to those whos reading comprehension isn’t as great, or “receptive” as some other smarter students?

    Don’t highlight the text. Instead, use a method that forces you to organize the information. For example, for psychology, you might, while reading a chapter, keep a few lists: definitions, theories, techniques, and record information under these three categories. This is just a sample, but the key is to take notes in a format that organizes the information in the way you need to know it for later tests. This is different than just highlighting the text and later trying to organize and understand it right before the test.


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