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WyzAnt Wants to Know: Preparing to go back to school

Got this topic from WyzAnt this morning: How should students prepare to
go back to school if they only have a few minutes to spare each day?

Good question.  I think it's important to spend some time thinking
about the big picture of the coming year and getting organized, so
that you start out on the right foot.  I believe it's a very
personal question, since as a student you have to decide what you
want to get out of the coming school year as opposed to the previous
one.  What areas did you feel you were lacking?  What are
you most excited about?  What are you least excited about or
most dreading? And why?

Here's something that doesn't occur to a lot of people: what format are you
learning in? I'm talking about two distinct things here – your
supplies and setup, and the way you approach classes. Let's look at
supplies and setup first. Think about your usual note-taking
setup - is there anything you'd like to change?  If you've been
using spiral notebooks but are finding you have to keep flipping back
and forth a lot while studying, for example, maybe you should try
switching to the flexibility of a three-ring binder.  That way
you can reorganize your notes to your heart's content, putting the
important notes together after the fact so they're easier to refer
to. This is also handy if you have a teacher who gives a ton of
handouts; you can punch holes in the handouts and put them into
exactly the right place in the binder. What about the paper
you're using?  If you feel like you're wading through reams of
notes to find the important bits, try switching to annotation-ruled
paper (paper with a little blank box down one side) and put the large
bullet points in the box and the detailed notes on the full sheet.
You can also put stars or asterisks in the box next to important
information so it's easier to find. Then studying will be a
quick matter of scanning the box and referring to the full sheet when
necessary.

Don't overlook the little things, either. One of the best decisions I ever
made in my academic experience was the year I switched from
traditional spiral notebooks to ones with the spiral on the top edge
rather than the left (sometimes called “steno” pads or
“stenographer's” notebooks). It sounds like a small thing, but
it meant my hand no longer hurt from sitting on the wires when the
notebook was flipped over. That in turn made it easier for me to
concentrate, since I wasn't thinking about how uncomfortable writing
was. Along the same lines, if you use a three-ring binder, consider
getting a clipboard and putting your looseleaf paper on it to write
instead of leaving it in your notebook. You'll avoid having to write
around those rings when you're on the back side of a sheet of paper
(or disrupting class by opening and closing the rings repeatedly to
remove each sheet), and you can simply transfer the completed pages
to the binder after class. I have found that both of these methods
have the added benefit of making me feel like I'm really taking
notes, rather than simply scribbling down everything the teacher
says. I can sit up and look around more easily, looking directly at
the teacher as they talk and then glancing down to write my short
reminder note about the topic.

This brings me to my second point: how are you approaching the class
itself? Making decisions about this sort of thing is much easier if
you know a bit about how you personally learn best. There are three
basic types of learners: visual, auditory, and tactile. Most of us
are combinations of these three, but usually one is dominant in some
way. Not everyone responds best to the “scribble down everything
he says without any pronouns” method of note-taking, and the
important thing is to make sure you remember the material, however
you need to do that. For example, I myself am a mostly visual
learner; if I can see someone solve a problem I can more easily solve
it myself, and I tend to think of things in a visual way. This made
me a stronger student in subjects where the material was visual, such
as mathematics and arts, and a bit weaker in things like history.
However, I have quite a bit of tactile learner in me as well, so I
found that in history classes, the act of taking notes was enough of
a reminder to me. I didn't actually need to look back through my
notes that much, since writing them down locked them into my brain.
Even if we got a handout with all of the information on it and I was
tempted to just refer to it, I made myself write out anything
important since I knew I'd remember it better that way. Auditory
learners learn best when they hear something said to them, so if that
sounds like you, you might try bringing a tape recorder to class (or
use the record function on a smartphone) to record the teacher's
lectures. Then you can play it back for yourself if you need to
refer to it later. Of course, some schools have rules about
electronic devices, so ask your teacher first if it's okay to bring
it in and explain why you want to.

Taking the time to think about these small things can make all the
difference later on. I've tried many different note-taking systems
over the years, and some work better for me than others. What works
for me might not work for you. You just have to experiment until you
find one you like. Take a field trip to the office supply store, and
just wander around the school supplies looking at all the options.
Maybe something will jump out at you. Eventually, you'll find the
method that works best for you.