Quick Tips Part 1: Taking Notes in Class

By Stefanie Weisman

It’s back-to-school time!  I’m going to be posting a series of “quick tips” on this blog, to help you start the school year off right.

Here’s quick tip #1: When taking notes in class, make sure you use lots of symbols and abbreviations to record things quickly and efficiently.  Here’s a list to help you get started:

Symbol/ Abbreviation  Meaning
 + and, in addition to, plus
 –  except for, excluding, minus
 =  equals, is equal to, is the same as
 ∼  is similar to, is like, is about, resembles
 <  is/ has less than
 >  is/ has more than, exceeds
therefore, thus, because
leads to, results in, means, signifies
 ↑ gets bigger, increases, grows
Δ change in [something]
w/ with
w/o without
b/c because
ex. for example
vs. versus, as opposed to

You should also develop your own abbreviations for different types of courses – especially for long, complicated words that come up frequently.

And when the teacher uses multi-syllable words that take a long time to write, try to substitute them with shorter synonyms – for example, “means” instead of “signifies,” and “but” instead of “however.”

For more study skills tips, check out The Secrets of Top Students.


Can a Learning Disability Make You a Better Student?

In his new book David and Goliath, Malcolm Gladwell argues that having a learning disability can actually be beneficial.  I couldn’t agree more!  I wanted to share an article I wrote a while back about how my struggles with learning helped me become a top student. 

I was never officially diagnosed with a learning disability, but I often suspect I have one.  I struggled with listening comprehension throughout my academic career.  More often than not, I walked out of class having no idea what the teacher was talking about.  In science labs, I would stare blankly at the equipment in front of me because I couldn’t process verbal instructions.  In Spanish class, my ability to read the language far exceeded my listening skills.  Sometimes I hated going to school because I felt like I learned nothing there.  And yet, I managed to become valedictorian of Stuyvesant High School, one of the most competitive public schools in the country, and graduate first in my class from Columbia University.

How did I do this?  By using techniques familiar to many learning disabled students: hard work, perseverance, and playing to my strengths.  Ironically, my learning weakness may have contributed to my academic success.

I learned at an early age that my reading ability was far better than my listening comprehension.  Since I didn’t absorb much during class, I took extremely detailed notes so I could review them at my own pace.  I became a speed-writer by using my own brand of shorthand to record every tidbit of information, while most of my classmates were satisfied with a skimpy outline.  I think this really worked to my advantage.  According to a 1968 study by John McLeish, students remember only 42% of the information in a lecture by the time it ends, and only 20% a week later.  My classmates may have understood the lesson while it was being given, but when test-time rolled around, most of that understanding had evaporated.  I, on the other hand, knew the lecture better than ever because I had reviewed it several times.

I also relied on textbooks and other written material to explain what I had failed to grasp in class.  Books were my primary teachers, especially in high school.  I read complex passages over and over again until they were permanently etched in my brain.  I also took extensive notes on reading assignments to reinforce what I read.  These notes became invaluable for things like participating in class discussions and writing papers.  Whenever I wanted to support an argument, I could quickly look at my notes instead of desperately flipping through books to find some half-remembered fact or quotation.  All of this reading and note-taking was time-consuming, of course, but it forced me to develop a strong work ethic.

I also turned down offers to join study groups, since I knew I wouldn’t absorb information in such an environment.  I believe that this made me a more independent learner.  While many of my classmates asked one another for explanations and clarifications (and were often given faulty information), I would examine my books and go to the teacher’s office hours for help.  In college, I often took courses that complemented my learning ability.  For example, I took Latin classes to fulfill my language requirement because they focused on reading instead of oral comprehension; and I majored in history in part because it emphasized the analysis of written texts.

I believe that by compensating for a weakness, I became a stronger student overall.  I sincerely doubt I would have been at the top of my class if my listening comprehension had been better.  There are two things I hope you take away from this: (1) everyone’s needs are different, and you must find the method of learning that works best for you; and (2) learning disability comes in all shapes and sizes, and may be found in those you least expect.

Stefanie Weisman is the author of The Secrets of Top Students: Tips, Tools, and Techniques for Acing High School and College.

4 Ways to Survive School Even If You Don’t Have a Time Machine (Guest Post)

Alexandra Harmening is a recently graduated writer who loves avocados and is currently living 365 Days of Pride and Prejudice.

While trying to squeeze my undergraduate degree into three years, things often seemed more than a little bit hectic. I frequently informed professors that I was working on discovering how to be in two places at once. But that one never really panned out.

Sometimes it is hard to keep your sanity as a student. From homework to internships to some semblance of a social life squeezed in between, the undergrad years brim with busyness. Fortunately, there are four healthy habits that can help students survive school and still succeed, even without a time machine.

The author giving her valedictory speech.

The author giving her graduation speech.

1. Jumpstart Projects

One of the only ways that I made it through school with my grades intact was starting papers and projects as soon as they were assigned. For my senior these this meant breaking ground on research six months early. For end of the semester papers, this typically meant checking out resources from the library during the first or second week of school.

Working ahead is probably the inverse of a common collegiate plague called procrastination. Where procrastinating leaves you sleepless and stressed for the last month of school, completing projects ahead provides time for editing, sleeping every night, meeting to consult your professor, time to print out the paper and freedom from stress during finals week. (In fact, finals week used to be my favorite because by then everything was almost wrapped up—well, except for exams. Sound crazy? I dare you to try it.)

2. Sleep  

“There’ll be time to sleep when we graduate,” friends and I would tease as we typed furiously. Unfortunately, sleep is easily overlooked in the long list of assignments to check off during the day. But most of the time, it is easier to pause in the middle of a project, go to sleep and wake up with a fresh brain and new ideas in the morning.

Complex brain functions such as updating working memory, planning, attention, sense of time, dealing with novel situations and verbal fluency are dramatically affected by sleep-deprivation because the brain is forced to overwork, notes Jim Horne, PhD, who directed a sleep research laboratory at England’s Loughborough University.

“Sleep deprivation is bad for your brain when you are trying to do high-level [thinking] tasks” confirms University of California, San Diego researcher and author Dr. J. Christian Gillin. And sleep deprivation “may have serious consequences both on performance and on the way your brain functions.”

The lesson here: sleep is probably more valuable than we give it credit for being as college students. And in some cases, the key to success on that test tomorrow morning might actually be crashing on your pillow rather than enduring a caffeine induced all-nighter.

3. Know When to Say No

The trickiest thing about college for me was all of the amazing opportunities that sprang up each and every week. I wanted to grab them all in case it was the last time anyone ever asked me to be on the library committee or go on a hike or play in the pit orchestra for the spring musical or work as a part-time tutor or join student government or go out for coffee or—you get the picture. But one of the greatest life lessons that you can start learning while still in school is when and how to say, “No.”

Not to sound like a homework Nazi because it really is important to work towards a balanced life with fun activities and breaks, but there are too many possibilities to answer yes to them all. Unless, of course, you have a time machine.

Identifying your goals for coming to college is a realistic way to begin checking your list of commitments and deciding what are valuable priorities and what can actually be cut. This might be painful, and it doesn’t mean that you can’t ever be involved in amazing and enriching extracurriculars. It just means that you can’t be a member of every single school club or work three and a half jobs while taking 18 units. 


4. After a Hard Day of Writing, It’s Good to Write Some More

When you’ve spent the last seven hours writing, memorizing, reading and then writing some more, it is great to relax with a little more writing. Yes, that does sound crazy, but if you are a writer, then you probably know what I mean.

The idea here is to make time for your passion because sometimes, in the midst of pursuing a degree in the subject you love, it becomes easy to forget why it matters and what there is to like about it.

For me, this manifested itself in scribbling out thoughts for my own blog once a week called My Year with Elizabeth Bennet. It was a great way for me to unwind and process while remembering why I was majoring in English.

Now, an engineering major might feel that sitting down to write is one of the most stressful activities I could suggest. But taking an afternoon to pull apart a VW Bug and then reassemble it on the roof of the dorm building might sound amazing. Finding a creative outlet, one that won’t be graded by your professor at the end, is a positive way to unwind and rest. It’s any kind of practical return to your first love that you can invent.

There is probably no one formula for success that any student at any school can download to automatically work. But remembering the basics or sleep, planning ahead, setting priorities and returning to your interests will hopefully help you to find an efficient balance for your college years. And maybe after graduation, you will have developed the skills to start building that time machine.

Give yourself the gift of great grades.  Order your copy of The Secrets of Top Students today!

Hey, tigers, leave them kids alone!

I’m happy to announce that my article Taming the Tiger of Achievement is up on the New York Times blog SchoolBook.

The term tiger mother comes from Amy Chua’s book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. You’ve probably heard about the shocking techniques she used to get her kids to excel in school – such as forbidding them to go on playdates, calling them “garbage,” and demanding that they be the #1 student in every subject except gym and drama. Well, my article argues that most top students don’t have tiger mothers criticizing their every move. Their folks are supportive without being pushy. The most successful students tend to be those who are self-motivated, not forced to do things by mommy and daddy.

By the way, in this article I talk about a survey I’ve given to top students. If you or someone you know would like to participate, click here.

What do you think about the tiger mother phenomenon?

Give your child the gift of great grades.  Order a copy of The Secrets of Top Students today!