Use your syllabus
By strategically analyzing your syllabus, you can determine the themes in a course, as well as your instructor's expectations for your approaches to the course material.
Consult with a Study Strategies Peer Mentor at the Student Learning Center to learn how your syllabus is a blueprint for your course. You can schedule a visit with a Study Strategies Peer Mentor by visiting the Strategies for Succes website.
Pre-read your texts and build on your prior knowledge
Successful readers actively engage in the reading process, making and testing assumptions before, during, and after reading.
Before you begin reading, pause to ask yourself what you already know about the topic at hand. Overview the text--how long is the section you are reading? Are there any review questions at the end? If so, try reading them first, so you can decide how to approach the text. Predict what you think the selection will say. When you're done reading, decide whether your prediction was true. If so, what helped you to predict accurately? If not, what information were you missing?
Applying these steps each time you read will help you to understand your course readings and will assist you in noticing themes and important points in your texts.
Strategically annotate your course texts
You will need to read many of your texts at Cal multiple times in order to fully understand and apply them.
Choose a highlighting or text-marking strategy that you can use in your initial readings so you will be able to find information and note patterns quickly in your future readings.
For instance, you might highlight key discipline-specific vocabulary in blue, important names in red, important events in green, and useful quotes in pink. If you highlight your history textbook in this manner, you will have an easier time seeking out specific information later in the semester when you are writing your papers and preparing for exams.
Or, you might highlight assertions in yellow, evidence in blue, and analysis in green. If you highlight a speech or persuasive article in this manner, you can begin to see the patterns that an author uses to convince an audience (for instance, ratio of evidence to analysis), and you can try to model a similar approach in your own writing in your chosen academic discipline.
Or, you might underline metaphors and similes, circle recurring symbols, and place check-marks in the margins where an author strategically uses rhyme or alliteration. If you highlight a poem or song in this manner, you can begin to compile evidence that supports your interpretation of the piece.
Implement a note-taking system
Having a note-taking system is especially important when you are compiling quotes and other evidence for your research papers. There are many strategies for organizing your note-taking to serve your research. For instance, you can:
1. Use notecards
Each time you find a fact or quote that you feel will help you in your research, you can list the information on a separate notecard, along with bibliographic information about your source.
Using notecards can allow you to group your evidence according to theme, and will allow you to easily locate your source when using a quote that you might have found some time ago. It will also allow you to keep track of useful information that you might not use in your current paper, but that you might want to use in future written work.
2. Use Post-its
Not only can you use Post-its as you would notecards, but you can also use different color Post-its to differentiate between different types of information or different topics.
For instance, if I am writing an Education paper on inclusive classrooms, I might use green Post-its for historical information about educational practices, pink Post-its for teaching strategies that support inclusive classrooms, blue Post-its for quotes from research that supports inclusive classrooms, and yellow Post-its for quotes from research that argues against inclusive classrooms.
Using Post-its in this way can allow you to easily organize your information by theme if you are a visual learner. If you are a tactile-kinesthetic learner, you can plot out your paper with post-its on a wall or desk, which will allow you to physically move and rearrange information until you have an effective structure for your essay.
3. Use Word
Word documents allow you to keep all of your materials on one place, make correcting, changing, or adding information easier, and make searching for specific information more efficient (notecards and Post-its do not have a “Find” function!).
Using Word can be both helpful and tricky! More often than you might think, students cutting and pasting quotes and evidence into their papers lose track of which information is theirs and which information was created by others. When this occurs and an attribution is left out, writers can find that they have unintentionally engaged in plagiarism.
To avoid this difficulty, incorporate color-coding and other visual cues in your Word documents. Compile your quotes and evidence in a separate Word document (let’s call this your evidence document), trying to organize by theme or main point whenever possible. Then, before opening a new document to begin your paper, highlight the entire content of your evidence document, and color the text pink, or some other eye-catching color. Keep the text highlighted, and change the font to 16-point. Now, when you are cutting and pasting information into your paper, outside sources will stand out.
Before creating your final draft, you will want to go to each of these pink, large-type sections of your paper and ensure that you have appropriately documented this material. Once you are sure that all outside information is appropriately referenced, you can highlight your whole paper and change the color of your text back to black, and change the size of your font back to 12-point.
Make use of office hours / email
If you are unsure about your instructor’s expectations or requirements, ask!
Before attending office hours, it can be helpful to write down your questions for your instructor in advance, and to take notes during your meeting. For additional clarification, you can follow up your office visit with an email clarifying your understanding of the requirements you discussed.
If you cannot attend your instructor’s office hours, check to see if s/he can schedule an individual appointment with you outside of office hours. If this is not possible, you can email her or him with specific questions or requests for clarification. Emailing as far in advance as possible and with questions that are as specific as possible will allow you to proceed with clarity as you begin your research.
Become part of a learning community
All authors benefit from having an audience for their work, and all scholars benefit from belonging to and interacting with a dynamic learning community.
The Student Learning Center (slc.berkeley.edu) provides free tutoring in Writing, Math/Stat, and Science, free mentorship in Study Strategies, free Interdisciplinary Writing Groups, and free Study Groups in the Social Sciences, Math/Stat, and Science, in addition to adjunct courses, workshops, and classes of interest to undergraduate students at Cal. Take advantage of the opportunity to learn in collaboration with other Cal students, and consider becoming a Tutor, Mentor, Workshop Leader, or Study Group Leader yourself: doing so is one of the best ways to support your own growth as an author and scholar at Cal!
Carolyn Swalina, Writing Program Coordinator
Student Learning Center, University of California, Berkeley
© 2011 UC Regents
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.