Students: Don’t miss the opportunity for experimentation that accompanies the new pass/fail grading scheme!

In this post, I will talk about two things: (1) the incredible opportunity that exists to experiment with your learning methods in light of the pandemic, and (2) the system that I am implementing.

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced most colleges to shift their grading schemes from traditional A–F letter-grading to a more forgiving pass/fail structure. Some students are pissed—many are thrilled. Regardless of where you fall on the spectrum, it is important to recognize the incredible opportunity that accompanies this change. You have the opportunity to experiment with your methods of learning and there are almost no risks. Hear me out…

Think back to the beginning of a new semester. Did you get a feeling similar to the “new year, new me” excitement that accompanies a new year? Perhaps you considered taking a different approach to studying and learning? Here are some changes I’ve heard others contemplate (or considered myself): switching from written notes to typing, completing all assignments on the weekend, reviewing material immediately after class, making flashcards, strictly listening and not writing during lecture, utilizing supplements created by other professors, etc. You had this new-found energy during the first week of classes and you eagerly shared your new plan with others—right?! But then what happened? You likely reverted back to your comfort zone and continued with your old learning habits. Welcome to the club.

Why does this happen? The answer is likely different for each student, but I believe that fear of the consequences is a major factor for most. What if you change your system of learning and you end up disliking the changes? Worse yet, what if it leads you to fail?! This fear carries extra weight if you did well during a previous semester. We like safety and predictability. Changing the way we learn is hard and the changes may result in negative outcomes. BUT… if you are anything like me, you also know the inverse may be true—you may see positive outcomes! If we only had the chance to experiement without the risk of negative consequences….. 🤔🤔🤔🤔🤔🤔

WELCOME! The transition to a pass/fail grading scheme is what you’ve all been waiting for (you just didn’t know it). I encourage you to view the remainder of this semester as a unique laboratory for learning. Think about your systems. How do you prep for class? How do you take notes? How do you study? This isn’t the time to care less—it’s time to care more. Only you can decide what systems you want to test-drive—just make sure you grab the keys and get going. The remainder of this post will provide an overview of the system I am implementing!

Out with the old

Very few people are likely interested in hearing about my old way of preparing for class and prepping for finals, so here it is in a nutshell:

  1. Prepping for lecture
    1. Read the assigned textbook pages and take notes in a Google Doc
    1. book and laptop open simultaneously
    2. typing as I go—using black text
    3. bulletpoint format—using headings whenever possible
  2. During lecture
    1. take notes in the same Google Doc
    2. using red text so I know what came from class
  3. After lecture
    1. I could lie here but the truth is those notes usually sit in Google Drive until I need to study for an exam or complete an assignment
  4. Prep for exams/finals
    1. Create an outline by combining all Google Docs from the semester
    2. Go through outline from the beginning—reduce and revise content
    3. sometimes create mindmaps or flowcharts for the content
    4. After the outline is tidied up, just read from beginning to end again, and again, and again…. (I am realizing how sh$^@y my system was now that I’m typing it out 😂)

Key problems to address

I encourage you to write down the key flaws with your current system. These will help you develop a new system based on desired areas of improvement, rather than selecting a random system and rolling with it. Here are the problems I identified with my system:

  1. I don’t truly know what I wrote down from my pre-lecture reading once I’m actually in lecture.
  2. I don’t do anything substantive with my notes from lecture until I have an exam.
  3. I don’t remember what I learned in class beyond two weeks.
  4. I don’t have clean, concise notes that I can utilize to answer questions or complete assignments after the class concludes.
  5. I often see the “trees” well but lose sight of the “forest”.

My overarching goal is to develop a system for learning that enables me to enjoy the process, connect the dots, and either retain knowledge or have a system for quick refreshers.

In with the new!

I’m not going to spend a great deal of time consolidating all of the resources that I relied on when designing this system. Please know, however, that most components of my new system were borrowed and modified from others. Most of the steps are evidence-based and I am grateful for the those that have helped me.

In addition to listing each step of my experimental system, I’ll try to provide an image and a reason for implementing it.

1. Scope the subject

I used to dive right into a reading. Now, I take the time to review all headings and subheadings first. This adjustment has not only made the reading more enjoyable, but it has improved my retention of the material for lecture. When I started law school, I asked one of my mentor’s for his number one tip. His response: “Focus on the table of contents!” It only took me 1 1/2 years to truly see the value in this tip.

Reason: clarity, connecting the dots, and seeing the “forest”

Check out this section from the table of contents in our administrative law text. Without reading a single line of text, you can see how certain dots fit together in the larger image.

2. Take pre-lecture notes in Notion

This was a big leap for me. I have relied on Google Docs for years. Around six months ago, I started using Notion for personal projects (book notes, goal tracking, etc.). Then, Ali Abdaal sold me on the “toggle feature” for notetaking. The images below will show you the beauty behind this simple feature in Notion. There are so many reasons why love this change: (1) it helps me see the bigger picture, (2) I can expand the sections needed as the professor lectures rather than scrolling through pages of text, and (3) at the end of the semester, I will essentially have an interactive outline that can easily be revisited when questions arise.

Here is the condensed version of my pre-lecture notes for a given administrative law class:

Here is a partially-expanded version (each case can also be expanded):

3. Handwritten lecture notes

I am a major advocate for the use of technology in the classroom. My MacBook Pro and iPad are essentially permanent components of my person. I’ve been fighting the evidence that weighs in favor of handwriting notes over typing notes for quite some type. The keyboard just feels natural and the possibility of missing an important detail during lecture makes me nervous. I am, however, going to trust the evidence during this experiment of mine. I’m relying on Notability during class because it is my favorite app for handwriting notes and marking documents on my iPad. Here’s a random sample of some notes that I recently took during one of my law classes:

During lecture I am looking at my pre-lecture notes in Notion (shown in step two). Rather than adding directly to those typed notes, I am handwriting new content solely on my iPad as you can see above. I need to improve my organization when handwriting through the use of headings and titles. This improvement will aid me in my next step…

4. Revisiting and Revising

Step four is all about taking my handwritten notes from step three and adding them to my pre-lecture notes from step two. My goals include: (1) supplementing pre-lecture notes with any important notes from lecture, (2) eliminating or revising anything from my pre-lecture notes that was not necessary or incorrect, and (3) connecting the dots in my Notion notes to build the best possible outline for future use. I have two reasons for taking this step. First, the revision process will serve as another opportunity to learn the material. Second, I want to maintain a collection of my best notes for each subject—I can rely on these collections/outlines in the future.

5. & 6. Two steps to add

Now that my process for taking and revising notes is solidified, I need to focus more heavily on understanding the content. I will once again defer to Ali Abdaal at this point—he summarizes the evidence-based approaches clearly. My goal is to incorporate two methods to enhance my understanding and increase the length of time for which I remember the content.

  1. Testing myself. Ali calls this “active recall.” I am approaching my ninth year in higher education and I can attest that my ability to memorize something has become quite powerful. Reliance on that strength, however, is the exact problem that I am aiming to combat. Memorization may lead to impressive results on exams, but it does not lead to longterm retention. In fact, I can point to finals where I achieved a top-five grade in my class, but could not explain the material in detail one month later. This is a problem. Moving forward, I need to ask myself more questions. This step doesn’t have a specific place in the workflow, but rather should take place at every step. As I read, take notes, and review, I need to ask myself questions. The goal will be to learn the material well enough that I can explain it to a supervisor when he or she is the one asking questions.
  2. Repetition. Like many students, I devote energy to a given set of notes at two points: (1) in preparation for the lecture, and (2) for exams. There is only a limited number of days remaining in this semester, but my goal is to review notes more periodically moving forward. One of my professors once told me that it takes, on average, seven exposures to learn something and retain it. I believe this repetition will combat the negative consequences associated with infrequent note review. I will pair this strategy with the “testing” strategy noted above.

Conclusion

Learning is a skill that you can work on and improve. I hope you all take this opportunity to experiment—the risks are so low under the pass/fail grading scheme! I’ll leave you all with a quote from someone that I admire greatly.

The key to pursuing excellence is to embrace an organic, long-term learning process, and not to live in a shell of static, safe mediocrity. Usually, growth comes at the expense of previous comfort or safety.

-JOSH WAITZKIN

Enjoy the process,

Anthony

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