Study Skills Series: SQ3R

by Robert Craig, University of Bristol Law School

[The introduction to the series can be found here]

One widely recommended way to try to distil complex texts into notes is called “the SQ3R method”. It means “Skim, Question, Read, Recall, Review”. Some of you may find it useful, but – again – don’t force yourself to do things that don’t work for you. In essence, the SQ3R method means you first Skim the whole chapter and make a note of the main section headings, so you have an overview. Then you ask yourself (“Question”) what you are trying to get from the material – try to identify a few main things you want to know after each subsection. Then you Read a small section of the chapter – say 3-4 pages – without taking notes. Then you look away and Recall the main points. Then you Review those points by writing down the main points in your own words and from memory. This is crucial. Don’t write out what the author of the textbook said. And try to use simple, clear sentences. Also consider using the dictation tool on Word – my note taking improved massively when I started using that.

What is quite hard is that you do not know which are the main points, precisely because you have not done the reading yet. It’s a vicious circle in some ways. But what should help is the other resources we give you such as asynchronous presentations or the full cohort synchronous meetings.  That should give you an overview. But most importantly, try not to get bogged down or “caught” by the material. Keep moving as quickly as you can. Push on. Read lightly.

Another thing some people find useful is spider grams. This forces you to identify each subtopic and then write 3-5 bullet points summarising those areas. And they are much easier to revise from. If you just have a pile of notes from writing out bits of the textbook then in the revision period you might well wonder whether you should just read the textbook again, which can be a rather deflating experience – at least it was for me. Think ahead as to what might actually be useful to you when you revise. You will thank yourself later. Punchy, clear, simple and efficient notes in your own words are far more useful later than pages of seemingly random sentences copied out from the textbook.

Read more or read in depth?

Many students wonder if it is better to read slowly and thoroughly or read more but not necessarily understand every point on the way. Again, this is a personal decision. Some people just cannot move on if they don’t get something. I am certainly like that normally. But do consider the option of reading at least some of the material without taking notes and without trying to get anything more than the main points. Blogs are a great example of this (e.g. https://publiclawforeveryone.com/ and (https://ukconstitutionallaw.org). Skim some of the older posts. You can follow me on Twitter too, if you like, I mostly try to confine my tweets to constitutional stuff (mostly… but with the odd massive row with people who are wrong) – its @robertcraig3.

But the point about reading is a wider one. You need to learn to read cases quickly as well, for example. I suggest 15-30 minutes maximum per case. Skip the facts – get them elsewhere – just read the key bits of the decision. One of the bonuses you can find with cases is that the judge sometimes summarises the area of law really quickly and that can be really helpful. Finally, you will see that we recommend some further reading which usually consists of articles written by academics in the field. Do not take notes on these. It is far better that you just read them as fast as you can and see what sticks. You might be surprised how much you remember. Try to limit yourself to 30 minutes each, maximum, on academic articles. Then maybe do a quick spider gram or quick list of the main points.

What is much more important, however, is that just by reading blogs and articles, really quickly, you force your brain to “stretch” itself. Detailed, laborious line-by-line notes are like training wheels on a bike when you were little. Useful in one sense, but you need to get cycling, quickly, on your own, as soon as possible, at least some of the time. If you want to learn and understand something, the evidence is crystal clear that it is repetitively grappling with concepts that works. That’s why cases, blogs and articles are so exponentially useful – each time you read someone else explaining similar things to you, it reinforces your understanding and makes the concepts more likely to stick. Once through the textbook ain’t going to cut it, I’m afraid.

The earlier installments in the series can be found here and here.

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