Studying in the age of COVID-19 – a guide for high school kids

I am the proud father of two teenagers. And I see them suffering through the challenges of studying in the year(s) of COVID-19. In Flanders, we have defaulted to 50% in class and 50% at home learning. And it is during the at home learning that both my son and my daughter suffer. I know these challenges can be overcome and it will be important to overcome them. Like any parent I want my children to have all the possibilities when it comes to higher education.

That is why I devised the following method, which is a combination of how I used to study and learning insights from people like Tiago Forte. It aims to address the challenges of dealing with increased amounts of information in a 10th and 11th grade in Belgian high schools (4th and 5th year in Belgian terms.) If you have a high school kid who is suffering from the impact of the COVID-19 virus as far as studying is concerned, this may be a way to help her or him. Let’s dive in.

Manual note taking is part of the solution

Not too many children nowadays take notes by hand. If they take notes at all, they type or text. For this, the tools at their disposal are many, but few of these tools have the cognitive advantages of pen and paper. There are multiple studies that prove that what was learned while making cursive notes remains longer with the student than what they learned while typing on a keyboard or worse, while reading or browsing the handbook. Cursive writing induces cognitive processing, which is essential for longer term recollection.

However, writing in cursive in a notebook has certain limitations. One of them is the sequential structure which remains imposed on you, unless you start tearing pages out of that notebook. A slipbox with index cards can solve that challenge, when used correctly. Let’s look at how you could use these tools.

The slip box method for studying in high school

Because writing is in my opinion the best approach, I recommend using a slip box and index cards.

The general idea is to capture the essential bits of information offered by the teacher as soon as possible in these index cards which you can then use afterwards to anchor these ideas in your head. From these ideas, reconstructing the subject matter taught becomes a lot more feasible.

The slip box method imposes a strict rhythm as to processing what was taught as soon as possible after it was taught. I remember telling my students that anything I taught them needed to be processed and ideally applied within the next 48 to 72 hours or it would lose a large part of its relevance. I remain convinced that to be the case, which is why I insist on processing as soon as possible. And the firsts step to do this is to summarise what the teacher has offered you.

Phase 1 – Summarisation

In an ideal setting, you’ll have a handbook, a book with exercises where relevant and your notes from the class. The fact that you have notes does not mean that you have learned anything. All you have are captured ideas and information in a book. You need to get that information in your head. Tiago Forte, whom I refer to above, came up with a method which he refers to as progressive summarisation which helps you to create hooks in your mind to hang the information on for later retrieval.

I’ve adapted progressive summarisation to allow for easy integration on index cards.

  1. Before class, make sure that you have an overview of what different subjects you will be studying in that specific class. You need to have an overview and be able to point to what the specific subject you will be discussing today is part of. Think of it as a map … a view of what that specific teacher wants you to know. This can be as simple as an index of all the subjects you will be covering this year. You could for example contact your teacher and ask them. They may be pleasantly surprised by the level of interest you have.
  2. Then attend class and try to focus on what is being offered and take notes. It’s important to note that these notes do not need to be hyper structured. This is what you gather in class, not what you will be studying after. I have seen too many people learning from their class notes which are not processed notes.
  3. After class or in the evening, gather your notes from the day and open the handbook and the exercise book to the relevant pages. For me, what works is to have those things and nothing but those things and my slip box and index cards on my desk. You do you, but make sure there is nothing to get you distracted.
  4. You go through your notes and through the handbook with a pencil and you underline the most important elements of the text. This could be a definition, a concept, an idea. You need to be thorough in your reading, and take the time to understand what is being discussed. If you are studying math, this means working through a proof. If you are studying history, it means understanding why that specific event or situation is worth mentioning in the class. That means that you need to understand what the class was all about.
  5. Now, in your own words and in your head or aloud, try to tell or teach yourself what you have learned. This will allow you to check whether you have the storyline. A mathematical proof has a storyline. History has a storyline. Languages don’t always, but language theory has. The point here is not to be complete, the point here is to see if you get the point.
  6. Now, go through the text again, focusing on the underlined parts, and highlight, with fluorescent marker, the most important parts. Which elements will allow you to remember the storyline? What do you need to reconstruct the knowledge later? I know you cannot use marker in a school handbook. Take a photograph of the page and mark that page. Keep it in a binder afterwards.
  7. Now, copy that highlighted information on an index card. I’ll describe the index card below. Then put these elements around the specific subject in your own words.

I can feel the resistance of young people reading this … that, Ben, is a lot of work. But let’s be clear, studying is a lot of work and once you get past the 9th grade, you will not be able to do everything based on your intelligence and your powers of recollection. Not in Belgian education you will not.

But there is a quite positive counterpoint to this … a course of 50 minutes, of which Belgian students have about 8 per day and 4 on Wednesdays, contains likely about 15 minutes of new material, 15 minutes of first repetition of this new material, and 20 minutes of exercises and illustrations. That may vary, and history for example may contain more new material but in general the division will be about that. That means that each full day you are required to capture and process 8 x 15 minutes or 1 1/2 hour of new material. Once you know how to, that will take you 1 hour per day in the evening. It may appear a lot of work but it will reduce the work during the preparation for tests and exams.

Phase 2 – Preparing the index card

I’ve added a picture of the structure of an index card. There is a lot of information on an index card, but each of these elements plays a key role in learning and retention. Let’s review them.

Reference 1 refers to the title of the card. This captures the subject the card treats. This could be for example the title of a proof, i.e. “Pythagoras’ theorem”

Reference 2 is an index, listing the course, the specific subject within that course, and the number of the card. For the card numbering, I would suggest to use a sequential numbering per course. This will allow you to sort your cards when it is time to repeat.

Reference 3 are the highlights you have made in fluorescent marker as described earlier which you copy onto the card. You capture everything you need but try to keep it to one idea per card. Pythagoras’ theorem is one idea, trigonometry is not. Consider that each idea is a separate question that can be asked on a test or an exam. “Give the proof of Pythagoras’ theorem” is a valid exam question. “Explain trigonometry” on the other hand is not.

Reference 4 indicates that where relevant, you need to try to explain the idea in your own words. For example, “the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria in Sarajevo in 1914 led directly to World War I because as a result, Austria-Hungary declared war on the Kingdom of Serbia” on an index card for History – World War I – 001 is a good explanation of how you have absorbed the idea.

Reference 5 points to source which indicates where you have gotten the information from. This is the relevant page in the handbook, your notes, but it must allow the card to be linked to the source material. This will allow you to dig deeper in an efficient manner when you need that, for example when you don’t feel comfortable with what is on your card.

Reference 6 is only used if you need more than one card to capture an idea. A proof, for example, may require more cards. Always choose more cards instead of reduced legibility. The purpose is not that you need to try to decipher your own writing when studying.

And finally, reference 7 can be found on the other side of the card, and that is the only thing that you can ever find on the other side of the card, are the questions that the teacher could ask on the exam regarding this card, the revision questions. There may be more questions, and I suggest that if you have had a test on the subject, you try to remember the questions asked to complete this list of questions. We will use this during repetition.

Phase 3 – Using the slip box

Over the weeks, you will be gathering more and more cards. For the courses you get in high school, I would be surprised that you would get more than 5 cards per hour in content. At university, this can go up to 10 to 15 cards per hour. University is more work than high school.

Now, and this is the value of the slipbox, you make a planning to repeat a set number of cards per day for your courses. You plan out your courses on a weekly basis. High school covers about 10 different exam courses per year which means that you can repeat two courses each day. Say for example on Monday you repeat Math and French. On Tuesday Physics and English, on Wednesday Chemistry and History, and so on …

Every day you pull out 10 cards at random from the stack for the course you are repeating, and you read the question on the back side of the index card and try to answer the question. Ideally you write your answer down. Then look at the answer. If you answered correctly, reward yourself with a positive thick mark and put the card at the back of the stack for that course. If you did not answer satisfactorily, put a cross on the question side of the index card and put it back in the pile of questions you need to repeat.

Initially, this will take time, but the more you engage in phased repetition, the better you will get. There is an element of deliberate practice because you focus your repetition on those cards you are least comfortable with.

Phase 4 – Preparing for the test or the exam

Prior to a test or an exam, gather all the cards that pertain to the test or exam material and review them. I would suggest to go through the questions first, because if you review the content on the front of the index card first, your short term recollection may give you a false sense of security.

Put the questions that you answered correctly in one stack, the ones that you did not on the other, review the index cards in the latter stack first, going back to the source material. Then go through those questions again, until you feel comfortable with your answer.

Then repeat the cards you answered correctly, ensuring you have all the information in your head.

What is this good for?

The approach trains the high school student to work the material. And that is what studying is … you are not a sponge, you should process the material and make it relevant to you. I know that is hard for subjects that you don’t care for, but it is a process, a practice. And processes and practices, when virtuous and repeated, bear fruit after a while.

What about languages and mathematical exercises?

For vocabulary, put as many words as you can learn in one go (4 to 6) on one side of the card, and the translation on the other side. The same goes for expressions. The information on the card should be absorbable.

For conjugations, put the entire conjugation on a card.

For math exercises, I would suggest that you make cards with all the exercises that you have trouble with … by repeating them and reviewing the exercises, you engage in deliberate practice, which will make you good at what you may not be good at now.

What to do after a test?

Ideally, you try to remember the questions and you add them to the backside of the relevant index card. If you get a test back and you have mistakes, add the correct information to the card. Your cards should evolve to become the reference for your studying.

Which slip box and which index cards?

There are ample slip boxes available on Amazon. I have purchased wooden ones for my children. I use A6 index cards. They are small enough to handle and big enough to hold the ideas the children get exposed to. You can find the links to what I purchased in the text above.

Are there digital tools for this?

Yes, but then you forgo the advantage of cursive writing. There is Roam Research, but that is a costly solution which may be overkill for high school students. If you were to use this approach at university, I would recommend Roam.