Constructing the Perfect Cheat Sheet: Part 2

After deciding what to include on a cheat sheet (see part 1 here), it’s time for steps 2 through 4 of the steps to constructing the perfect cheat sheet:

Step 1: Decide what information to include

Step 2: Organize the cheat sheet

Step 3: Condense the information so that it fits onto the cheat sheet

Step 4: transfer the information

Crafting the Perfect Cheat Sheet - A

A poorly planned cheat sheet

Even after getting rid of the unimportant topics, cramming an entire semesters’ worth of information on one 8.5 by 11” sheet is no simple task. To ensure everything fits, good organization and planning is key. Unfortunately, students don’t always do this. Instead, they create cheat sheets by starting at the top of a piece of paper, writing something, boxing it off, and then repeating this process until they are out of space (see image A). This scattered approach is ineffective not only because it is easy to run out of space, but also because trying to find anything quickly among the boxes becomes impossible. To make finding information easier, first decide on the page layout.

A simple layout involves dividing the page into equally sized boxes that correspond to the categories of organized information. For example, will you be organizing your cheat sheet by chapter? By units? By the type of information (equations, definitions, examples, etc.)? By verb tense? Use a system that makes sense to you and divide up the sheet according (i.e. if you have 6 chapters, do 6 or 8 boxes, if you have 3 major categories, try 3 or 6 boxes).

Now take a sheet of paper the same size as the cheat sheet and divide it up (as in B). Then map all of the essential information from step 1 on to some space in this draft (as in C). Don’t write the details in, but something like “timeline, first 2 years of WWII” or “3 laws of thermodynamics” or “chapters 2 to 5 definitions” works. Leave enough space for each topic while trying to fit every topic in. This method allows the cheat sheet maker to break a sheet down. Instead of trying to fit one course on one sheet, it is now possible to concentrate on fitting one chapter in one box. It is easier to see if you’re putting on too much information and allows for easier adjustments. Once you’re comfortable with  making cheat sheets, try out some other layouts. The pocketmod format is my personal favourite (hole and all).

Crafting the Perfect Cheat Sheet - Steps

Steps 2 through 4.

After creating the draft and ensuring that everything should fit, take a brand-new piece of paper and start transfer the information over (as in D). Write in point form, draw diagrams, make mind maps/concept charts/flow charts, and add tables. Follow the draft to fit all of the information in. If necessary, make some small adjustments. But don’t attempt to re-plan your entire cheat sheet while your’e in the middle of making it. That rarely turns out well. However, despite one’s best efforts, it may still be difficult to squeeze everything in. If that is the case, return to step 1 and see if it is possible to cut some things out or to summarize a topic more concisely. Be brutal and cut anything that is unnecessary. If there still isn’t enough space, write smaller and use acronyms. Of course, don’t write so small you’ll need a magnifying glass (don’t laugh! People have tried this and some profs ban magnifying glasses from exams). Trying to look like Sherlock Holmes is a sure sign that you’re not focusing on the right things (go back to step 1, do not pass go, do not collect $200). Conversely, sometimes you might find you have half a sheet empty. In that case, see if there are some useful details you would like to add. If you’ve done step 1 properly though, there shouldn’t be much, so leave the sheet alone! When using acronyms and abbreviations, define everything! v can be volume or velocity, MPS can be the marginal propensity to spend or save, and BoB can be the Battle of the Bulge or Britain. Things that seem clear when you’re making the sheet becomes confusing under exam conditions. It would be really unfortunate to lose marks over poorly-defined acronyms.

After transferring all of the information over, further annotate the page. Use numbers or letters to indicate order. Circle or highlight the equations and the key words. If you’re a colour person, use plenty of it. Make locating any piece of information on the cheat sheet as easy as possible. 

After completing the cheat sheet, do a practice or sample exam with your cheat sheet. While writing the practice exam, you may or may not need the cheat sheet. Why? Because making the cheat sheet is more important than having it. A lot information becomes internalized as you’re making the cheat sheet, so you won’t need the sheet when actually answering exam questions. However, if you bomb the practice final and don’t know a lot of the answers even with your cheat sheet, do another one or two practice exams. This will tell you if that exam you messed on was an outlier or the norm. If it seems to be an outlier, relax. Know that weird stuff can come up, and if you have time, try to cover your bases a little more. However, if the practice exam doesn’t appear to be an outlier, return to step 1 and see if you’re focusing on the right concepts. If you can’t tell if the exam is an outlier because you don’t have anymore practice finals, compare the exam content to the course content or the learning outcomes. Does the exam reflect the learning outcomes? If the practice exam does reflect the learning outcomes, your cheat sheet probably wasn’t focusing on the right content. Thus make another one. If the practice exam seems to be completely different from the learning outcomes (this is very, very, very rare), go see your prof! Explain that you think the practice exam is not a good representation of what you’re expected to learn (i.e. the learning outcomes) and ask them which one better represent the actual exam. If they refuse to tell you, ask them which one (practice exam or learning outcomes) they would focus on.

Sometimes it takes more than one try to make the perfect cheat sheet and that is a pain in the rear end. But some pain now will result in an easier time on the actual exam, and that’s definitely worth it.

Constructing the Perfect Cheat Sheet: Part 1

Biology Cheat Sheet 2

Yet another biology cheat sheet

Ever since I mentioned that the one page cheat sheet is one of my favourite study tools, I’ve gotten all sorts of questions about how to make a good one. Hopefully this two part tutorial will answer some of those questions. While the “perfect” cheat sheet varies from person to person, there are 4 simple steps to follow for making any cheat sheet: 

Step 1: Decide what information to include
Step 2: Organize the cheat sheet
Step 3: Condense the information so that it fits onto the cheat sheet
Step 4: transfer the information

Just a disclaimer before I start. A “cheat sheet” is a one page summary of a course’s content made as a study tool in preparation for an exam. Some courses allow such a a cheat sheet to be used on exams, but not all. DO NOT USE A CHEAT SHEET ON AN EXAM IF IT IS NOT ALLOWED (duh!). This post does not in any way support actual cheating.

I often make cheat sheets for exams in which they are not allowed (but I don’t bring them to the exams). Why? Because they are a powerful study tool. A cheat sheet forces its maker to evaluate the importance of every piece of information learned in that course. Furthermore, distilling a complicated topic down to its most basic parts really helps with understanding.

So what to put on a cheat sheet? That varies by course content. However, a good place to start is the course learning outcomes (make your own if your course doesn’t have one). Ideally, you’ll want to be able to answer every question based on the learning outcomes with the aid of your cheat sheet. Below are some suggestions for each course. These lists are not exhaustive, so add anything else that is relevant. As you can see, the word “important” shows up a lot. Not everything can (or should) be included, so really drill down to the major concepts. If some level of detail is necessary (e.g. you need to know the structure of each amino acid or the date of each battle), try to keep it to the bare minimum.

To decide whether to include something, I evaluate its “return on space” (ROS). ROS is a semi-objective measure of 1) how much use one can expect to get out of a piece of information and 2) the potential ramification of not knowing it on an exam. For example, in biochemistry, the different levels of protein folding and bonding types involved has a high ROS. This concept is fairly likely to be tested, especially as part of a longer written question, and not knowing it can lead to major loss of marks. The different structures of amino acids however, has a much lower ROS. A question is unlikely to ask about a structure directly, and if there is a question on structure, knowing whether the amino acid is hydrophobic, hydrophilic, or charged is probably sufficient. If you’re short on space, include the concepts with the highest ROS. In our example above, include more information on folding than on amino acid structure.

So what are some good things to include?

Memory-Intensive Courses

Biology/Earth and Ocean Sciences:
* The most important ideas
* Important definitions, terms, experiments, and structures
* Diagram of important processes with necessary annotations
* Comparison charts of different processes/experiments/functions

History and Related Subjects:
* Timeline
* Important people, battles, treatises, and dates
* Cause and effect relationships – e.g. this battle led to this treaty which affected this group of people. Pay extra attention if the effect extends to modern day

* Grammar rules (sentence construction, pronouns, etc.), verb tenses (conjugation) and any exceptions to rules
* Any special characters/letters/accents that don’t exist in English and how they’re used
* List of most important vocabulary words/verbs that are learned
* If in a literature class, also see advice about English courses

Problem-Solving Intensive

* Most important formulas (especially if they won’t be provided) and how to use them (clearly write out what variables mean what in each equation, or questions like “is that velocity or volume” will result in wasted time)
* Important laws, theories, or rules (don’t just copy out of the textbook, be able to explain these rules to your (real or imaginary) sibling in elementary school)
* Any math/derivation crucial to the topic
* Graphs or structures or elements/compounds/physical phenomenon

* Important theorems, proofs, rules, lemmas, derivations, theories, and formulae
* List of steps for solving difficult/troublesome problems
* Tricky concepts and mistake-prone questions and steps

* Important equations and graphs (label them carefully!)
* Prominent theories, who devised them, any assumptions made, and conditions in which they are valid/invalid
* Any particularly tricky concepts


* List of works and authors spelled correctly (make sure you know what kind of titles need to be underlined, italicized, or put in quotations)
* Major theme tying all of these work together
* Other themes or imagery specific to each individual or a few works
* A few potential essay topics as well as well as evidence to back up your position
* Most important quotes (usually quoted often by profs)

Regardless of what you decide to include, make sure that diagrams are annotated and variables clearly defined. A cheat sheet is useless if you can’t decipher what you wrote down!

Remember that you can usually put anything you want on a cheat sheet, not just course content! Do you always forget to do something? Is there anything particularly tricky that should be marked out? Do you need a reminder when you attempt to solve a certain type of question? Write you-specific instructions in! I’ve been known to put “read the f***ing question, “BREATH!” and funny cartoons (stress busters) on my sheet. Sure these things look ridiculous, who cares?

And voila, step 1 is complete. Now let’s move on to steps 2 through 4…

Poll Results

A big thank you to those who voted in the recent poll! Here are the final results:

First Poll Results

Poll Results

As the majority of people would like to see more study tips and tricks, I will make sure to keep writing more articles about them. In fact, stay tuned for a two part series on crafting the perfect cheat sheet coming later this week!

Happy belated father’s day!

Twitter Fun

SotN Twitter Page

Image "SotN Twitter Page"

I have an RSS addiction. Unfortunately, it is not an addiction I’ll be able to quit anytime soon (Is there an RSS anonymous?) Everyday, I click to my trusty Google Reader and inhale the latest articles from websites such as Lifehacker, Hack College, Study Hacks, I will teach you to be rich, Bargainmoose, xkcd, and a dozen other more. Yes, I have rather eclectic interests (and apparently people like to hack things). Often I’ll come across articles that I think SotN readers would enjoy reading, but that I don’t have time to write indepth discussion of (like in an FYI).

Enter twitter. For the rest of this month, I will attempt to highlight one article each day from all these sources that SotN readers might find useful. They could pertain directly to university or just be interesting or fun to think about. I hope you enjoy reading them! As usual, I welcome discussion, so feel free to tweet me back with your opinions.

What are you waiting for? Check out my twitter here!

Summer School Tips

Beach Umbrella

Image "Beach Umbrella" courtesy of Flickr User Steve Webel, Licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

It is finally starting to feel like summer! The sun’s shining and the temperature’s warm. Add in some Stanley Cup Fever and… well craziness ensues (*cues mad honking*).

For those unfortunate dedicated students in summer school, here are some study tips for making the most out of your time. After all, everyone wants to watch as the Canucks win the cup, right? 😛

The most distinctive part of summer school is its condensed structure. A course can be as short as 2 weeks with three hour classes each day and labs on top. Due to the short time frame, it’s generally fairly easy to retain the information learned near the beginning of the course around finals. Unfortunately, information overload is common. First, recognize it is impossible to retain everything from a three-hour lecture. Each person can only remember so much stuff in one sitting that that’s usually a lot less information than what is covered in one class. Focus on the key concepts and let the details go out of the other ear. Working too hard to remember the little details will end up obscuring the big picture. Furthermore, mental fatigue will set in and nothing from the latter half of the lecture, not even a major concept, will sink in. If the course is detail-oriented and everything the professor says could end up showing up on an exam, record the lecture and fill in the details later. However, don’t get into the trap of thinking “oh, I don’t have to pay attention, I can listen to the lecture later”. Not paying attention in class is a waste of time and a sure way to screw oneself over (if you didn’t pay attention in class, you aren’t going to listen to a recording of it after).

As the courses are short, it’s crucial to stay on top of the course work. Falling slightly behind is normal. Falling really behind is serious trouble. Missing or not understanding a week of summer school is akin to falling behind a month in the regular school year. If the professor starts making less and less sense in class, take a hint and hit the books. Usually, understanding the main ideas between each class is enough, but definitely use the weekends to get firmly back on track. If you’re weaker on the basics or is completely lost about something, go to TA/Professor office hours as soon as possible. Sometimes missing one tiny piece of important information can throw the entire course off whack. Don’t let it!

Assignments in summer school will likely be due in two days instead of two weeks. If the exams are very much like the assignments, really put in the time to do the homework well. The marks are irrelevant – gleaning information about the exams and ensuring that you’re on the right track is. If the assignments aren’t truly representant of the exams, take the homework seriously, but don’t stay up all night finishing them perfectly. The time invested won’t be worth the extra 10% of the 6% (or my favorite, 50% of the 1%).

Unlike the normal school year where there are at least 2 exams, summer school courses may have just one final that’s worth 80% of the grade. Don’t panic. Everyone’s grasping in the dark. Due to the lack of a midterm to learn from, the best thing to do is just to hunt down as many finals as possible. Summer school version are better, though normal school year versions are also valuable. Look at the format of the exam, the way the questions are worded, and the way the answer key is structured. Unless a course changes drastically, the format and the way the questions are worded will stay more or less the same. The way the answer key is structured illustrate how the exams are marked. If the answer key has mostly key words, then TA will mark by looking for those words and it’s necessary to make sure you really hit those words. If the answer key has mainly ideas or instructions to evaluate ideas, then ensure that the answers you put down are fully fleshed out with plenty of support from the course or the exam. Do a practice exam under exam conditions. Can you finish it? If yes, do another exam with only half the allocated time. If you only have one exam, do the same exam, but with only a quarter or a third of the given time. Can you finish the exam? If you can, then chances are the exam isn’t a time crunch. If you can’t, really, really watch your time on the final. Although I don’t have any hard statistics to back up this claim, I believe that summer school finals are easier or are scaled up more to compensate for the lack of a “trial run” (midterm).

Work hard, play hard. Enjoy the weather, and GO CANUCKS GO!

SotN Updates!

“The sky is falling, the sky is falling!” – Henny Penny (a.k.a. Chicken Little)

If you tried searching for Scratches on the Notepad on Google (and possibly Bing or Yahoo!) in the last couple of weeks, you might have found yourself mired in a tangle of broken pages, tags, and pages. No, SotN is not on the verge of collapsing, but there have been some structural changes.

If you look to your right –>
you’ll see that the categories and tags are better organized so you can find what you’re looking for quickly and easily by topic, timeline, or associated tags.

If you look up ^, you’ll find a new FAQ page for your reading pleasure. If you look to the right of that, you’ll find an Opportunities page with ways to get involved with SotN. Definitely check those out!

Over the next month or so, SotN will continue undergoing renovations. We’re definitely still open for business, but if you find yourself on pages that doesn’t exist, be patient. Come back to the homepage and try looking under the new categories or tags. If something is seriously broken, do let us know!

What do you think of the changes?

Enjoy the sunshine 🙂