Syllabi, Charts and Research Plans: Your Best Friends for Effective Information Management

Have you ever looked at a class syllabus for the first time and been absolutely shocked by the sheer volume of information you are expected to process? This is exactly how I felt when I first saw the syllabus for an urban studies seminar I’m currently taking. The class curriculum is stacked with dense articles, complex lectures and hundred-page textbook readings. How could I possibly manage, retain and use all of that material?

It turns out that that immensely overwhelming syllabus can actually be my best tool for successfully managing my workload.

This is my friend Morgan feeling very overwhelmed by all the material in her textbook, articles and lecture notes. We’ve all been there.

Recently, I attended a McGraw Workshop entitled Efficient Learning Strategies: Managing Large Amounts of Information. This hour-long session focused on exactly what worried me when I looked at my seminar syllabus: how to effectively approach classes that throw vast amounts of information at you. Nic Voge, the Associate Director of the Undergraduate Learning Program, led the workshop and helped the attendees work through common concerns students have about information management. These included being able to discern important information, make connections, summarize material and prepare for assessments—each of which is particularly pertinent for research-based classes and projects.

Nic began by explaining that if you want to easily access information, you need to “file” it logically. In other words, if you want to recall material quickly and methodologically, you must take it in in an organized and systematic way. He explained that to successfully file away information, transforming the concepts into pictorial representations like charts can be extremely helpful. But what should your charts look like? That’s where the syllabus comes in. Nic, who frequently meets with students and professors to discuss their class experiences, explained that the most common issue reported by both parties is one of miscommunication. Students work very hard but don’t focus on the pertinent information, which leads professors to believe that their students are not grasping the big picture of their curricula. Most often, the syllabus is the best place to turn to resolve this problem.

Class syllabi are highly organized, thought-out maps of the material. They show the class’s main objective and the route students take to get there. Thus the syllabus is an excellent tool for discerning the different themes of the class and deciphering what your chart should look like. For example, to create a chart for a comparative politics class, one could designate each row to be a different political school of thought, while columns could distinguish different characteristics (i.e. main ideas, values, origin, region of relevance, etc.) The labeling of the rows and columns is simply a function of the syllabus and the way in which it breaks up and navigates the material. Similarly, to make a chart for cataloging research notes, a research plan developed from the syllabus and assignment questions can determine the chart’s design. Here is a sample chart from my urban studies seminar that investigates the relationship between art and urban transitions in three neighborhoods.

Filling in such a chart as a course progresses is an excellent way not only to keep track of information, but also to track it in the way that your professor intends. Moreover, using the syllabus as a research plan for a paper or presentation is an excellent way to organize ideas and relate perspectives from different sources. When used for a research project, your chart can become a tool for methodized note-taking. Ultimately, laying out the material in this manner creates a great resource for forming connections between different readings and lectures, developing a broad understanding of the material and synthesizing information into a research project.

When interpreting a syllabus and creating a chart for information input, it is often helpful to ask your professors about how different pieces of information fit together. They are the ones who designed your courses and they consequently have the best sense of how you should approach, categorize and connect class material. With the help of your professor and an analytic breakdown of your syllabus, you can successfully take in vast amounts of information in a purposeful and helpful way. Taking the extra time to question how each reading fits into the larger picture can transform a class or research project from insurmountable to (relatively) manageable.

If you are interested in attending a McGraw workshop, you should visit the Princeton Undergraduate Research Calendar or go on the McGraw Center Website. Workshops are often most helpful when attended in conjunction with a one-on-one McGraw consultation, which can be signed up for here.

Emma Kaeser, Social Sciences Correspondent