By Dr. Michael R. Ball
Does This Sound Familiar?
You have been given an assignment of thirty pages in your sociology text book. You bravely sit down in a comfortable chair, look at your watch, and open the book. Upon finding the correct chapter, you page to the end and insert your finger as a goal marker. Returning to the beginning, you start to read, word by word, occasionally glancing at your watch and wondering how time could possibly be passing so slowly. As you read the information, it seems to make sense to you. You pour over the numerous examples and may audibly "hummm" at interesting passages. When you have finally finished the reading you think, "Boy, I'm glad that's finished." You have the uncomfortable feeling that you can't consciously recall all the details, but tell yourself that you have the general idea. You promise yourself that you will re-read the chapter before the exam.
Several weeks later, it is time for an exam. You study your notes and look at the main headings in the text chapters, concentrating on the pictures. Upon taking the exam, you imagine that you must have either bought the wrong book for the course or that you are the subject of some bizarre psychological experiment to test your frustration level. You read questions that sound vaguely familiar, but are unable to recall the proper answer. Other questions have no meaning at all. You tell yourself that the course is exceptionally difficult and that the instructor is purposely choosing obscure questions in an attempt to trick students into failing.
The truth is that most teachers have a vested interest in seeing their students succeed. For the most part, questions are chosen from the central points of the readings and are designed to test, not your memorization of trivia or obscure examples, but the major concepts presented. Unfortunately, many students have not been trained to ferret out the necessary points. Although they may be relatively bright students, they do not have the study skills to master the material. Fortunately, there are a few tricks that might help you to study sociological and other types of books.
The S Q 3R Method
The SQ3R method is relatively easy to learn and something you can start on immediately. It is an acronym for the steps involved in the process: Survey, Question, Read, Recite, and Review. Here's how it goes.
1. Survey: Don't jump in blindly and start reading. How do you know where you are going if you don't look ahead. Instead, look through the chapter and read the headings and subheadings. Try to pick out no more than two or three major points that will be developed. For example, a chapter dealing with the economy could be broken down into sections on "historical economic systems," "modern economic systems," and "work in the United States." This breaks the chapter down into several smaller units and makes it more manageable. Some texts have final summary paragraphs which make the organization of major concepts easier. This step should take only a few minutes but will greatly help you organize what you are reading.
Question: Now you can get down to work. Turn the first heading into a question. This will help to define the reason for your reading as well as helping to recall information that you already possess. For example, the heading "Preindustrial Economic Structures" might become "What are preindustrial economic structures and how do they function?" Although this is a fairly simple operation, it must be done consciously, and carefully.
Read: Read the section following the heading to find the answer to your question. You should not read ploddingly along, attempting to memorize everything in the section, but read specifically to answer your question. This is often difficult when interesting examples present themselves, or other information distracts you.
Recite: After you have read the section, look up from the book and try to recite the answer to your question. Try to use your own words and choose an example that will help to clarify the answer. At this point you may want to jot down key phrases or words in the margin of your book or on a note pad. Try to limit this to a word or two for each section.
Review: When you have finished the lesson, you need to take a few minutes immediately to review. This will help you to get an overview of the chapter you have just read. You should look at the chapter headings and cover the text and notes. Attempt to recall the points under the major headings and try to recall the answers to the questions that you asked in step 2.
Additional Comments on SQ3R
Survey: Do not spend much time surveying material. This is intended only to give you an overview of the lesson and put what you are about to read into perspective. It should take no more than a minute or two. You may want to practice surveying some magazines or various textbooks, trying to determine what the chapter or article will cover, and make guesses as to what the material will actually say. Check to see if you were right.
Question: Most freshman and sophomore texts have headings and subheadings which are well displayed. As you get into more sophisticated books, however, this will not be true. In this case, the SQ3R method is still usable. Since the first sentence of a paragraph is usually an introductory sentence, you should be able to turn it into a question. For example, "All societies must deal with the problems of producing and distributing goods" might become, "how do societies deal with problems of producing and distributing goods?"
Read: Be sure to read to answer your question. It is much more difficult than it sounds, since many interesting examples and ideas present themselves.
Recite: You may either mentally review the material or write it down. While writing is usually more effective, it is time consuming. If you choose to mentally review the material, you must force yourself to work through the details and not settle for a vague feeling of knowledge.
A note on notes: Taking proper notes takes practice. Following these simple rules will help. First, do not take any notes until you have read the entire section. Second, you should limit note taking to one or two key words or a short phrase. Third, jot down notes from memory. Never copy sentences or phrases from the book. Taking lengthy notes or copying verbatim sentences is usually counterproductive since it interrupts the train of thought and encourages rote memorization. Finally, do not use a highlighter. Besides being distracting, they encourage non-selective highlighting, and create confusion in the review process.
Review: Before you get up to make yourself a sandwich, you need to spend another five minutes to review the lesson. You may be tempted to skip this step all together, but it will return much more than the few minutes that you invest.
Test Taking Tips
Even students who study well and are well versed in the material sometimes do poorly on tests. The following tips may help to feel more confident when test time comes.
1. Don't cram for tests. Study in short intervals of 50 or 60 minutes each. You will learn more that way and be able to retain it longer.
2. Arrive well organized, ready, and sufficiently early for the test. Rushing to class can often produce anxiety which will prevent good test performance.
3. Read, or listen carefully to the instructions. Although you think you know what is going on, you may lose points by failure to answer all required questions in the manner requested. If you don't understand, ask.
4. Quickly scan the test to get some idea of the make-up and time you will need for completion. Plan a time schedule for completing the various sections of the exam and stick to it.
5. When answering multiple choice questions, read the question and try to think the answer out in your head, then look for it among the options. If you don't see it, then read each answer as if it were a true-false test, and choose the one that is true.
6. Go through the test quickly, answering only those questions that you are sure of. Mark those that you don't know and come back to them. This strategy will help you in several ways. First, it will ensure that you answer all the questions that you know before time runs out. Second, it helps to relieve test anxiety. Third, it gives you exposure to information that may be useful in answering other questions.
7. After you have completed all the questions that you know, return to the unanswered ones. On multiple choice questions, use the process of elimination. Eliminate answers that you know are incorrect. If you still cannot answer it, come back to it on the third pass through.
8. Be sure to answer all the questions. If you are unsure, guess. By narrowing the possibilities you improve your chances of guessing the correct answer.
9. Read all the choices. Even if the first answer looks right, the last choice might be "all of the above."
10. In the case of an essay test, calculate the time you will spend answering each question on the basis of its relative value. Outlining your answer on scratch paper first will save time and will keep you on track.
11. Don't be disturbed by lapses of memory. Often, if you move on to other questions, the answer will come back to you.
12. Don't be disturbed by other students leaving. There is NO correlation between time taken to finish tests and scores received. Often those who leave early have given up and guessed at most of the answers.
I Get A's In Math, But D's in Soc.
Many students who do well in courses in mathematics, engineering, and chemistry do poorly when attempting courses in sociology. One of the reasons for this is the different nature of the subject matter. On the one hand, courses in the physical sciences require memorization of lists of formulae, and specific application of these formulae to standardized sets of problems. There are usually black-and-white answers that should be obtained through the correct use of these scientific concepts. On the other hand, sociology stresses the application of theory and somewhat abstract concepts to gain a greater understanding of social phenomena. It is often said that sociology is more concerned with formulating the proper question than in obtaining "the answer." There are seldom black-and-white answers to social questions, and students are evaluated on their ability to understand and apply abstract theoretical concepts.
In addition to the previous suggestions for reading and understanding the assigned material, you should be aware of some facts about sociology and sociological thought. First, Sociology, like many other sciences, uses a number of "jargon" words to express complex and specific meanings. In sociology, unlike most other sciences, many of the jargon words and phrases are similar to words and phrases used in every day life. You must always be alert for words in the book or lecture that are used in their specific and scientific meaning rather than their every day meaning. If you fail to take care, you may read entire chapters and think that you understand what is being said, but actually be far afield.
A second point to be aware of is the fact that sociology concentrates on the creation and use of "concepts." Concepts are abstract ideas about society that may be linked together with other ideas to form even more complex ideas or theories. One method that may help you in understanding and using sociological concepts is the interrogative combinations technique. Using this technique, you take two or more concepts and combine them to form a question. You might, for example, take the concept "class" and the concept "power" and combine them in a question: "What is the relationship between 'class' and 'power'?" After doing the appropriate reading you should be able to reply, "Individuals and groups in the upper classes have more power." Similarly, you could ask, what is the relation between class and race? Study should reveal that the lower classes are disproportionately composed of racial minorities. The interrogative combinations technique is an excellent review method because it takes sociological concepts out of isolation and allows them to be used in combinations to help in understanding what happens in the social world.
Thank you to Dr. Michael R. Ball, Professor of Sociology, Chair, Dept. of Social Inquiry, University of Wisconsin-Superior, for granting permission to place his Study Guide on this site.