How Do I Learn the Important Stuff?

Originally published February 2013, online student newsletter.

Whether you are learning material for a test, trying to master a well-loved classic, or reading technical documents in your workplace, identifying and learning the important and relevant material is key to your success.

But how do you KNOW what’s important?  Out of an entire textbook of material, they are only going to ask you 90 or 100 questions.  How do you find out and prepare for the relevant material in each test?

While no one can tell you exactly what you need to know, there are ways for you to recognize and learn the most important information on your own.  As I started thinking and researching about the best way to do that, I stumbled across the study technique SQ4R.  That probably doesn’t make a bit of sense, so I will explain.  🙂 SQ4R stands for Survey, Question, Read, Write, Recite, and Review (the “4 R’s”).  Every tip I could think of falls into one of these categories, so we’ll use this approach as we learn to study well and truly learn the relevant information.


Surveying is a crucial first step. Before diving into all the details of a thick textbook or manual, give yourself time to understand what you’re getting into. If you’re studying for a CLEP or DSST exam, always, always read the CLEP outline or the DSST factsheet first.  If you’re in a course, read the syllabus, paying special attention to the course objectives.  Also glance at the table of contents for all your resources.

Once you have the big picture in mind and are ready to start on a particular book, use the 5 Reads through a Book to skim your resource. As you go, highlight information that corresponds to the course objectives/outline/factsheet as well as any information that is completely foreign to you. This shouldn’t take long, but by reviewing ahead of time, you will have a solid understanding of what is most important, an overview of the entire subject, and know exactly where your weak areas are–before you even start to study!


As you study, you do not have the luxury of reading passively. Unfortunately, breezing through a textbook the way you would your favorite novel will not work.  Think about what you are reading and ask yourself questions as you go. There are some general questions you can ask yourself about every book you read that will help you focus on the important points rather than get caught up in the details:

  • “Why are they telling me this? What is important about it?”
  • “How does this relate to something I already know?”
  • “What part of the outline/course objectives is being addressed in this chapter/section?”
  • “If I were a professor writing a test question, what would I want to make sure my students knew about this subject?”


Now it is time to dive in and actively read your resources.  Skimming is behind you; now is the time to really dig in.  As you go, there are three ways to easily identify important material.  Look for things that are:

1. Repeated often.  [If it is mentioned 20 times throughout a book or chapter, you can feel pretty confident it will show up on the test].
2. Covered disproportionately. [A subject that takes up pages upon pages instead of just one or two paragraphs should get extra attention from you].
3. Shocking or outlandish.  [Sometimes, you’ll be studying things that are just plain weird.  People tend to focus on things that are strange or abnormal. Your test will probably highlight at least of a few of them].


Take notes!  This skill is simply not optional for success in college. Highlight or underline key concepts as you go, then at the end of each chapter, take some time to write about what you learned.  You might choose to summarize what you learned in a short paragraph, make flash cards, or create a mini-study guide. I recommend doing all of the above!  The key to doing any of these is writing everything in your own words.

Once you are done with your initial studies, I highly recommend putting together a comprehensive study guide that takes each point from the CLEP/DSST outline or the course objectives and puts all the information you learned into one place for easy review.


Talk to yourself as you study.  Once you finish a section or chapter, tell yourself the main ideas.  Answer chapter questions.  After you have read all the material and taken good notes, go talk things out with your parents or friends. Talking out loud and having to explain concepts to another person will cement the material in your mind.  Your family and friends may also be able to help you identify the most important material, in case you’re not sure.


Okay, now is the time to make it all come together!  Putting together that comprehensive study guide is a great way to review. Writing or talking things out in your own words is one of the best ways to ensure you have mastered material. Go back through your notes and look for highlights in the textbook to make sure you have sufficiently learned concepts that are repeated frequently or covered in depth.  Also review the areas you initially identified as being foreign concepts at the beginning of your study to ensure you learned them well!

As a final step, walk through the exam outline or course objectives. Either mentally or on paper, run through all the information you learned about point one.  If something doesn’t come to mind right away, go study it some more until you can get all the important details about that point out without having to think too hard.  Only when you can do that with the majority of the outline/course objectives are you ready to take a test.

Final Thoughts

If you are not used to this process for studying, it may take some time to adjust. However, as you practice these steps, they will become second nature until you are easily picking out the important information without a second thought.  If you have trouble in any of these areas, let me know on our next coaching call and I would be glad to help as best I can!

Happy studies!

Image: Wikipedia, CC