Are Chapter Outlines Worth It?

Do you think that writing an outline of the chapter helps for studying for tests?

~ Submitted by Christina

Great question!  And the answer is…it depends on how you write and use the chapter outline that you create.

When you write a chapter outline, it has to be more than just copying the headings out of your textbook.  That is a very superficial way of studying, and is going to be a waste of your valuable time.  It might make you feel busy and productive, but you won’t retain any of the information in the long run.  This can lead to the trap of “feeling like” you have the nursing knowledge you need because you have pages and pages of notes that you’ve copied down, but when test day comes you are stumped.  Or worse, you retain just enough of the information to narrow it down to two choices…then you pick the wrong answer.  Frustrating!

There are several methods you can use to make chapter outlines work for you, and different ways will work better for different students.  One of the most common methods is to make sure you use your own words when writing the outline.  Think of it this way:  if a classmate asked for your help explaining a topic, would you try to “help” them by reading out loud from the textbook?  It sounds ludicrous when I put it that way, but that’s what students do all the time to try and help themselves “understand” a topic.  Be as helpful to yourself as you would be to a classmate…take the time to explain the topic in your words, in a slightly different way than the textbook does.  If it helps, you can also pretend like you’re explaining it to a patient, which reminds you not to use all that medical jargon that they won’t understand anyway.

A benefit of creating your own chapter outline is that it will help you to identify the most important concepts that you need to understand.  When you are going to be tested on a 50-page chapter full of nursing knowledge, it is literally impossible to know it all.  I’m serious.  An expert nurse in that field might know every detail in that chapter (although I doubt it), but you don’t have to.  So don’t expect that of yourself (despite what your teachers might try to tell you!).  What you need to focus on instead is identifying the knowledge that will make you a safe and effective beginning nurse.  Then include only that information in your chapter outline.

Of course, the challenge comes in learning to tell the difference between what you NEED to know, and what is only NICE to know.  An outline is basically a summary of the chapter, so you only want to include what you NEED to know.  What concepts seem most important to you?  Which symptoms really stand out?  If you could only do one thing to help a patient with that disorder, what would it be?  What medication or treatment is most commonly used?  By asking yourself questions like that, you can help narrow down the information that needs to be included in your outline.

Basically, I would rather see students writing an outline instead of highlighting because it requires more thought.  When you highlight your text, you’re more likely to highlight everything because it all seems like it *might* be important.  But that strategy just leaves you with yellow textbook pages!  By contrast, when you outline you have to take the time to write something out, which requires more time and effort, and therefore tends to make you more thoughtful about what information to include.

Finally, don’t forget to review your outline after you’ve created it!!  Use it as a study tool for exams, and save it for when it is time to review for finals or even NCLEX.  After each exam, go back and review your outline to see if you missed any important points that you were tested on.  Whatever you forgot to include, add it to your outline and save it for the next time that you need to study that topic.  Completing this review process will help you learn how to make an even better outline next time.

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