Friday, March 23, 2012

Thoughts on Outlining

When I attended public school we were forced to outline some textbook readings. Some middle school teachers put outlined notes on the overhead projector and all we did was sit and copy them (no text was involved in that type of "lecture"). When we had to write a research paper the teachers required that we first submit an idea, then submit an outline (due on a later date) then submit a rough draft on another date, then the final paper was due on yet another date. I hated all that and it was one thing I wondered if we could completely avoid in our homeschool journey.

Why do I hate outlining?

First, it's easiest to outline as you read along. However when material is not told in a neat order you have to go back and add more information to the outline. When using an outline with pen or pencil on paper this makes a big mess. Then to have something read-able you have to go back and copy over the whole outline in neat penmanship, meaning spending more time working on something I didn't think had much value in the first place. I resented having to spend my time that way.

The outline that I create myself can serve as a study tool. However truth be told, I never found the outline notetaking method of special use. I hated ever looking at it.

Over the years I have found that the act of writing out information or taking notes when listening to an audio lecture helps me remember it. I rarely go back to re-read the notes. The format of the notes does not matter. The fact that they are in an outline format doesn't help me at all.

One may argue that outlining helps a reader read carefully and to hone skills to pick out a brief phrase that captures the most content. It may help with summarizing. I will agree with that. But if you are already a careful reader and already have good reading comprehension skills, it's not helpful for that.

I would counterargue with a flaw with outlining that I learned from my schoolwork. That is, base material that you read for information can either be very detailed or it can be vague. How much detail should go in an outline?

When working off just one source such as a school's chosen textbook, going beyond is not encouraged let alone required. You outline what is there but you still don't know what the teacher feels is most important or what will be tested. If the text is detailed you can make a richly detailed outline and wind up with a ton of content to study. The key to the school game is trying to determine what the teacher wants so you can streamline your studying efforts and to ace the test. I said I didn't need to study but that is not true if the case was to memorize non-easy vocabulary terms, to match things like the names of parts of a cell or a flower or the anatomy of the heart, or memorizing dates with an historical event. However if your teacher says "you won't need to know the dates" or "just these three dates are the important ones" you can focus your studying and not go crazy to memorize every single thing.

When writing a research paper, it is easiest to outline each reading separately. When reading more than one source material you realize that different facts are shared in different sources. Some of the same things are in multiple sources but some readings can go deeper than others do. Then in the end you have multiple outlines and need to somehow combine the data. A flaw with outlining is that you perhaps would choose to make one combined outline in the end. However if writing a paper you need to keep sources noted for your bibliography or for footnotes and quotes. Thus, you will need a system for footnoting. You could label each outline with a number then next to the outlined item, note one or more footnotes for each thing (if the same data was in multiple sources). This is a time consuming endeavor. I don't know how many people actually do that process.

The work it takes to outline, for me, is not worth the effort. There is something about the way my brain works that does not need all of this in a certain order to research and write papers with proper footnoting. I learn material just as well by making bullet point notes as when outlining, but outlining is aggravating and distracts my attention away from thinking about the actual material being learned. I feel that any time a supposed learning activity distracts a learner from actually learning, that's a problem!

I believe what's important to learning is the process, not the procedure. Stop and think a minute: there is a difference between a process and a procedure. Researching and reading is a process. Writing an outline using a special format is a procedure. When writing a paper what's important is the final product, and that proper credit was given to sources (footnoting and the bibliography). No one will know whish of the procedures you used, if you had an outline, if you had X number of drafts.

So you can see I have a negative view of outlining. Now you know why I avoided having my kids do outlines for so long.

I think certain people who learn in certain ways feel that outlining and other learning procedures are necessary for them to learn and study and write research papers, so they think we all need them. People with that kind of mind are so rigid they can't imagine a mind that doesn't need that, so they dictate that everyone should do it. They sometimes are also closed minded and may dictate that "this is the one correct way that everyone should do" and they may also think "it's pretty easy and even fun so everyone should enjoy it".


What We're Doing Now

With all that said, I feel every kid should know how to outline.

As I write this I am working with my older son (9th grade) to outline. This is late compared to what school forced me to do. Before you criticize, I'll throw in that my son has done many things in his learning endeavors which are worthwhile and that I was never allowed to do or given the chance to do, things that today's schooled kids are often not even allowed to do. If he learns outlining "late" then so be it. He's been doing a lot of really cool interesting good stuff with his time instead.

I have a hunch that those who work easiest with outlines are visual text based learners with left brained learning leanings. My older son is an extreme right brained learner with visual picture thinking. My son struggled on his first day of outlining.

I am having him do it as I think it is forcing him to read carefully with good reading comprehension. Formerly he was skimming the textbook or spacing out (due to the fact that it's a fairly boring book). He is using the most popular public school high school text for this subject and I want him to have a curriculum that is recognized as legitimate and credible in the eyes of bodies such as the NCAA and college admissions officers. With science especially, science college majors are expected to have used certain texts and to have scored well on certain standardized tests (i.e. SAT II or ACT). To score well one must have learned the topics on the test. Some texts that homeschoolers use have gaps in content that would lead the learner to fail portions of the text unless supplemental learning was inserted by the homeschooling mother. So, that's why we're staying with the boring textbook.

My son has not been able to demonstrate absorption of read material before he started outlining the chapters. I'm trying this to see if it does help his reading comprhension. I bet part of the reason outlining works is when you have to write it down you are forced to read it all and you are forced to pay attention and forced to summarize. One glance at the finished outline is proof that the reading was done. Then if that helps as a study tool, he'll have that also.


Right Brained Learners

I shared that this son of mine is a right brained learner and that I think outlining is a left brained thing.

We are presently reading and discussing the book, Study Smarter, Not Harder by Kevin Paul. My intention was that my we would discuss the book and that my son would discover what method may work for him and start using those methods. I am open to nontraditional study methods. However he is not cooperating much with getting through the book.

My hope was that study methods would not be a top down forced thing by me but that we'd discover a range of options together by reading the book and that he'd make some decisions for himself based on what he knows of his own mind and preferences in order to use study methods which work easiest and feel most natural to him.

I am disappointed that to date it has not panned out that way. I'm holding out hope for the future. Perhaps he will be more open-minded about my idea to finish the book after he learns some traditional study methods which he feels have a high work ratio to the amount actually learned. In other words if he hates the traditional study methods that left brainers taught me to use he, the right brainer, would yearn for something less painful and easier to learn from.

As I said I think all kids should learn to outline, so that's what we started off doing. He's getting a top-down mandate since the learning is not originating from the bottom-up in an organic manner.

Outlining is time consuming for him.. It took my son one hour to do one section of the science text. At that pace he would spend about an hour a day, five days a week doing just the outline. That seems like a lot to me. Additional time would be spent memorizing terms and even more time would be spend doing lab experiments.

I don't know how long this outlining will last but we're doing it for now. He has to do something in order to make learning happen. Not learning is not an option. We did hardly any science while he was going through medical treatments, now that they are over it's time to put the nose to the grindstone if he still wants to finish high school on time, to graduate in 2015.


dstb said...


A timely post!

I have been contemplating what to do about this with my son. Like you, I am not a big fan of outlining (meaning the strict I. A. B. II. A., etc.) Outlining was part of the instruction in a history curriculum we used a couple of years ago. We would do it for awhile and then abandon it. It was absolute torture, but I think part of the problem was that we were using the Kingfisher History Encyclopedia and that is already boiled down to the barest essentials anyway (and because of that, sometimes didn't make sense). It is hard to outline something when EVERYTHING on the page should be in the outline. I felt we were forcing things into the outline format.

We are now using a textbook that has subheadings. I am going to work with my son on taking notes, not outlining, but we will use the subheadings as a way to organize our note taking. Then use bullet points underneath those headings. Underlining important terms. I don't mind arrows and such, because I think the process of taking notes and making connections is what is important. If you want to study from it, perhaps copying it over to make it neater is worth it. (I suspect this might be more likely in girls - I used to want my notebooks to look nice).

As far as doing research papers, we use colored note cards. Each color corresponds to a different source. A different bit of info goes on each card. Say you were doing the biography of a scientist. One source may give you all the info you need on the birth date and place. No need to take notes on the same stuff again, but perhaps another source has more info on the scientists early life. After you are done taking notes from all of the sources, the cards can be rearranged into the order you want for your paper. Because they are color coded, you can easily keep track of the source (the first note card the boys make is the source info on the correct color card).

Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this. After we do some note taking from the text, the next thing will be to take notes as if they were in class. I was thinking of starting my son on the short videos at BrainPop. They are clear and well organized. Then we will graduate to longer ones.


Mary said...

I think there is a definite method to the madness of outlining. Some people don't understand how it works so they find it frustrating. There are two workbooks that are awesome for teaching and learning outlining, by Remedia Publications. Once working through both of them, a student has a solid understanding of how it works and can outline almost anything.

scimum said...

I'd really like to read that at some point you work out what study method is best applicable to your son. I believe my 10 year old is also a visual-spatial learner. Unfortunately I tend to work in a logical, sequential way. This means there is quite a mismatch between my chosen teaching style and his learning style! Similarly to you and your son, I had hoped that when I withdrew him from school he would have far more input into our choices of what and how to study. So far it has mostly been me doing the planning and driving the studying.

I wonder if you've found the website yet? There are several activities about study skills. We did one about organizing notes to make an essay with coherent paragraphs. I think it was part of a series by the same author.

ChristineMM said...

Hi scimum, the outlining is getting better. For now if you don't own it yet, go buy from amazon: visual spatial learners by Golon, it's less than $12. Unfortunately a fair amount applies to basics for elementary school and it was published after my son was done with that stage.I need this other book Study Harder Not Harder for more intense learning of high school material. My son also chose to ADD IN Khan Academy Biology lecture with visuals then reads the boring text & outlines. I plan to do an update blog post when more reveals itself over time. Thanks for reading & good luck with your VS kid.