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The Best Ways to Make an Outline for College Class

by Van Thompson

Outlining is an excellent way to take notes in class, but even if your notes are a jumbled mess, making a coherent outline from them can help you study by tying related points together. The process of making an outline can serve as a study tool in its own right, because as you outline you'll be reviewing material and committing it to memory.

Basic Outline Structure

A good outline organizes concepts in descending order, starting with major concepts and adding numbered or bulleted details underneath these central concepts. For the sake of efficiency, it's best to keep your outline notes brief, sticking to key words rather than writing in full sentences. It's also a good idea to leave a few lines of space after each heading in case you need to go back and fill in more information later.

Major Points

Begin your outline with the most significant points or topics you need to know for class. Look at concepts your professor writes on the board or highlights in handouts. If you're outlining from a textbook, you may want to title your headings according to chapter topics or headings within the textbook. If there's background material not covered in class, consider adding this as a heading too. For example, if you're taking a philosophy class and your professor discusses a philosopher with whom you're unfamiliar, add a section about this philosopher so you can understand how course material builds upon his work.

Filling in Details

After you've outlined the major points, it's time to go back and fill in details. Vocabulary words and formulas should be a part of your outline, but you'll also need to explain basic concepts. If you're struggling to understand a formula, for example, try making the formula a heading and then creating bullet points explaining how the formula is used. Don't forget to add details from class lectures. Some professors add material that's not in the textbook, and if it's mentioned in class you'll almost certainly need to know it for your test.

Using Your Outline

After you've formulated your outline, you can use it as a study tool. Try asking a friend to quiz you about the subpoints contained in a particular heading or subheading. You also can make a blank copy of your outline containing only headings and subheadings, then fill in details. This allows you to test your knowledge and determine if there are any topics you still haven't mastered.

About the Author

Van Thompson is an attorney and writer. A former martial arts instructor, he holds bachelor's degrees in music and computer science from Westchester University, and a juris doctor from Georgia State University. He is the recipient of numerous writing awards, including a 2009 CALI Legal Writing Award.

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