Study Strategies #4 – Diagramming

My study habits have come a long way since I first entered university.  In high school, there was less of a reliance on reading textbooks for information, and instead textbooks helped explain concepts that were duly taught during class.  The most you would often get out of a textbook was the bank of practice questions assigned for homework.

When I entered university, it was the first time I owned my course textbooks.  I could do what I wished with the pages (assuming I had no intention to resell the book after the semester).  Yet, if you thumbed through my textbooks from first and second year, you’ll see the pages are still unmarked and relatively pristine.  And yes, I am a pack rat and still have my textbooks from 10-years ago.

It wasn’t until my sophomore year that I began to annotate my  textbooks.  It started with encountering words I didn’t know the definition to.  I would underline the word, then copy the dictionary definition at the bottom of the page.  From there, I began underlining key ideas, starring important paragraphs, and eventually I would jot keywords in the margins to allow me to scan a page to understand what was being discussed.  This practice eventually carried over to my personal reading.  Now, if you open books I’ve read over the last five or so years, you’ll see this practice used fairly frequently.

Studying biology is proving to be a special case, because in addition to reading the text book, I am required to explain how certain systems function, fit together, and are structured.  I’m a visual and systems learner: I learn best when I can visualize a concept and understand how the various parts work together.  So, to learn the body, to label diagrams on tests, and to explain physiological processes, I have turned to diagramming when I make my flashcards.

Studies have suggested that students who write notes longhand have better recall than students who take notes on laptops.  It is believed that the act of handwriting information triggers better encoding of the information and better recall both in short-term and long-term follow-ups.  I believe some of the same processes are at work when you are learning materials from a book.  Underlining or highlighting material for retention is passive and requires little cognitive work to process compared to copying information.

This is not to suggest that there is only one way to study.  Many people have many styles of learning.  What we can generalize from this, though, is that forcing yourself to engage with the material actively (i.e. copying information, summarizing the text, creating flashcards) will help with recall in most people over engaging with the material passively (i.e. reading and highlighting the text).


You do not have to be an artist to diagram.  Trust me.  You can still diagram using stick figures so long as the information you are drawing is meaningful to you.  In the example below, I was trying to figure out a way to easily remember all 11 systems of the body.  I broke the systems down into body regions, and memorized the number of systems per region to help me remember which systems were primarily located where.

  • 1 Head – Integumentary (outer skin) System
  • 2 Head – Skeletal System
  • 3 Head – Muscle System
  • 4 Head – Nervous System
  • 1 Neck – Endocrine System
  • 1 Thorax – Lymphatic System
  • 2 Thorax – Cardiovascular System
  • 3 Thorax – Respiratory System
  • 4 Thorax – Digestive System
  • 1 Pelvis – Urinary System
  • 2 Pelvis – Reproductive System

The reason I find diagramming helpful the most is because encoding the information becomes easy when you have to create spacial relationships between parts of the whole.  For biology tests, you often are required to label diagrams.  You can try to brute-force the recall by memorizing the individual parts and what order the fall on the label lines.  When you are forced to draw the parts, you must make sense of how the pieces fit together if you are to get the proportions correct.  For all the parts to fit on your diagram, they must be spaced correctly.  This is incredibly useful when you must go back to label the parts, because you know how each part connects by virtue of your drawing them out.

Diagramming can be a powerful tool to help you learn material quickly and efficiently.  It does take longer than simply underlining or copying out blocks of text, but if you invest the time, it will pay off come test time.

Stay Awesome!



Mueller, P. Oppenheimer, D. The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard: Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking. Psychological Science June 2014 vol. 25 no. 6

2 thoughts on “Study Strategies #4 – Diagramming

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