Creating effective topical outlines: A How-To Guide

— Written by Jack Ng and Michelle Lew

Today’s students will certainly be no strangers to the concept of topical outlines, and would likely have created outlines of their own in the course of study.

The value of a good topical outline lies in the fact that it helps to organize otherwise disjointed pieces of information into a cohesive logical framework. The methodical format of an outline makes it much easier for students to digest and internalize large amounts of information, and enables them to identify the key points and where they fit in the scheme of things.

Furthermore, the mental processes involved in condensing and organizing the information into a concise and systematic form also help to enhance the individual’s understanding. Indeed, research evidence suggests that the human brain stores knowledge as sets of situational responses that are based on the individual’s conscious memories. Because topical outlines are constructed to reflect organization of the conscious memory system, they facilitate meaningful learning, thereby greatly improving one’s learning/study efficiency.

How then does one create an effective topical outline?

Firstly, students should read and understand thoroughly the resources they have on hand. This is by no means an easy task as today’s students are inundated with a wealth of information in the form of lecture notes, textbooks and the Internet, among others. Nevertheless, students should take their time to study their resource material closely and carefully rather than just performing a cursory sweep with the intention of revisiting it in the future. The reason for this is that any extra time spent processing and extracting essential information at this initial stage will go towards saving valuable time in the future, especially when it comes to revising for tests and exams.

The next step would then be to construct a rough framework of the topic, with special emphasis on the salient points. We encourage students to incorporate the use of color, diagrams and word links to enhance their outlines in a visual manner.

Students should then put the adequacy of their outlines to the test by attempting practice questions with ONLY the outline for reference, supplementing areas which are found to be lacking. Through this repeated process of refinement, students should arrive at a final product — a highly condensed document, ideally not more than two pages long, which contains all the essential information the student is required to know about the topic at hand.