Six Keys for Philosophical Success

Philosophy is hard. No one needs to be told that. But it’s also a challenge to think in new ways and discover new ideas. Here are a few tips for making philosophy class easier and for getting more out of the experience.

#1. Be active in class. You’re in philosophy class 150 minutes a week. How you spend those minutes will have a big effect on your understanding and your grade. Come prepared, stay awake, pay attention, ask questions. The best way to use class time actively is to…

#2. Take notes. By hand. Not taking notes during class is almost always a mistake. The mental activity of selecting what to write down strengthens your memory and comprehension. Don’t just copy down the instructor’s exact words. To take good notes, be selective and find the most important points to write down. You may not know it, but you are practicing the philosophy skills of analysis (breaking ideas down into parts) and synthesis (recombining parts to make a new whole).

#3. Recopy your notes after class. Immediately after each class if you can, but no later than that evening. Copy your class notes onto a clean sheet of paper or type them up. Rearrange things to be easier to remember and fill in other important points from your memory. Write down questions or things you are unclear on and ask your instructor about them next class. Participation boost!

#4. Identify key concepts and define them. Write down what you think are the most important ideas from each reading or lecture, then write down your best definition of each concept. Ask your professor if you have the right key ideas and the right definitions. Examples: What does “form” mean for Plato? What does “individual liberty” mean for Mill?

#5. Write in your books. This is the hardest advice to follow, because everyone wants to get $$$ back at the end of the semester if possible. Take my word on this: you will learn more, often much more, from a book you write in. Take a chance with a cheap book or one that’s already marked up. Take your book and…

#6. Read actively, with a pen in your hand. First, read through once quickly. Look for sentences where the author expresses conclusions or key doctrines. *Underline these.* Look for argument indicator words, like “because” and “therefore.” *Circle these.* Look for numbers, like “There are three types of…” or “We know this for five reasons….” *Write the number in the margin.*

Next, go back and read slowly, focusing on the areas around what you circled or underlined. Where you wrote a number, find each numbered thing and write 1, 2, 3, etc. in the margin next to each one.

Last, write a keyword or summary phrase next to each paragraph of the reading. Think of these as hashtags, labels for the content. You are making an index that will help you find what you want in the text later.

These keywords are some of the most useful marks you can make in your book. When you’re studying for an exam or writing a paper, being able to see at a glance what is on each page of the reading is a great help.

For example, in my copy of Plato’s Apology, I have marked the first three paragraphs: “I’m not eloquent,” “first accusers,” and “not easy task.”

These tips work for subjects besides philosophy, of course!

For more help, check out study skills videos on my Youtube channel (, or at

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