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Selecting Main Ideas

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The ability to select main ideas is an important skill for learning and synthesizing information in and out of the classroom. The main ideas in readings and lectures are not always explicitly stated; they might be implied. Students can use strategies and tools to develop and enhance their ability to identify and separate critical information to focus on for assignments, exams, projects, and other tasks.    

Strong selecting main ideas skills allow you to:

  • Focus on essential information while reading course materials and listening to lectures
  • Improve note-taking skills
  • Synthesize information for writing assignments  
  • Identify important concepts and principles for self-testing and studying

Questions for Reflection

  • Do you have difficulty determining what to focus on when studying?
  • What type of information typically stands out to you most while reading?
  • How do you typically construct meaning from a dense text?
  • How do you approach your note taking during lectures? 

Basic Strategies to Try

  • Use your syllabi to identify the course objectives before you start each reading or attend class lectures and discussions. 
  • Consider the SQ3R method or another strategy for approaching readings. 
  • Use the chapter questions and summaries to identify important points. 
  • If lecture notes or slides are available, download them before class. Look and listen for any keywords, phrases, or cues, such as “This is important…” or “Remember this…” Pay attention to information that is repeated or emphasized.  
  • Create and use symbols or notation devices to help you identify important, unclear, and missing information. Review recordings if available and use office hours for further clarification. 
  • Talk to classmates or others about what you’re learning to confirm essential details.

Questions about how to implement these strategies? 

Email your question to or attend one of our drop-in sessions.

Additional Stanford Resources

Resources Outside of Stanford