Cascading Patterns: How To Make Them Really WELL

How are waterfall schemes made? What are? Do I have to outline the whole book? Can you give me some examples? Is it better to make a waterfall scheme or a mind map?

They ask me these questions so often that I got the idea that, before starting any school, it would be really useful to do about ten hours of training exclusively on how to make a good scheme.

So many study problems would be resolved upstream.

I, maybe you will have understood, I'm a big fan of classic waterfall patterns.

Not those made on the PC or with apps, because in my opinion they take too much time and offer less flexibility.

But those of the past, written in black or blue ballpoint pen, ugly, with darts and lists of points, and something underlined in red or a few drawings, as the only concession to glamor.

The fact is that the old-fashioned cascade schemes have four enormous merits, at least as far as the "hardest" part of the study is concerned: they are relatively quick to do, they work tremendously well on most occasions, they are a lot flexible, stimulate visual memory.

In this article, I will go into detail on how to make a waterfall scheme. But before we talk about the how, let's see why.

Why waterfall schemes work for studying

A good study method is the set of different skills:

  • Organization of time and energy
  • Organization of study material
  • Understanding of the topics
  • Memorization
  • Exposure

For each of these skills there are specific tactics and techniques, but good patterns help you across the board in most of them.


The very process of making a waterfall scheme pushes you to:

  • Organize the material
  • Combine different sources
  • Eliminate repetitions
  • Reflect on topics
  • Carry out a first memorization cycle

Once you've done the pattern instead, studying on it allows you to:

  • Proceed faster in the review
  • Stimulate visual memory, thanks to the greater compression of information
  • See logical connections faster
  • Save time and energy

For example, try giving a Glance:

  • At the introduction of this article, where I used a style more discursive.
  • To the part you are reading now, where instead I was deliberately more concise, creating a real waterfall scheme. 

Then answer the following questions:

  • In which of the two parts is the information easier to find?
  • Which of the two parts is more synthetic?
  • Where does your gaze move more easily?
  • Which of the two do you think is easier to review?

How to make a waterfall scheme

The first the element that characterizes a waterfall scheme is the hierarchy: the elements develop one below the other, with lists - bulleted or not - of data and information, sometimes supplemented by graphic symbols, and eventually linked together by arrows.

Having established this general point, I then distinguish two different ways of making cascade schemes for studying.

The first mode is what I call mechanical schematization.

In this mode, you read short segments of text and schematize them as they appear, at most integrating them with other sources.

It is a modality that corresponds to the "summarize" of the English and which consists precisely in:

  • Identify the key elements
  • List them in the most condensed form possible

The mechanical schematization is ideal:

  • When the text is richer in data than in concepts. In this case, the scheme has the main purpose of shorten the starting material
  • When you are tired, because it requires less concentration and text processing

The second is what I call synthetic / analytical schematization.

In this mode, you read longer text segments and at the end of each one you fix the main ideas and data, not necessarily in the order in which they are presented in the text, integrating them both with other sources and with any of your deductions or links with other parts of the text.

It is a mode that corresponds to the "synthesize" of the English:

  • Si they combine ideas from loro
  • It deepens the comprehension of the text
  • Any connections

The synthetic / analytical schematization is ideal:

  • When the text it's more conceptual and you want to give a personal order to the exhibition
  • When you are less tired and have levels of higher concentration, because it requires a more intense processing effort.

Both modes of schematization therefore, when used in the correct context, are valid.

But now let's see a couple of examples.

Examples of cascading patterns

Let's say you are a poor first-year medical student tapino and, having to study the skull, you have the bad idea of ​​starting right from the mythical Sphenoid bone (if you have followed me for a while now you know my fixation for examples with Lo Sphenoid !), which is the most difficult.

To simplify, let's use the incipit of the description that wikipedia gives:

THEsphenoid bone it is a bone of the neurocranium, uneven and median. Its shape somewhat resembles that of a butterfly or that of a bat with outstretched wings. It participates in the formation of the skull base in its middle portion, in front of the temporal bone and the basal part of the occipital bone. It also contributes to forming the orbital cavity and part of the roof of the nasal cavity.

Description which then proceeds to thousands and thousands of words with this litany. The conceptual part is not zero, but let's say that the notional part is absolutely prevalent.

Your main purpose then is make an outline that allows you to review it in the future without having to reread 10 words but, let's say, a third of them.

So then you can put yourself there and, piece by piece, cascading the text in a very mechanical way. Maybe, since it's about anatomy, allowing yourself a few drawings.

For example, the text just seen could be briefly summarized as follows:

The syphenoid:

  • Learn and median, looks like a butterfly / bat (with butterfly design on the side)
  • It forms part of the skull base, the orbital cavity and the nasal septum

It is already a micro waterfall scheme, to do which I cut:

  • Several useless words (eg "its shape", "with wings extended")
  • Some really obvious information, at least for those studying medicine (eg "it's a bone in the neurocranium")
  • Some information that will be explored far and wide in the following, so why bother re-writing it now? (eg "in front of the temporal bone and the basal part of the occipital bone")

I could have cut even more (eg "unequal and median", which even for a first-year medical student is almost obvious), but let's pretend that you are at the very beginning of the study of anatomy and therefore you are afraid of leave out something important.

As you may have noticed, there is no processing, I have not highlighted no particular conceptual relationship, I have not added no type of connection.

I only have thinned out the material and I have represented it in a clearer and more concise form, which allows a better glance.

Now let's see another text:

One of the most notable effects of hypnosis is observed in the treatment of pain. In a study to determine its effectiveness compared to placebo, subjects were recruited who were given a painful stimulus in a controlled manner, some of them were given a pharmacologically inactive cream, telling them that it was of a painkiller, in such a way as to stimulate the placebo effect. Another part was instead subjected to hypnosis.

The placebo effect is mediated by the brain production of endorphins. By administering an endorphin inhibitor such as naloxone to placebo-treated subjects, the anti-pain effect of the cream diminished or disappeared, precisely due to the inhibitory action of naloxone. On the other hand, when Naloxone was administered to subjects whose pain had been reduced by hypnosis, the analgesic effect was not reduced. (Spiegel & Albert, 1983)

And here's how I schematized it.

The topic, decidedly more complex than the previous one, has been schematized not only by cutting parts and representing the salient elements, but strongly elaborating the text and showing the connections between the represented data. 

Furthermore, in the italicized sentence, I give an information not present in the original text (the fact that Naloxone is an antidote to opioids) that came to mind during the drafting of the same and that I thought it important to point out.

In short, while the sphenoid scheme looks more like a list (and that's why the word “summarize”) this is more a reasoned synthesis (“synthesize”). 

Regarding the synthesis in particular, do not be overly influenced by the second example.

In fact, I was very brief to clearly highlight the difference with the previous one.

Ma there would be nothing wrong with putting in a few more words to make the scheme even clearer and more legible (eg instead of placebo and hypnosis you could write "placebo group" and "hypnosis group". Or instead of the symbols = e - you could write "inhibits" and "does not inhibit").

Partly it's a matter of taste, partly it depends on how much one already knows or not an argument. The important thing is, when you pick up the cascade schemes for review, you do not have to decipher them as if they were hieroglyphics but instead they appear immediately clear to you.

With respect to the efficiency of the two scheme modes, there is an interesting aspect to underline:

  • The first I did it very quickly and it didn't require a lot of intellectual effort, while The second one it took me more time and more mental energy.
  • On the other hand, the information contained in the second I have basically already memorized them in doing so and therefore I will be very quick to review. While those contained in the first I will soon forget them and therefore it will take me more time to review.

This difference between the two types of schemes must be taken into account when you study.

Finally, before moving on to the next important topic, remember one thing: the fact of starting to outline a topic in a certain way does not mean that it necessarily goes fully developed in the same way.

Rather, it is typical that the two modes of schematising alternate in the same exam, in the same topic, or even in the same book page.

How much to schematize?

When students send me their schemes for advice - with some exceptions - I notice that everyone's tendency is to schematize too much.

It was also my problem when I was in college.

This is an understandable trend, due to:

  • Partly insecurity and perfectionism. We are always afraid of not knowing, always the worry that the question we do not know will come. I talked about how to solve this problem in the article Postpone exams? Maybe because you study too much
  • Partly to the fact that if you make an outline and then have to continually go back to the book because you are missing important pieces, here you are wasting time. And therefore, in the effort to make it complete immediately, you exaggerate.

Having said that, in order not to fail his task, a waterfall scheme must be short, if not, it takes too much time to do it and to review it.

How short?

Difficult to give a precise indication, but:

  • removing superfluous words
  • eliminating all that is obvious
  • not repeating things N times that are deepened later

85% of the book can be cut with synthetic / analytical schemes and 65-70% with mechanical ones. I speak in terms of the number of words, not in terms of concepts / data.

When instead of a book you get to rewrite it 40% up, in my opinion the time you invest in doing it begins to no longer be offset by the time you save in reviewing.

We might as well consider studying directly on the book.

In fact there are many exams that are studied well even without waterfall schemes, especially if you have to hurry.

Mistakes to avoid when doing waterfall patterns

The 7 most typical mistakes when studying with schemes are:

  1. Making patterns that are too long. We just talked about it, try to give yourself limits and play to reduce them as much as you can. Among other things, in doing so, stimulate concentration and logical thinking, because being short is difficult. If you take brevity as a challenge you will really be less bored.
  2. Making patterns messy or worse still lose them. They must be, at least for you, clearly legible. They must also be not too dense, so that on each page you have room to make additions at a later time.
  3. Outline why "by writing I memorize better". Memorization is a useful side effect of studying with waterfall schemes, but that is not the purpose. There are indeed much faster methods of memorizing, so don't waste time writing and rewriting the same things.
  4. Make the pen go automatically, copying pieces of text while you think about your own business. This often happens when you are in mechanical mode, much less in synthetic / analytical mode. If you think about something else the outline will be bad, it will not be short enough, you will remember little or nothing after doing it.
  5. To think that you must necessarily schematize everything. Always remember that they take a lot of time, so they must be done when it is worthwhile. 
  6. Wait for the end of the course to start making them. The ideal is to keep up with the lessons, making the outline of what was said in class every day and integrating it with the book
  7. Throw them away after the exam. It is not uncommon to find yourself consulting the schemes made at university more often than the related reference texts.

You can study on the patterns of others?

Absolutely yes, if they are done right and it doesn't bother you. Sure, you won't develop the ability to do them that much, but the time savings are such that I don't see why not.

The cascade schemes and the study method

Cascading schemes are not indispensable in a study method. Many never use them or do it only sporadically.

There are indeed exams (or pieces of exam) so mnemonic that we might as well do them directly on the book, because the scheme exceeds the 40% I was talking about before.

And other so discursive that the keywords taken in the margin of the book and the underlining will be more than enough to then go over directly on the text.

Other times the book is already good enough concise, and therefore it makes little sense to make schemes to "cut" only a small percentage.

Still other times notes are enough of the professor, without the need to schematize them further.

However, when you decide to study with waterfall schemes, it is good to do it by integrating them correctly with the rest of the techniques and strategies you use.

First of all, it is a good rule to do them every day, putting together morning notes and textbook.

If you take notes with the Cornell method you can also consider using them as if they were schemes, by adding the book's additions directly to them. It obviously depends on how much you need to integrate and how well-ordered your notes are.

It is very useful to make a diagram immediately after the active recall, following the following cycle: read a piece of text, try to remember what you read, check for feedback, write the outline. This way you review the same thing three times in a very quick time. The secret to doing it well is to choose, depending on the subject, the ideal length of each cycle.

For lists and definitions to really learn by heart, it may be useful to refer from the diagram to reference flashcards (eg "for a list of cranial nerves go to flashcard number X"). This is to avoid having to rewrite the same things on multiple media, but only on the most suitable one. In short, try not to have the same list on the diagram and on the flashcards, because writing it twice is not very efficient.

Again for memorization, reviewing the schemes identifying key words with which to build micro or maxi buildings of memory can be the icing on the cake of a truly capillary preparation.

Cascade Patterns Vs Mind Maps and Concept Maps

Speaking of waterfall schemes it is useful to make a small comparison with two other well-known tools that are used to represent knowledge.

Concept maps share with schemes the ordered, logical, hierarchical structure. They are used above all to highlight the logical relationships, they are not very synthetic, they do not present lists. Simplifying, we can say that they are needed to understand. Read more in the article on concept maps. 

Mind maps use keywords, they are based on ability associative of thought, not very logical, not hierarchical. They are even less synthetic than the conceptual ones. Simplifying, we can say that they are needed to generate ideas. Read more in the article on mind maps. 

Both have fairly strict rules of construction and representation.

Cascading schemes on the other hand, first and foremost are much more flexible and have fewer fixed rules.

They look quite similar to concept maps but are more concise and at the same time represent much more information, not necessarily linked by logical predicates.

Instead, they have less in common with mind maps, from which, however, one can draw the good habit of integrating the schemes with colors and drawings.

Definitely, when it comes to learning long and complex topics, for me the waterfall schemes are clearly superior to any type of map.

The cascade scheme in summary

And finally, it seems fair to me to end this article on waterfall schemes with just a brief outline of itself, in which to simplify I will just list the really key points.

The waterfall schemes: 

  • They are not essential, but if they are short (on average, about 30% of the book) and well done they save you a lot of time in reviewing.
  • The best they give is done in the old way, with ballpoint pen, sheets - better if lined but I use squares out of habit - and notebooks with rings.
  • They are organized in a hierarchical manner, with lists of data and concepts more or less connected to each other
  • As you make the patterns, you are forced to organize, unify and process the material
  • After making them they are only useful if you can use them as aids for review and consultation (even after the exam, so don't throw them away)
  • The mechanical ones (remember the example of the Sphenoid) are quicker and easier to do, longer to review. They consist mainly of lists
  • The synthetic / analytical ones (remember the example of hypnosis VS placebo) are longer and difficult to do, shorter to review. They present links and personal elaborations of the text.
  • The typical mistakes when you schematize them: mess them up / lose them / throw them, go on autopilot, do them all at the last minute, make them too long, take too long
  • Cascading schemes integrate well with all other study techniques. So, do it!
  • The ideal schematization cycle: reading -> active recall -> feedback -> waterfall diagram
  • To study, waterfall schemes are superior to both mind maps (useful for generating ideas) and conceptual maps (useful for processing the text but too long and not very flexible)

A greeting! Anthony

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