Study Hacks Blog Posts from August, 2007 - Study Hacks - Cal Newport - Part 3

Around the Web: What Makes You More Effective?

August 9th, 2007 · 2 comments

Earlier this summer, the compulsively readable Productivity501 site interviewed the owners of other top personal productivity blogs. I was particularly interested in the question: “What change has made the most difference in making you effective?” I highly recommend checking it out.

What amazed me was the diversity of answers. Everything from the arcana of GTD processing tips to the birth of a child. I think this emphasizes the fruitful ambiguity of the term “effective.”

For me, when I think of this word, I think of my churn rate: the speed with which I am completing important projects. For other people, this might be completely different.

What’s your definition of effective?

Why Most Students Don’t Understand the Real Goal of Note-Taking

August 9th, 2007 · 33 comments

College students know that note taking is important. Walk into any classroom and you are going see every student typing or jotting down something. But what are they capturing? And why?

If you ask an average undergraduate to describe the goal of note taking, he would answer: to capture the important information. Sounds reasonable…

If you ask a straight-A undergraduate, however, (which, in my infinite oddness, I have done many times), he would instead answer: to reduce my study time.

If you adopt this mindset, you can shave serious time from your studying efforts. My informal estimate is that for each hour of class in which you take notes with the reduced study time mindset, you will shave 20-30 minutes from the time required to prepare for an “A” performance on a test.

How does this mindset work? Here is some advice to help you adopt this way of thinking.

The Three Laws of Reduced Study Time Note Taking

  1. Never Record Raw Information
    The most time-consuming piece of studying is processing the information into the ideas and frameworks which will help you compose intelligent answers on an exam. Raw facts are useless for college-level essay questions. To reduce the time required to study, you must try to do as much thinking and processing of the information as possible while still in the classroom. You’re there anyways, you might as well make the most of it! Don’t record what the professor says, record the importance of what he says. The only thing that should go into your notebook is processed information. When it comes time to study, your task becomes one of review, not thinking, and this saves significant time.
  2. Question Connections
    Ask questions in class. But not just any stupid question. Don’t ask for trivial clarification, or mention a point you just thought up. Instead, probe the connections between the information. Ask how an idea fits a theory mentioned earlier. Test your understanding of why a certain scholar thought a certain way, or what factor might explain a certain event. The less sure you are of your answer the more important it is for you ask. These connections are fuel for deep understanding.
  3. Adopt an Idea-Centric Note-Taking Format
    To aid your attempt to process and capture information in the fast-paced environment of a lecture, you need an efficient, fill-in-the-blanks format that you can rely on to simplify the decision of how to record the results of this process. As you know, I’m fond of the Question/Evidence/Conclusion format described in Straight-A. But this is not the only game in town. Use whatever works for you. I once met a student, for example, who, at the start of class, ripped out a sheet of paper to put next to his notebook. On the ripped out sheet of paper he would jot down and number titles for the big theories or ideas mentioned in class. In his notebook, he took notes on the processed information, using the numbers as a shorthand for referencing the ideas his notes referred to. (For example, he might jot down: “the increased number of plague cases helped support 7, but seems to contradict 2 and 5”).

Monday Master Class: Three Unexpected Study Tips

August 6th, 2007 · 5 comments

Most study advice, admittedly, is not all that surprising: study earlier, have a schedule, don’t write papers drunk. Occasionally, however, in the course of my research, I stumble across insights that catch me by surprise. Below, I’ve listed three. See if you can identify the common thread that connects them.

  1. Sit Next to the Hot Chick
    For the men: always try to sit next to the most attractive person in the class. From an evolutionary perspective, we males tend to be, in some aspects, well, not all that advanced. The close proximity of the opposite sex has a way of heightening our energy and attention-levels. The side-effect: it’s a lot easier to stay alert during class, and you avoid the battles against fatigue that can make processing information near impossible. (One might assume that a corollary holds true for women: Sit Next to the Hot Guy. But I learned, long ago, to stop trying to predict the female psychology. I’ll open the validity of such a corollary to debate from among those in the audience with more experience with these matters…)
  2. Get Ripped
    Exercise is good. A serious athletic endeavor is better. Examples include: a competitive intermural team, training for a triathlon, or undertaking a hardcore weight regimen. You get two benefits. The first is the day-to-day energy boost of being in peak physical condition. You can concentrate harder for longer periods. The second is the gain in psychological resiliency. When you get used to tackling and accomplishing demanding tasks, procrastination wanes.
  3. Rage
    At least once a week, party. Hard. Why? Because it’s fun. It’s social. You need the release. And it provides balance against the academic battles you fight during the week. It’s a lot easier to start work on Sunday afternoon if you stumbled home Saturday morning at 4 am. The universe seems in balance. You’ve had as much debauchery as you can handle and now it seems reasonable that you might do some work.

What is the common thread to these three rules? Maintenance of psychological well-being. This is often overlooked in our rush to get to the details of how to study, or plan our day. But it’s crucial. If you’re not happy, motivated, curious, and emotionally stable, you’ll fall far short of your potential.

How Do You Handle E-mails You Don’t Know How to Answer?

August 2nd, 2007 · 8 comments

Like many productivity junkies, I’m a fan of the Inbox Zero concept, meaning I try to maintain an empty e-mail inbox. There is, however, one obstacle I keep tripping over: how do you deal with e-mails you don’t know how to answer?

You know the type. A long message that, for the sake of politeness, demands some response. But, alas, contains no direct questions or other indications of what to say in such a response.

These e-mails can linger in my inbox (or, sit, sadly, labeled with “reply” in my archive) indefinitely, until, eventually, overcome with guilt, I file for a name change and move to the midwest. Or delete it. Depending on my mood.

I’m seeking your help here. How do you deal with e-mails you don’t know how to answer?

The Straight-A Gospels: Studying is a Technical Skill

August 2nd, 2007 · 9 comments

This is the second post in a three-part series focusing on the Straight-A Gospels. Today we focus on Gospel #2: Studying is a Technical Skill

The Paradox of the Relaxed Olympian
Wayne Goldsmith, a professional swim coach, recently noted an interesting phenomenon about world-class swimmers. When asked to reflect on races in which they broke major records, these athletes frequently expressed surprise about their performance. Penny Heyns, for example, who recently broke the 100 and 200 meter records, recalled the following about her races:

“When I touched the wall I thought, maybe a 2:30, and this felt too easy for that…I really don’t know what happened.”

As Wayne goes on to clarify, the distinction at play here is speed versus effort. In swimming, there is a clear distinction between these two factors.

Any athletic person can jump into a pool and swim a lap as hard as he can. He is expending a huge amount of effort — most of it in the form of splashing — but he is not likely to be moving fast. Speed, on the other hand, derives from technique: A perfect stroke; a flawless kick-turn; a dive into the pool with no extraneous drag. When swimmers break world records, it’s because they implemented perfect technique during the race. They are, of course, still expending serious effort. But they are not completely draining their batteries. Too much juice and their technique might become sloppy, and the speed gained by better technique dwarfs that gained by simply trying harder.

This is why swimmers are often surprised by how relaxed they feel during their best performances. Breaking a world record in this sport has nothing to do with pushing their body past its limit. It is, instead, dependent on finding that zen rhythm, where all of their carefully calibrated skills deploy with a beautiful synchronous efficiency.

From the Pool to the Library
Students can learn a lot from the observations of sports scientists like Wayne Goldsmith. In studying, as swimming, speed is distinct from effort. Here, “speed” refers to the amount of material internalized, and “effort” captures the number of intensity-hours (i.e., hours spent working at a fixed intensity level) expended. Notice, we use intensity-hours instead of plain hours because, as we learned in the previous post in this series, the intensity at which you study affects the amount of work that is accomplished. We need to fix this variable so we can focus on a single independent parameter, which, in this case, will be technique.

Let’s say, for example, that over a couple days, you study for five hours, each at an equally high intensity level. How much material will you internalize? The answer depends on your technique. In other words, it depends on what you do during those five hours to get the material from paper and into fully-formed concepts captured in your mind. For example: If you spend the time just reading and re-reading the material quietly to yourself, you will likely internalize much less than if you had deployed the quiz and recall method.

Simple enough. But here is the important part: for studying, as with swimming, the benefits gained through better technique grow much faster than the benefits gained through simply expending more effort. Consider the following graph, which captures this intuition:

A graph showing the rate at which material internalized increases with different study techniques.

Notice: as the amount of effort expended increases, the material internalized using good study techniques rises quickly until, around 5 hours, everything has been learned. For the bad study techniques, more effort still, of course, results in more material being internalized, but the rate of this acquisition is slower. It is not until the 11th hour (clever, eh?) that the bad study techniques finish learning the full material.

The lesson is clear. Studying is a technical skill. As with any such skill, the best results come from mastering the relevant techniques. Simply pouring on more effort proves an inefficient approach to accomplishing your goal.

Most students ignore this reality. They approach studying haphazardly, typically just reading and re-reading their notes as many times as possible. They don’t think about how they study. Instead, they consider only how long. Accordingly, they are stuck on the slow growing curve from our chart above. To get top grades, they have to invest a lot of hours. And that’s a large demand. Most settle for less.

You know better. Consider how you study, and you can drastically decrease the effort required to internalize the material. Technique grants so many more advantages than effort, it behooves you, for the sake of reducing study time, to hone your techniques to a sharp edge.

Here are a few practical tips to help you down this path. For a detailed treatment, see Part II of How to Become a Straight-A Student.

Tips for Improving your Study Technique

  1. Study like Darwin. After every test, reflect on which study techniques proved useful and which were a waste of time. Keep the former. Get rid of the latter. Then throw in something new to introduce some variety. Over time, you will evolve a set of optimal practices.
  2. Reject Rote Review. Most students study by silently reading and re-reading their notes and assignments. This is an incredibly inefficient way to internalize information. A surprising number of the straight-A students I interviewed, on the other hand, used the quiz-and-recall method. The idea is to study by lecturing out-loud, to an imaginary class, about the key concepts you need to learn. Something about articulating arguments in complete sentences cements them in your mind like nothing else.
  3. Record Ideas not Facts. When taking notes, don’t just transcribe the facts being spewed by the professor, or presented in the reading. Instead, try to organize the information into big ideas. One approach is to use the Question/Evidence/Conclusion method. Reduce the information to questions paired with conclusions and connected by a sampling of evidence that justifies the link.
  4. Always Operate from a Plan. Never randomly wander through your studying process. Always be operating from a detailed plan, formulated at least one day before you begin work. This prevents wasted effort.

In the next part of this series we tackle the third Straight-A Gospel: Structure Catalyzes Results. Stay Tuned…

From the Web: Introducing Academic Productivity

August 1st, 2007 · One comment

I aim to occasionally introduce other online resources that provide a unique take on similar topics. Today, I wanted to present: Academic Productivity. This blog, written by two PhD students and one postdoc, covers a wide range of topics related to becoming a professional academic.

Though some posts are not relevant to an undergraduate crowd, I find their investigations of time management systems and personal productivity fads, in particular, to be quite applicable. Here are three interesting recent posts to whet your appetite:

Parkinson’s law and productivity
An interesting review of some of the central ideas behind Tim Ferris’s inexplicably popular The Four Hour Work Week. Introduces a useful addition to the framework: Hofstadter’s Law.

Bias and Accuracy in Estimates of Task Duration using Academic Tasks
Describes a recent academic paper that uncovered just how bad most of us are at estimating how long a studying-related task will take.

Fooling the reactive mind: Mark Forster’s time management system
A review of one of the latest fads in the personal productivity community: Mark Forster’s Do it Tomorrow system. A good analysis of the key ideas; e.g., separate the rational and the reactive mind.