Study Hacks Blog Posts from September, 2007 - Study Hacks - Cal Newport - Part 2

College Chronicles #8: Welton’s Has His First Week of Classes, Encounters Resistance to His Non-Idiotic Study Habits, and Realizes Things are Going to Get Worse (Time-Wise) Before They Get Better

September 24th, 2007 · Be the first to comment

This is the eighth blogisode of College Chronicles, a blog-based reality show in which we follow three real students struggling to balance academics with the rest of their life. Halfway though the semester we will stage a study habits intervention to overhaul their student experience. Click here for the full series archive.

The Move to Non-Idiot Study Habits Can Be Surprisingly Hard…

My friends and I have a tendency to study in the dining hall because it’s so close and we can study and hang out. But this is a terrible idea. The temptation to talk, snack, and just generally be distracted is just way too strong. I think I’m just gonna stick to the library this semester as much as possible. A few people have been making fun of me for jumping head-first into all of my work, but I just want to push through as much as possible now before the semester starts to get crazy.
The Extracurriculars Begin to Circle, Planning Their Attack on Free Time…

The fall issue cycle for this magazine that I edit for is just starting up, so meeting with writers and editing pieces will begin to take up more of my time. I’m also getting involved with a finance club on campus that teaches you how to analyze stocks. It’s only a few hours of work a week, and I think the benefit of the knowledge gained will far outweigh the time commitment — especially when it comes time for i-banking summer internships.

A Harvard Student’s Work is Never Done…

Also, this week I’m helping one of my professors index a book that he’s editing. He wants it done in a week, which should totally be manageable, but it’s just another thing that’ll take up some time. I also need to get back into studying for the LSATs…

Coming Up This Week…

September 24th, 2007 · Be the first to comment

Another interesting week coming up here on Study Hacks. The line-up includes:

  • More College Chronicles. We hear about Welton’s first week of classes.
  • The If I Could Do It Again I promised last week finally came in over the weekend. Expect it later this week. (I mean it this time, I promise!)
  • Advice on how to make a resolution for the new semester that you’ll actually stick with! In addition, a discussion of the importance of a Sunday Ritual and how to conduct an Obligation Purge.
  • More Reader Q & A.
  • Links to the best of the (student productivity) web this week.

Monday Master Class: Use Focused Question Clusters to Study for Multiple Choice Tests

September 24th, 2007 · 40 comments

A reader recently asked me about multiple choice tests. He was interested in study advice for those large, 100-question, scantron, “fill in the bubble with a number two pencil” style beasts used, mainly, in intro life science courses.

These tests pose a problem for us as they seem to fall through the cracks of the Straight-A method. The information is not in the form of big ideas that can be captured in question/evidence/conclusion clusters. At the same time, it’s also not in the form of discrete sample problems with clear-cut steps toward a solution. (In Psych 101, for example, you might get a lecture full of facts about the brain, as revealed by different experiments.)

To make things worse, the number of facts presented in lecture can be so voluminous that tackling them, one by one, using the Quiz-and-Recall method, could take days. This is no good. What we need is a strategy streamlined for this particular type of test:

The Focused Question Cluster Strategy

Here is a technique that served me well during the occasional multiple choice (MC) test-centric courses I took at Dartmouth. The goal of this system is to: (1) enhance recall on the individual facts that pop up on the MC tests; and (2) make sure you understand the underlying ideas so you can tackle new questions with ease.

It works as follows:

  1. Reduce your notes to rapid-fire questions — short, specific questions that can be answered in a few words, or, at most, a sentence. For example:
    1. “School of thought justified in Skinner rat maze…”
    2. “Five parts of the auditory system…”
  2. Make sure your rapid-fire questions for each lecture cover all of the information presented. Significant compression is possible here if you choose your questions carefully. One short question that asks for you to list five things, for example, might cover a page full of notes.
  3. Arrange the rapid-fire questions into focused clusters such that all of the questions in a cluster cover the same topic. (e.g., “Early behaviorism experiments”). Have one page for each cluster. Put the questions in list format at the top of the page. Put the answers in list format, in the same order, at the bottom of the page.
  4. Add to each focused cluster one or two background questions
    that ask for some general explanation of the topic. (e.g., “What were the other movements around when behaviorism came along. What made it different?”)
  5. When you study, do quiz-and-recall on the cluster scale. For each cluster, shoot quickly through the rapid-fire questions (literally should take only a minute). Then lecture, out-loud, in the traditional quiz-and-recall style, on the background question(s). If you have trouble with anything in the cluster, mark it and return to the entire cluster during your next round.

Why This Works

This approach ensures you still memorize the little facts that serve as the bulk of the content on any multiple choice test. Because the questions are in rapid-fire format and arranged in lists, you can do quiz-and-recall on this great volume of information quickly.

The background questions, however, ground this memorized knowledge. Not unlike the technical explanation questions used in studying for technical courses, the background questions put the rapid-fire answers you just rattled off into a larger context — helping to cement the critical understanding that will allow you to tackle new questions that might pop up on the test.

A Final Tip

From experience, I know that it can take a long time to transform your notes into the focused question clusters. This follows directly from the volume of rapid-fire questions you end up having to record. To keep things painless, it’s highly recommended that you consider transforming your notes into these clusters every week as you proceed through the term. This will keeps the studying itself a reasonable chore.

Around the Web: 7 Ways to Get to Sleep

September 21st, 2007 · One comment

A good post by Martin over at the UK-centric University Blog provides a nice compliment to our recent discussion of sleep:

University Blog :: 7 tips to top sleep, 3 tips for staying awake

He provides seven tips for getting to sleep when your body resists. I won’t give away the whole thing, but here’s a taste:

Don’t keep studying/writing/working until the last minute before bed – The more mental gymnastics you do before bed, the less likely you’re going to drop off to sleep quickly. Give yourself a few moments peace just before shutdown…

Of course, there’s always just Nyquil…

Dangerous Ideas: “Paying Your Dues” is Underrated

September 21st, 2007 · 3 comments

A recent post at the Employee Evolution blog asks the following question: “Is ‘paying your dues’ an outdated concept?”

The author opens with the story of his time in his high school drama club. For three years he paid his dues — practicing his singing, showing up at every meeting, taking on tedious parts — so that, as a senior, he could reap his triumphant reward in the form of a leading role in the yearly drama production.

But things didn’t go as planned. A new choral director was hired and gave all the choice parts to the younger students he already knew. In short, the author got screwed.

His lesson:

It did teach me one thing that I haven’t forgotten — to be extremely skeptical of people who tell you to pay your dues. You can do everything right, and still get passed by.

The author then extends this logic to the workplace. In his calculus, older employees grumble about us hotshot Gen-Y’ers not wanting to “pay our dues,” while we feel justified in our hot-shotedness because we’ve seen our parent’s generation be rewarded for years of service with a pink slip.

This is a confusing stalemate. On the one hand, young people are not content to put in time for the sake of putting in time — just because that’s the payment owed some antiquated seniority system. On the other hand, the older folks aren’t far off the mark by retorting that it’s hubristic to expect benefits immediately.

So what’s a modern workforce to do? The author’s conclusion:

I’m not advocating that Gen-Y employees should all be given high-level jobs, months of vacation time and great salaries the moment they set foot in the door. Experience matters…But I think we do need to feel like we’re in an environment where we can learn, achieve our goals and be happy.

I’m not quite sure what this means (it smacks of business-speak to me). But I suspect that me and this author are actually working from the same page here. Despite the provocative statements made earlier in his post, I think we both see some value in the “paying dues” concept — value, that is, if you are willing to rething your definition of “dues.”

Redefining Dues

A careful analysis of the dues argument reveals two separate components. One is the inadequacy of seniority (as oppose to skill-based) benefit ladders. The other is the indulgent lunacy in coddling young hires in whatever benefits or opportunities satisfies their ego-bolstering whims. We can solve both (says Cal, with completely unjustified confidence). Here’s how:

  1. Maintain the core concept that in order to obtain a certain benefit (be it more responsibility, more pay, or increased schedule flexibility) an employee most “pay his dues” in a well-defined manner.
  2. Redefine what it means to “pay dues” to a system that is completely independent of seniority. Instead, make it based on the achievement of specific performance benchmarks.

If you’re twenty-two, and you want to be given your own project team to manage, fine. Just show us three previous projects in which your manager allowed you to run the main technical meetings and your fellow team-members gave you a rating of “excellent” or above on their post-project evaluations.

You want flexible work hours? Great. Take on a stretch project the company has been meaning to get done. If over the period of a month your managers report no problems in your normal workload and you get the stretch project done, then we deem you productive enough to handle more flexibility.

Barriers are fine so long as the path to circumvention is well-known and well-justified.

The Power of the Dues Paying Mindset

This whole discussion leads to a larger point that holds, perhaps, more salience to my non-working student audience. A willingness—perhaps even eagerness—to “pay your dues” in the non-seniority, performance-driven manner described above, is a crucial trait to aid the accomplishment of big things.

Almost anything that is worth doing is worth doing because its considered impressive or valuable. It’s likely considered impressive or valuable because not many people do it. Not many people do it because it’s hard.

If you want to accomplish the types of things that impress people, then you must get used to aggressively putting in the prerequisite work to get to the ability level you need to be at. This holds if you’re a new hire in the workplace or a student involved in an undergraduate research program. It’s equally relevant to a wannabe entrepreneur as it is to a fledgling author.

See the World in Terms of Dues

Dues paying is where you differentiate yourself from the masses. Regardless of the pursuit, first ask yourself: “What specific thing could I achieve that would prove me capable/deserving of making progress in this pursuit.” Then set about to find the most efficient possible path to this achieving this specific thing. Don’t worry about the ultimate goal. Just worry about the next set of dues you need to conquer en route to completion.

When you enter the workforce for the first time, your first thought should not be to complain about how your bosses are under-appreciating you. Instead, identify what specific thing you could accomplish that would indisputably qualify you as worthy of increased appreciation.

Let’s take a more collegiate example. You join a campus magazine and are frustrated that the editors won’t give you more important positions or let you tackle the bigger features. Don’t complain that you can write just as well as they can. Instead, resolve to turn in a steady stream of articles, over the next few semesters, that will unequivocally establish you as a top writer worthy of the extra responsibility.

What happens if you fail? What if your business project flounders? Or, your magazine articles fall flat? In this case, you’re not yet deserving of the benefit. That’s what makes the “dues paying” mindset so effective — it injects meritocracy back into the process.

In Conclusion

In the final accounting, I, like many young people, bristle when I hear old commentators describe our generation as spoiled and wanting everything without doing any work. On the other hand, I also bristle when I hear young commentators drivel on about the kid gloves with which Gen-Y’ers in the workplace should be handled.

My final solution: Ignore this jabber. All of it. See the world in terms of your own system of dues and start paying as soon as possible. The benefits will come.

College Chronicles #7: Leena Turns 20, Dances Away Her Weekend, Gives Up Sleep, Falls Deathly Ill, and Initiaites a Love Affair with Nyquil

September 21st, 2007 · 2 comments

This is the seventh blogisode of College Chronicles, a blog-based reality show in which we follow three real students struggling to balance academics with the rest of their life. Halfway though the semester we will stage a study habits intervention to overhaul their student experience. Click here for the full series archive.

A Time for Celebration, Not So Much for Work…

As for last week, it was hectic. My birthday was on the 9th. I had it setup so that Saturday was empty and I could get some hardcore studying done (my friends demanded a party on Sunday.) Instead, it turned out my family had planned a huge surprise for me — my mom flew out from California and arrived Saturday morning. I ended up hanging out with her all of Saturday and most of Sunday. Sunday evening I came home with every intention to work, but my friends had baked me a really awesome cake and we had an impromptu dance party.

Then Reality Sets In…

I didn’t really get any work done over that weekend. This proved to be unfortunate. I had a lot of work to do and it seemed so overwhelming that I started skimping on sleep. Soon I was in the classic sleep deprivation cycle — you’re tired, so you’re stupider and take longer to finish your work, so you wind up even more sleep deprived the next day, and so on.

Once Nyquil Enters the Scene, Things Can Only Go Downhill…

I tend to oversleep, so towards the end of the week I started missing class. I was so tired and felt so overwhelmed, that I ended up procrastinating all day and only working super late at night. This went on until Friday, when I fell sick and then started sleeping constantly. I discovered Nyquil, and ended up being concious for only about 10 hours that weekend.

Today, I woke up and basically feel well enough that I think that the rest of the cold should be gone in maybe 2 days and I can get back to my normal life. This is good because this week is sort of brutal — I have to start producing things at my new UROP [ed: undergraduate research internship] and I haven’t even learned C++ yet. I also have 3 psets and a research project proposal due.

Lessons Learned…

In summary, what I learned over the last week: I can’t skimp on sleep. Studying in my room is not effective; people keep wanting to talk or get medicine [ed: everybody loves Nyquil] from me. I have to eat right and excercise. (I actually started taking pilates and yoga and excercising in the morning with my friend last week). And, attend all of my classes! Which should be facilitated by going to bed on time.

A Brave Concession…

And yes, I will even attend probability lecture, which, for all intensive purposes, seems completely worthless.

Q & A: When Should I Go To Sleep?

September 20th, 2007 · 3 comments

From the reader mailbag:

I have read your book, How to Become a Straight-A Student, which helps me a lot. I wonder, however, when did you and other straight-A students go to sleep when you were university students?

Cal responds:

The hours of sleep needed to be rested depends on the person. Some require 8 to 9. Others are fine on 6 to 7. Some claim to only need just 4 or 5, but they’re delusional. Figure out what works for you. Once you have this number fixed, the key is consistency.

During the work week, go to bed at the same time every night and get up at the same time every morning. A consistent schedule with the right number of hours will prevent fatigue during the day. If you want to go to bed at 3 and get up at 11, that’s fine. Just do that every day. Ditto if you want to go to bed at 8 and get up at 4. (Though, in this case, you might want pencil in some time on your calendar to think about being less of a loser).

On the weekends, your sleep schedule will, of course, be different. The key here is to not oversleep. If you know you need 8 hours to be rested, then, whenever it is you stumble back in your dorm room Friday night, set your alarm for 8 hours later. If you crash at 3, get up at 11. Don’t let yourself sleep until 1 or 2. You don’t need those extra hours. They waste time. They will make you groggy. And they will screw up your schedule.

If you’re handling your sleep right, and getting the same number of hours every night, and going to sleep at the same time during the work week, you should find that you have enough energy to make it through the day without needing a nap, or without needing a few hours of vegging to Culinary Cherub we commoners deem to call Rachel Ray.

If you’re still having trouble staying alert, check out the following four trouble spots:

  1. Nutrition. Make sure you are eating to promote energy.
  2. Exercise. Make sure your body is getting worked out on a regular basis.
  3. Schedule. Make sure your work is broken down into little chunks spread out earlier in the day.
  4. Balance. Make sure you’re having enough good ‘ole fashioned debacherous fun.