Study Hacks Blog Posts from January, 2008 - Study Hacks - Cal Newport - Part 2

Disruptive Thinkers: Ben Casnocha Wants You To Stop Making So Many Damn Plans

January 18th, 2008 · 24 comments

Disruptive Thinkers is a semi-regular series that features interesting young people with interesting ideas about college, studying, or life in general.

The Randomness FactorBen Casnocha — Randomness

In early May, 2007, Ben Casnocha, a college student, entrepreneur, author, and all-around big thinker, posted a blog article titled: Expose yourself to bulk, positive randomness. The idea, which was later developed in more detail in his book, My Start-up Life, proposed a simple change: If you want interesting, grand things to happen in your life, stop trying to plan out every last detail. Instead, go out of your way to expose yourself to randomness. Lots of it. And then put in an effort to follow-up.

This pro-randomness philosophy runs counter to the cult of systematization that pervades much of the productivity blogosphere — which is why it intrigues me. So I asked Ben to walk us through the concept…

What is your randomness philosophy?

The philosophy is based on the difficulty of predicting which projects will ultimately be most successful. Sometimes it’s the random projects that turn out to be most important. To wit, we ought to “expose ourselves to randomness.” We should proactively generate opportunities that might seem random…but who knows?

“Randomness” includes, among other examples, conferences no one else is going to, obscure books, and the odd person you met who you’re not quite sure is interesting.

What are some examples from your own life where randomness paid off?

Some of the most interesting things that have happened to me — experiencing exotic situations abroad or getting my book published — have in part resulted from seeking out randomness. Without an overarching career goal in life, I can follow these various threads of randomness to their end. Once I was at a funeral, and met someone, and followed up, stayed in touch, and the person became one of my most important business mentors. This counts as randomness because I didn’t meet him at a business networking function. It was at a funeral.

What can a fellow college student do to live this philosophy?<

Take classes you might not otherwise take; go on that trip you’ve been putting off; make unusual choices; go to as many visiting speakers as possible. Try to build the most rich and diverse “input stream” as possible.

What are the pitfalls?

If you take a meeting with some random e-mailer, there’s a chance he turns out to be uninteresting and a dud [ed: or a serial killer]. There’s also a chance he could go on and be your future co-founder. So you need to apply some filter. The key is to use a different filter than everyone else to pick up on people and ideas that others might miss.

Of course every day can’t be an experiment in randomness. Every day shouldn’t be random meetings, random web surfing, and random walks through the park. Allocate certain time to pursuing unusual paths — but it shouldn’t be your whole day.

Let’s do the Michael Pollan thing: summarize your philosophy in seven words or less.

Be open to random opportunities. Who knows?

College Chronicles #13: Jake’s Advice For You

January 16th, 2008 · Be the first to comment

College Chronicles is a blog-based reality series that follows real students attempting to overhaul their study habits. Click here for the series archive.

The Season Finale ContinuesTime to Change

This is the second of three wrap-up episodes for the College Chronicles series. Last week we presented Leena’s look back on her chaotic term. This week we turn to Jake, the computer science major from Tufts. When we first heard from Jake he was struggling to find a balance between academic performance and debauchery. During his freshman year he tried being a grind. He got good grades, but had no fun. He then tried to loosen up, but was dismayed to see his grades plummet and had to drop out of the frat pledging process to salvage the term.

By the time Jake and I met for coffee, in early October, he had found some success using the efficiency-based techniques in Straight-A to maintain good performance without sacrificing too much of his social life. At the same time, however, he was struggling with the problem sets in his tough computer science courses. In addition, he was beginning to look beyond graduation, and wonder what he should (and could) do now to help improve attractive options in post-diploma life.

Here is how he fared…

How did your semester end up?

Considering my final grades, I would say my semester ended up extremely well. I went to parties, I threw parties, I played rugby (until I got injured), and got straight A’s (three A’s and one A-).

I’m now a member of an entrepreneur club at Tufts, which appears to have a lot of resources to help you succeed in entrepreneurial and business ventures. [ed: one of Jake’s interests for post-graduation life.] I hope to spend a lot of time with this group next semester and get involved in some related projects.

What changes worked well?

Your method for solving hard problems sets described on Study Hacks was probably the most beneficial tip I received. [ed: this post was, in large part, a summary of the advice I gave to Jake when we met in person.] On Sunday, I’d review the questions, do what I could, and leave it at that. I’d go to recitation the next day and ask any questions. I would then meet with the TA and other group members the night before to clear up and finish any problems. These sessions each took around one or two hours.

What didn’t work?

One problem I had was dealing with group projects. It’s impossible to ask 5-6 other students in your group to adhere to your own “student workday” schedule.

This, along with the rather loosely-structured nature of my other courses caused the student workday approach to be fairly inconsistent. There were some weeks were I had tons of projects to do and problem sets I didn’t understand that ate up more time than I had allocated. Other times I had little work to do, and I ended up twiddling my thumbs, or over-studying and stressing out about whether or I’m working hard enough or if I should be enjoying me free time more.

Based on this experience, what advice would you give other students?

ORGANIZE YOUR TIME! Although I mentioned the problem I had with the student workday earlier, it still helped tremendously in terms of giving me peace of mind and a structure to my day. This comfort of having a structured day is half the battle in obtaining the confidence to do well in school and other extracurriculars endeavors.

Also, when you have pockets of free time during the day, really do something that gets your mind away from academics. While I did well academically, I made the mistake of not taking advantage of my free time last semester, and I ended up sitting around worrying about my grades when I should have diverted my mind to other endeavors.

Thank You Jake

We appreciate the insight you gave us into your experience. For all of our math and science readers out there, I’m sure it is heartening to see how the problem set beast can be tamed while allowing a social life to rage on.

Welcome Back Gideon

January 15th, 2008 · One comment

The Return of Gideon

Earlier in the fall, we were saddened to see one of our favorite student productivity blogs, Scholasticius, go silent due to a dispute over the name. I’m pleased to announce that the blog’s patron, Gideon, has returned under the new and improved name of Mindful Ink, and has already started posting up a storm. Welcome back Gideon!

To all my new readers, I highly recommend checking it out.

Monday Master Class: How to Edit Your Paper in Three Passes or Less

January 14th, 2008 · 11 comments

“Editing your paper is important, and this shouldn’t come as a suprise…At the same time, however, you don’t want to overedit. Many students fixate on these fixes, and end up devoting hours to reviewing draft after draft.”
Step 8: Fix, Don’t Fixate,
from How to Become a Straight-A Student

The Editing BalancePencil

Paper editing is a tricky task. It has to be done well. Nothing scuttles a paper faster than obvious mistakes or sloppy construction. You must, however, be careful. Too many editing passes can bloat the paper-writing process. In Straight-A, I present a simple three-pass system that finds this balance between effective and efficient. It casts a critical eye on your structure — and your mechanics — without unduly burdening your schedule.

The Argument Adjustment Pass

The first pass of the three-pass system focuses on your arguments. You’ll fix low-level mistakes later, so don’t worry about those for now. The pass works as follows:

Read your paper on your computer screen. As you proceed paragraph by paragraph, ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Is the argument I’m making here compelling? If not, cut the paragraphs. Be ruthless. At least 10 – 20% of this initial draft is probably bloat: the result of trying on arguments for size and worrying about reaching the page limit. This is your chance to atone for your sin of lexographic abundance.
  2. Is this the right place for this argument? If not, move the paragraphs elsewhere. Often, when you first encounter the full flow of the paper, some rearrangement makes sense. Be ready to shuffle to maximize impact.

When this pass is complete, your paper should consist soley of important, compelling arguments, presented in the most effective order. Some significant cutting and shifting probably took place. If it didn’t, you’re probably not doing the process justice.

The Out Loud Pass

Now that your arguments have been whipped into shape, it’s time to ensure that the paper reads like the erudite scholarly effort you want it to be. When you see students obessively reviewing their paper again and again, this is typically the goal they are trying to achieve. Here will explain how to accomplish this in just a single pass through the paper. How is this possible? The key is using your voice…

The out loud pass works as follows: Print out a copy of your paper. Lock yourself in your room. Begin reading your paper out loud, with careful articulation. As you move through the work, sentence by sentence, keep your ears tuned for the following:

  1. Clumsy sentences. Is the wording awkward when you read it?
  2. Bad transitions. Does the movement from one line of reasoning to another seem abrupt or strained?
  3. Mistakes. Is a word spelled wrong? A word missing? A grammer mistake?
  4. Lack of clarity. Is a sentence labored? Is there a simpler way of saying what you are trying to say? Can it be cut all together?

Every time you notice one of these red flags, make a mark on your print out and then keep going. After you finish a major section (e.g., around one or two pages), stop, return to the document on your computer, and fix all the places you marked. Rewind and re-read, out loud, each of these fixes to make sure that the new version reads smoothly. Then continue.

The key to this phase is to ensure that every word gets read out loud in its final fixed form. Something about the act of articulation can root out those subtle mistakes and awkard complexity in a way that reading silently — even dozens of times — will fail to do.

The Sanity Pass

The final pass allows you to answer the key question as you finish up the paper-writing process: “Am I insane, or have I put together a damn good paper?” The goal of this final pass is to experience your work in one uninterrupted flow. To savor your arguments. To experience the work in the same way your professor will.

Print out a copy, settle into a comfortable chair, and read through the entire paper. If you stumble across the occasional stubborn mistake, just make a quick mark and keep moving. Enjoy your efforts. After this pass is complete, return to your document and make any small edits you encountered. You’re now ready to hand in a stand out work.

Timing the Three Phases

The key to the three-pass editing process is to seperate the out loud pass from the other two. The out loud pass takes time. It takes energy. If you do it right after the argument adjustment pass you’ll be too fatigued and sick of your writing to accomplish the out loud portion correctly.

With this in mind, quarantine the out loud pass to its own day. The sanity pass can be done close to the deadline. Indeed, some students do it the morning of the due date to get excited about the paper before handing it in. So the out loud pass can occur as soon as the day before a deadline, with the argument adjustment pass happening two days before. Just be sure to keep the out loud portion isolated from the others and the whole process will transpire with a minimum of pain.

Study Hacks Wins Best Education Blog Award

January 13th, 2008 · 4 comments

Thank You For Your VoteBest Education Blog Award

Thank you to every one who took the time to vote for Study Hacks in the 2007 Performancing Blog Awards. I’m happy to report that with 58% of the vote Study Hacks beat out five worthy competitors to win the Reader’s Choice Award for Best Education Blog. As I say often, the real value of Study Hacks comes from the insightful conversation, debate, and ideas you provide in the comments and over e-mail. So thank you again! I look forward to making this resource even better over the upcoming months. As always, I welcome your feedback.

Now, back to work on our regularly scheduled programming…

Crowd Wisdom: How Study Hacks Readers Suggest You Study Foreign Languages

January 11th, 2008 · 12 comments

I Asked, You RespondedLanguage Study

Last weekend a reader wrote me with a question about studying foreign languages. I realized that this spotlighted a gap in my study tactics arsenal; neither my own experience nor my extensive interviewing of students had touched much on this particular subject matter.

So I asked for your help: What worked for you and what didn’t? You were quick to respond with an insightful collection of comments and e-mails, proving, once again, that I have some of the smartest blog readers in the world!

I have now processed this information, and extracted a collection of five stand out tips. What follows is your advice for conquering high-level foreign language study.

Tip #1: Read interesting things in the language you study.

“My advice,” says Julian, “is reading, reading reading.”

To master a language you must encounter it in a real world context. An easy way to accomplish this is by reading as much as you can. Not all reading, however, is made equal. Choose something that interests you and you’re more likely to focus and build new connections.

“I personally love to read children’s books,” recalls Naomi. “So the first books I read in a language are for 2nd-4th grade, depending on my level. There is now so much text on the Internet, just look up a few words in the language related to your hobby/interest and read a bit every day. “

Tip #2: Expose yourself every day.

“The single thing that helps me the most is speaking and writing daily in that language,” says Kelly.

Your mind is resistant to the idea of integrating a new language. It knows perfectly well how to understand and describe the world in English, and it doesn’t appreciate your attempts to inject a brand new scheme into the mix. Overcome this internal resistance through daily work. Every day — even if just a little — do some thinking in your new language.

As Kathleen advises: “Even if you don’t have class on a certain day, find some music or watch a movie in the language you are studying…keep your mind used to actively working with the language. “

Tip #3: Have regular integration conversations.

“Start talking in [the new language] to your friends in everyday conversation to get yourself thinking conversationally in the language,” suggests Maricor. “Then try to incorporate new vocab and grammar structure into the chat.”

Daily work on the language is crucial. But not all practice is equally effective. Find a group of friends to work on your conversation. During these conversations, try to integrate the latest words and grammar you learned. By putting the material into immediate, practical use, you are much more likely to retain it in a usable state.

Tip #4: Don’t neglect vocabulary.

“Concentrating on vocabulary: this is the hardest part of reaching proficiency,” says Jirka. “You need to [eventually] learn 15,000 to 20,000 words.”

It may seem more tractable to focus on conjugation patterns and grammar structures, but the real meat of foreign language learning is the vocab. If you can’t think of the word you need in a conversation then the conversation cannot proceed. Acknowledge this reality by working on your vocabulary — a lot. Make quick flashcard drills at habit throughout the day.

As Alyce notes: “Repeated use of flashcards is great for vocabulary.”

Her suggestion? Use the Mac program Genius. (Which also happens to be free.) Index cards work too. But you’ll need a decent organization system to keep up with the sheer volume of cards advanced language study will generate.

Tip #5: Study phrases, not just words.

“Learning phrases and sentences,” says Jirka. “Not just isolated words.”

Think about your last conversation in English. How much of it consisted of novel sentences you constructed from scratch, and how much was an almost ritualized exchange of well-worn phrases with just a few minor modifications? In most cases, the latter dominates. The same, of course, holds true for foreign languages. Work with common phrases and sentences. Get them at the tip of your tongue. Be able to deploy them fluidly.

As Colleen puts it, you need daily work on: “Normal, real-life exchanges — buying food, taking public transport.”

Keep the Discussion Alive

Do you have more advice? A technique that works particularly well? Something above that you don’t agree with? Keep the conversation alive by commenting on this post. I speak for all Study Hacks readers when I say we really appreciate learning from your experience and expertise.

College Chronicles #12: Leena’s Advice For You

January 9th, 2008 · 7 comments

College Chronicles is a blog-based reality series that follows real students attempting to overhaul their study habits. Click here for the series archive.

The Conclusion of College ChroniclesTime to Change

It’s hard to believe the fall semester is over. It seems like it was not that long ago that we decided to launch the College Chronicles experiment. Our goal was to follow a few students through a full term at college and learn what it is really like to revamp your study habits under the pressures of real life. We had a lot of ups and downs, and I think, in the end, gained some excellent insight.

This post represents the first of three wrap-up episode — one for each of our students. I have asked them to reflect back on their term, and share the lessons learned. We start with Leena…

Our Friend Leena

Leena, the double-major from MIT, certainly had a roller coaster experience this fall. She came to us in chaos. Did not take well, at first, to the advice provided as a potential remedy. Hit rock bottom. Then reconstructed her life in her own way — ending up with a custom-crafted, highly effective system for surviving the MIT crucible.

I asked Leena to reflect back on her College Chronicle experience. Here is what she had to say.

How Did Your Semester End Up?

This particular semester has probably been the most difficult I’ve had in college. But I think its probably been one of the most useful semesters in terms of learning about myself.

Once I made the decision to take next term off [to recharge and take an internship], I figured at that point, all I had to do was end the best way I could. So I followed your method of test preparation and went to office hours to clear up questions I came across whenever I happened to have issues. I actually got a solid A on my final paper in my neuro class, and my TA emailed me to tell me how awesome it was.

The semester didn’t wind up perfect — but all in all, this will probably, ironically, be the best term I’ve had at MIT in terms of academics. I think this partly because of my higher grades, but mostly because I’ve finally seen that I am perfectly capable of getting A’s at MIT, something I didn’t really believe before.

What Changes Worked Well?

  • The act of realistically plotting out when I was going to do things and how much time they would take.
  • GOING TO CLASS. It makes life so much easier.
  • Studying early enough to ask my questions at office hours.
  • Doing homework in office hours.
  • Not going back to my room until I absolutely had to.

What Changes Did Not Work?

  • Trying to organize my papers. I reverted back to my usual pile.
  • A workday that started in the morning and ended at like 8 or even 10 at night with few breaks. I guess I’m not destined to be an investment banker.
  • Taking notes in different ways. It’s more about the act of writing stuff down for me.
  • Making too many changes at once.

Based On Your Experience, What Advice Would You Give Other Students?

  • Go to the doctor if you don’t feel well. Understand that that is okay, and that the correct course of action when you’re having a hard time is NOT to just slog through it and hope for the best.
  • Don’t try to be hardcore. Don’t be the kid who is all proud of himself because he is double majoring in two obscenely difficult majors. Nobody actually cares if you are spreading yourself thin or being hardcore. Do you really see yourself in 10 years thinking: “Man, I am so proud of myself for taking that exam in thermo bone tired because I stayed up till 5 hacking/playing smash brothers/drinking/doing something else ‘cool’ and getting a C.” Hopefully not.
  • Sleep at night. If you can’t, figure out why you can’t and then start sleeping at night.
  • Know you’re not alone. If you feel overwhelmed, or sad, or freaked out, or lonely, and think that for some reason everyone else is adjusting well and you’re the only person who is struggling and has problems, you aren’t. Almost everyone feels that way at some point. Go talk to someone about it.
  • Keep in touch with old friends and your family
  • Don’t be afraid to do different things. If you think you want to or need to, take time off. I’m so, so excited about this next term – I have awesome job offers. The only thing I’m not happy about is that I didn’t do this earlier.
  • Have fun. Nothing is more important than having fun. when i look at any time in my life, the most successful and happy times were the ones when I made having fun a bigger priority than doing well in school.

Thank You Leena

I think I speak for all Study Hacks readers when I thank Leena for taking the time to share her experiences with us over the past few months. I think we all learned some valuable insights from her willingness to share.

Monday Master Class: How to Read Hard Readings

January 7th, 2008 · 18 comments

A Dose of Academic RealityWords

The first college course I attended at Dartmouth was a freshman English seminar titled: Popular Culture. I signed up for the course because I assumed “popular culture” meant “watching movies.” In reality, so I soon learned, it meant select readings from “cultural studies” — a field in which perfectly useful english words are re-arranged into absurdly evil, kick-in-the-groin articles that, to me, were roughly as comprehensible as Sumarian cuniform tablets. I got a C on my first paper.

Watching movies this was not…

I Am Not — Unfortunately — John Travolta

It took a few weeks for me to realize a simple truth: I am not John Travolta from the movie Phenomenon. (I’m also, it seems, not very good at relevant movie references).

If you’ll remember, in this movie John Travolta sees a bright light one night outside a tavern and subsequently develops incredible mental abilities. Among other things, he can instantly comprehend books just as fast as he can flip the pages.

I can’t do this. Probably you can’t either.

With a complicated reading, even if you go real slow, the real meaning may still elude you. The individual words all make sense, but when strung together by a professional philosopher or comparative literature scholar, they somehow evade easy association with the English language. This is what happened to me in my cultural studies class. And it’s probably happened to you too. Fortunately, there is way around this tight spot…

Pre-Processing Hard Readings

Here’s a simple system that will help you master your most difficult reading assignments. It’s a combination of the strategies I developed at Dartmouth — instigated by that freshman seminar — and those reported to me by the dozens of students I’ve talked with subsequently.

It works as follows:

  1. On the day the reading is assigned ask your professor for guidance. Ask what to expect. What to look out for. And perhaps even a brief summary of the main points. Take careful notes on what she says. Print these out.
  2. Google search the article title. Before diving in, type the name into Google. Look for reviews or reaction essays. You’d be surprised how often someone, somewhere has written something informative about the piece. Print these out.
  3. Do a JSTOR search for more scholarly reviews or references. If the piece is reasonably well-know, a multi-purpose scholarly database like JSTOR will likely turn up some references to the work in other scholarly articles. Accompanying these references might be a few sentences of description or reaction. Print out the relevant pages.
  4. Attach your printouts to the assignment. If your reading assignment is in a book, make a photocopy. If it’s in a reader, make a photocopy. If its online, print it out. Take your hard copy of the article and attach the explanatory material from the previous steps.
  5. Write a pre-read summary. Before reading the assignment, carefully review the supporting materials. At the top of the document in which you’ll be taking notes, synthesize this information into a concise summary of the main points made by the article.
  6. Read the article. Finally, you’re ready to dive into the article. As you read, your pre-processing should help you make better sense of what you encounter. Refer back to your supporting materials as needed. Attempt, to the best of your ability, to take standard Question/Evidence/Conclusion notes. Don’t worry if not everything you encounter makes sense.

Reviewing a Pre-Processed Article

Later, when it comes time to review the article for a paper, or a test, or a class presentation, you’ll have a crucial advantage over your peers. The pre-processing provides a framework for your own interpretation. Without this framework, it is easy to wander in the wrong direction or end up lost all together.

How Much Time Will This Cost Me!?

On average, this technique will add around 20 minutes of extra effort. (It might take more at first before you are comfortable with quickly searching and summarizing.) Clearly, we’d be steering dangerously close to grind territory if we applied this to every reading in every class. Accordingly, reserve this strategy for the truly troublesome assignments. For example, maybe you’re in a graduate course that has just one or two hard readings per week. Or, you face an assignment that you chose to write a paper on or lead the class in discussing. Under these circumstances, these extra 20 minutes will be the difference between hazy confusion and workable understanding.