Study Hacks Blog Posts from November, 2008 - Study Hacks - Cal Newport

Case Study: How I Got the Highest Grade in my Discrete Math Class

November 25th, 2008 · 68 comments

A Hallway EncounterMath!

During my sophomore year at Dartmouth I took a course in discrete mathematics. The tests were not calibrated to any standard scale, so it was difficult to judge how well you were doing. On the midterm, for example, scores around 50 to 60 out of 100 were at the top of the class, whereas for the final those would be failing.

Rewind, then, to the end of the winter quarter, and imagine my surprise in the following scenario. It’s the day after the final. I’m walking through a hallway when I encounter the TA:

“You…got the highest grade,” he said.

“On the final?” I asked, somewhat surprised.

“No, for the entire course.”

This was hard to believe. The course had 70 students. Three of them were from Eastern Europe where, educated in the old Soviet-style talent-tracking system, they had already studied this subject in high school!

I didn’t think of myself as a math person. Before this class, I had shown no particular talent for the subject. I was trying to just hang in there with a decent grade. My victory, as we like to say here on Study Hacks, was tactical.

In this post I will explain how I achieved this feat, and how following similar strategies can help you dominate even the most thorny technical courses…

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I’m Giving Away 5 Computers…

November 24th, 2008 · 19 comments

Tis the Season…The HP Magic Giveaway

Earlier this fall I gave away a free computer as part of the HP Freshman 15 giveaway. I’m happy to announce that I’m now involved with an even bigger and better contest for this upcoming holiday season.

It’s called the HP Magic Giveaway. I am one of 50 sites that will be provided $6000 worth of computer equipment (including 5 computers and a wireless printer, among other things) to give away however I see fit. I will post more details about the contest in the near future, but that basic idea is that I am going to choose one of you to act as Santa Claus: giving away the equipment to students and clubs you feel most need it at your college. (Keeping something for yourself as well, of course!)

So stay tuned for more details about my contest.

In the meantime, to find out more about the equipment and other participating bloggers, click here for HP’s official page for the giveaway.

This should be fun…

Q & A: Mastering Question Clusters, Breaking Up with Terrible Majors, Withdrawing from a ‘B’, and Debating a Two-Day a Week Course Schedule

November 21st, 2008 · 7 comments

From the reader mailbag:Questions and Answers

I have three questions about your focused question clusters study strategy.

  1. Is the list of rapid-fire questions for one test (with answers) supposed to be nearly as long as a textbook chapter?
  2. I’m confused — what exactly are they supposed to cover?
  3. Can one go about making them without spending several days’ worth at the computer or with a pen and pencil?

Cal responds:

  1. Hopefully much shorter.
  2. Everything you need to know for the test.
  3. Try to inline the question building with your note-taking in class and while doing reading assignments. Don’t wait until right before the test to construct all of your clusters from scratch.

From the reader mailbag:

I have two majors and a minor. I love one of my majors (Psychology) and my minor (French). Most of my stress comes from my other major (Business). I dislike my business classes and find them hard. I want to go to grad school for Psych after graduation. I am using business as a “back up”… but this “back up” is taking over my life!!! If I could have things my way, I would finish the psych major, apply for grad school, and graduate.

What do I do? I am too scared to not go the B-school route…

Cal responds:

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The Stable Mucking Method: A Freestyle Approach To Keeping the Annoying Little Stuff Under Control

November 18th, 2008 · 6 comments

This post is a companion to last week’s essay on using a plan.txt file to organize your work. Both are inspired by my freestyle productivity philosophy. However, whereas last week’s post focused on handling the big stuff, this week’s post focuses on keeping up with the small.

The Cost of FocusManure

Here’s a problem I’ve faced recently: my obsessive focus on a small number of important project causes me to fall behind on the annoying little administrative stuff that pops up on a daily basis. I’m not talking about the regularly occurring minutia, like cleaning my apartment or working out: these can be easily handled with an autopilot schedule. I am referring, instead, to the random, unexpected productivity lint that regularly clogs my inbox and emanates a powerful aura of procrastination-inducing annoyance.

Over the past year or so, I’ve tried several failed strategies to rectify this situation, including:

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How to Ace Calculus: The Art of Doing Well in Technical Courses

November 14th, 2008 · 124 comments

Tangent Troubles

Calculus is easy. Or at least, it can be. The key is how you digest the material. Here’s an example: when you’re first taught derivatives in calculus class, do you remember it like this…


Or do you intuit this image…


As I will argue in this post, for any technical course — be it calculus, physics, or microeconomics — the key between an ‘A’ and a struggle comes down to this distinction. Below I’ll explain exactly what I mean and reveal how top technical students use this realization to consistently ace their classes.

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Plan.txt : The Most Effective Productivity Tool That You’ve Never Heard Of

November 11th, 2008 · 56 comments

The Two Faces of ProductivityPlan.txt

Productivity can be divided into two main concerns. The first is capturing and organizing all of the “stuff” you have to do.

This is the fun part.

This is where you buy fancy notebooks and configure Remember the Milk to auto-sync with your iPhone. It keeps productivity blogs in business and makes David Allen rich.

The second concern is actually doing the stuff that you need to do.

This is much less fun.

This post is about this second concern. I don’t claim to have a universal answer. But there is a simple technique that I’ve been using since last January, and that has significantly increased my churn rate. This technique centers on a small, innocuous text file sitting on my computer desktop — a file named plan.txt

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Does Being Exceptional Require an Exceptional Amount of Work?

November 7th, 2008 · 37 comments

The Obama MethodBarack in Crowd

In response to my recent article on Misery Poker, a reader commented:

I wonder about the really exceptional people. Does Barack Obama “build a realistic schedule”? … maybe extraordinary stress IS required to accomplish extraordinary feats

Another reader added:

I think extraordinary sacrifices are required for great accomplishments.

This is a fascinating argument. Study Hacks, as you know, is driven by the Zen Valedictorian Philosophy, which claims that it’s possible to be both relaxed and impressive. But these commenters are pushing back on this world view. It’s one to thing, they note, to have a successful college career that is also relaxed, but is it possible to have an exceptional career without overwhelming amounts of work?

In this post I claim it is possible. And I’ll explain exactly how…

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Do You Play Misery Poker or Quack?

November 5th, 2008 · 37 comments

College WoesPoker

A Swarthmore student recently clued me into an interesting fact about life at this competitive school:

The whole predominant atmosphere here is stress, stress, and more stress. We even have a term called misery poker.

Naturally, I asked her for an explanation. She responded with the following sample dialog:

“I have two midterms, a 10 page paper, and I’m headed to a conference next weekend,” says the stressed student

“Oh yeah?,” replies his bleary-eyed friend. “I’ll raise you all that, and add a lab report”

The winner is the student whose life sucks the most.

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