Study Hacks Blog Posts from April, 2009 - Study Hacks - Cal Newport

Q & A: Taking Biology Notes, Switching Between Tasks, Deconstructing Crappy Papers, and More…

April 29th, 2009 · 7 comments

Back to Questions… Q & A

It’s been a while since I’ve done a Q & A post, but I’ve received so many good questions recently, I thought it was about time this series made a comeback!

From the reader mailbag:

How would you go about taking notes on Biology textbook chapters?

Cal responds:

Take notes using your laptop and format them directly as focused question clusters. This removes any obstacles between your notetaking now and efficient studying later.

Read more »

Fighting the Pre-Exam Slump

April 28th, 2009 · 15 comments

Procrastination RisesProcrastination

A reader recently sent me an e-mail in which she admitted:

I think I am starting to suffer from deep procrastination — and it’s only six weeks until my exams! I need some motivatiom for this final push, but I just can’t seem to find it.

She’s not alone. I’ve noticed an uptick in similar e-mails, and this doesn’t surprise me. For students teetering on the precipice of deep procrastination, exam period, with its significant increase in work, is a perfect catalyst for pushing them over the edge. If you see exams looming but simply can’t muster the energy to start seriously preparing, then you may already be in the grips of this scourge.

In this post, I describe a collection of simple tips that can help you escape this pre-exam slump. It’s not a long term solution to your potenital deep procrastination (for this, you need to evaluate your relationship with your major and reconnect to your studies). But it will help in the short term.

Read more »

What If My Dream Major Turns Into a Nightmare?

April 22nd, 2009 · 32 comments

Deep Trouble

I recently received an e-mail from our friend Tyler. As you may recall, he found peace last year by swapping a premed major that never interested him for a classics major that did. He went on to pare down his schedule and then focus on becoming an A* student. In short, he was a perfect example of the study hacks philosophy: do less; do better; know why.

Then things got bad again.

“I know you keep saying ‘pick a  major and stick to it.'” Tyler told me in his e-mail. “But the only thing saving me from academic oblivion is the fear of failing.  My major recently has only been sucking up my time and causing me major stress.” He then proposed that he should switch majors; even though he is only 2 – 3 classes away from a classics degree. He didn’t know what else to do.

Tyler is not alone. His e-mail is probably the 5th or 6th I’ve received this spring that offers some variation on the same common conundrum: what do I do if my dream major is turning into a nightmare? In this post I tackle this issue with a series of observations on the lost art of cultivating a healthy relationship with your academic concentration.

Read more »

4 Weeks to a 4.0: Create Project Folders

April 20th, 2009 · 11 comments

4 Weeks to a 4.0 is a four-part series to help you transform into an efficient student. Each Monday between 3/30 and 4/20 I’ll post a new weekly assignment to aid your transformation.

Welcome to Week 4Time to Change

This is the fourth and final post in our four-part series 4 Weeks to a 4.0.  Let’s do our review. In week one you gained some control over your schedule. In week two you mastered taking notes in class. And in week three you streamlined your assignments. In other words, we’ve covered all regularly occurring academic work. This leaves us only to tackle the big infrequent stuff. I’m talking about studying for exams and writing papers.

Week 4 Assignment: Create Project Folders

Your assignment for this week to adopt the project folder method, which I describe below. This simple method streamlines the process of studying for exams and writing major papers. I used it throughout my time at Dartmouth, and swear by its effectiveness. You can also see aspects of it in action in our ongoing finals diaries series.

Read more »

I’m Off to Brazil

April 17th, 2009 · 6 comments

A Southern Journey

I’m leaving tomorrow for a one week computer science conference in Brazil. I will almost definitely have Internet access, but my time will be limited, so please excuse the fact that I will be slow to moderate comments and respond to e-mails for the next week.

Fear not, however, I have the last 4 Weeks to a 4.0 post ready to go live on Monday and a backlog of finals diaries and other exciting posts that will go up soon after I return.

Stay tuned…

Finals Diaries: Travis Prepares to Battle Calculus

April 16th, 2009 · 8 comments

Caltech CalculusQuiet Study

This is the first post in the finals diaries series, which follows a group of students through their quest to improve their study habits in time for spring exams. We start with Travis, a freshman physics major from Caltech. In May, he faces a brutal multivariate calculus exam. This leaves him a little less than a month to toss out his existing habits, which he candidly describes as “less than stellar,” and embrace a more efficient academic lifestyle.

Plan A

As with all of my volunteers, I asked Travis to describe his current plan for preparing for this test. He replied:

It will boil down to taking a couple of weeks before finals and figuring out what I don’t know, trying to brush up on what I may have forgotten, and doing some example problems.

This, of course, is exactly the type of vagueness that drives students to last minute scrambles and incomplete preparation. Luckily, Travis still has time to change his ways.

Read more »

4 Weeks to a 4.0: Master Your Assignments

April 13th, 2009 · 21 comments

4 Weeks to a 4.0 is a four-part series to help you transform into an efficient student. Each Monday between 3/30 and 4/20 I’ll post a new weekly assignment to aid your transformation.

Welcome to Week 3Time to Change

This is the third post in our four-part series 4 Weeks to a 4.0. In week one, I asked you to take control of your schedule, and in week two we overhauled your classroom notetaking. This week we advance to a crucial topic: your assignments. Nothing requires more time for an undergraduate than suffering through long readings or tackling impossible problem sets. Let’s learn how to dispatch them with maximum effectiveness.

Week 3 Assignment: Efficient Assignments

There are two major types of assignments: readings and problem sets. Below I’ve described a streamlined strategy for dealing with each. Your task this week is to adopt these approaches for dispatching your regular work.

Read more »

The Unheralded Splendor of the A* Strategy

April 10th, 2009 · 21 comments

Good Will (Not) Studying

One of my favorite scenes from the tortured genius weepy, Good Will Hunting, is the montage of Matt Damon working with an eccentric MIT math professor. The professor slaps a transparency on an overhead projector, splashing a series of graph structures on the screen. (There’s a professor on my floor here at MIT who actually does this.) Will stares at the screen for a thoughtful, brooding moment. Then he stands, grabs a marker, and adds some extra edges. They slap five.

Proof solved!

To American students, this vision of the genius who instantly solves problems has become the platonic ideal for a star undergraduate. This leads to the belief that the best students complete even the hardest work easily. Therefore, if you want to prove that you’re a top student you need to take the hardest possible course load and get the best possible grades. The goal is to make it seem like your brain is so supercharged that you can swat aside problem sets and exams like Matt Damon solving proofs on the MIT blackboard.

I call this the Good Will Hunting (GWH) strategy for becoming an academic star. Here’s the thing about this strategy: if you can pull it off, it will yield rewards. People are impressed by the 4.0 student with the triple major. But there are two problems:

  1. Most people who attempt the GWH approach don’t pull it off.
  2. It is incredibly stressful and painful, and will probably send you into deep procrastination.

As far as I can tell, many students view the GWH strategy as the only way to stand out academically. (Here at MIT, I had a student tell me that if she didn’t take a killer course load people would just assume she’s not smart.)

In this post, I want to explain a different, more sustainable path to academic stardom…

Read more »