Anatomy of an A+: A Look Inside the Process of One of the World’s Most Efficient StudiersMay 18th, 2011 · 87 comments
Scott Young’s Graduation Gift to Study Hacks
I have to give credit to Scott Young: it was talking blogs with him back in 2007 that helped convince me to start Study Hacks. The fact that I link to Scott’s material again and again and again and again should tell you that we think in similar patterns.
The reason I’m bringing up Scott today is that he’s about to graduate from university. One of the things that intrigued when I first met him four years ago is that, like many students I profiled in the red book, he had the ability to score top grades without needing to study much.
It turns out that he kept this up: He will graduate this month with a GPA that hovers between an A and an A+, even though he almost never studied for more than a handful of hours.
In honor of Scott’s graduation, I asked him if he would share his secrets. I don’t want vague philosophies, I told him. Study Hacks readers are more interested in a blow-by-blow case study of exactly how he studied for a specific test, including screenshots of his notes and a careful accounting of his time.
Fortunately for us, Scott agreed. Below you’ll find the details of how he scored an A+ on a corporate finance exam that had a 50% failure rate at his university. His total time studying: 3.5 hours.
Take it away Scott…
The Student Secrets of Scott Young
“Looks like you have a test to write.” It’s noon and an unexpected test isn’t how I like to spend my lunch hour.
The subject is chemistry. Mostly multiple choice, a few essay questions. It’s one of those regional contests, which explains why I’m the only one being forced to write it. I haven’t even taken the class being tested.
Three weeks go by. “Congratulations, looks like first place–and a check for $400.”
That was my senior year in high-school. One university degree later, and not much has changed. My average stayed between an A and an A+ throughout college, and I still rarely study more than 2-3 hours before an exam.
For most students, these results are profoundly unfair. I didn’t study harder; I studied less. I wasn’t taught more; in the first example, I hadn’t even taken the class in question.
But it wasn’t just me—I’ve met dozens of learners who make my accomplishments seem banal. Polyglots that speak dozens of languages. Students who coast through triple course loads. Savants that can memorize sequences of ten thousand numbers.
This bothered me. Scientists have known that differences in IQ are both genetic and environmental. This suggests that innate talent can’t explain everything, that there might be a difference in strategy which allows people to learn more with less studying.
The Strategy of Rapid Learners
The biggest difference I noticed between people who learned easily and those who struggled wasn’t being organized, study location or any of the common advice given to struggling students. It was how they learned the material.
Slow learners memorized, while rapid learners made connections between ideas.
When I first wrote about this idea four years ago, it generated a huge discussion. Many people came out that fit the generalization, heavy studiers tended to memorize, while effortless students made connections between ideas.
Even more, I believe these methods of faster learning are trainable. I’ve coached over 800 students since I first started on this idea, and I’ve had many that cut down on their studying by as much as 75%, while getting better grades.
In this article I’m going to walk you through exactly how you can apply these ideas to your studies. First, by going through one course I recently used the methods on, and second, by generalizing the ideas so you can apply it to any subject you’re taking.
Anatomy of an A+ (With Under 4 Hours Study Time)
Corporate Finance has around a 50% failure rate at my university, and I’ve known people who have taken it over 4 times before passing. Despite this, I was able to score an A+ with a total of 3.5 hours of studying total for the final exam. Let me walk you through how I did it.
The quick version of what I did isn’t terribly revealing. My 3.5 hours were divided between only two tasks:
- Ninety minutes creating a notes compression for the core concepts. (This involves cramming all the key facts and concepts onto a 2-sided paper)
- Two hours completing and correcting one practice exam.
Here’s a scanned copy of one side of a notes compression I did for another class:
The purpose of the notes compression is to give a good once-over of all the material. It functions as a double-check, making sure there aren’t any conceptual holes or forgotten details. Second, it lets you see the course as a whole to get broader connections between ideas spaced apart in the lectures.
Similarly, the practice exam also works as a safety check. I scored a 90%, so I noted my few errors and finished my studying. Had I scored lower, I would have repeated the exercise with a few studying tactics until I got the grade I wanted. In this case, I was able to avoid problems the first round.
Now this version of events isn’t particularly enlightening. If you take a typical 10-20 hour studying session and replace it with ninety minutes of cursory review and a practice exam, and most students would fail.
The power of the method doesn’t rely on the last minute checks, it’s about how knowledge was engineered from the beginning. Let’s go into more detail to see how this could be achieved over an entire course.
Detailed Version—How to Ace Finals Without Studying
There are a few principles to successfully executing a near-zero studying time A+. I’ll list them here, and keep them in mind when I walk through the specific examples:
Principle #1: Learn It Once
This principle asserts that the correct time to learn something is when you first approach it, either in your readings or lectures. Waiting until the end to study results in a lot of wasted effort and poor grades.
Whenever I uncover a concept that doesn’t immediately click into place, I invest time right away to figure it out. This results in a focused effort to repair any holes in knowledge before they tear at the foundation.
Principle #2: Knowing is Being Able to Teach
If you can’t explain something simply, it means you don’t fully understand it. In keeping with the learn-it-once philosophy, the way you can tell you haven’t learned something is if you can’t teach it.
This is the litmus test to assure that Principle #1 is upheld. If you can’t, out loud or on paper, explain the idea without confusion or contradiction, stop and figure it out right there.
Principle #3: Memorization is a Last Resort
The final principle is that memorizing is a vice to be used only when absolutely necessary. Too many students use memorization as their first weapon of choice and therefore miss out on all the hard, but ultimately time-saving, insights they could have created through connections.
Some knowledge is better memorized than deeply understood. But after taking classes in math, law, psychology, business, economics, computer science and many other areas, I would say that these are in the minority. Medical students and legal scholars need more memorization than mathematicians or physicists, but the principle remains true.
Part One – Learn Concepts by Analogy
So keeping these three principles in mind, learn it once, teach-to-know and memorization as a last resort, I progressed through the class and applied it to each concept or fact, as they were covered.
A good way to do this with concepts is through analogy. If you create metaphors or analogies, that allows you to create connections between the idea and understand it on a deeper level. This is generally my first point of attack against any idea that initially seems hard to remember.
I’ll take an easy example from early in the course and walk through it: present-value of money calculation.
The goal is to learn this formula and concept deeply so that (a) you don’t ever need to relearn it, and (b) it becomes a solid foundation for all future ideas that are based off of it.
It can be tricky to create strong analogies if you’re used to memorizing everything. Here’s one approach I’ve used that helps lock in the ideas:
- Break down the formula, idea or concept into smaller pieces.
- Ask, “Why?” to probe for patterns in the structure.
- Suggest some possible metaphors that fit the pattern.
- Use the metaphor to explain the idea.
- Strengthen the metaphor and repeat the process.
This process looks laborious, but with practice the entire series of 5 steps can be done in less than sixty seconds. I’ve simply broken it down to atomic components so you can follow through if you get stuck.
With the present-value formula, my first step would be to break it into rough parts. A casual observation shows me that there are several lumps of money, occurring at different times. These are then being divided by an interest rate, which also has an exponent on it. These are then all added together to give one dollar value.
The next step is to use the question “why?” to probe the ideas. Why are we adding the values together? A: Because we want to know what several cash payments spread out over time would be worth as one payment today. Why are we dividing by the interest rate? A: Because that’s how much extra money in interest we could make if we had the money today. Why are we compounding the interest rate? A: Because interest payments compound, and exponent represents how many years of interest would have accumulated, if we had the money today. This could go on and on, but you get the idea.
Now we can suggest some possible metaphors that fit this pattern. Off the top of my head, I think of perspective drawings, car leases, rocks falling to earth and trees growing. Some have vaguely similar properties (trees grow, money grows) others are identical (car lease payments versus lump-sum purchases).
The final step is to explain the idea to yourself in terms of the metaphor. If I used the perspective drawing analogy, I would say imagine that the lumps of money are drawn in cash bags, down a hallway. The interest rate is the angle of view, or how quickly far bags shrink. Finally the equation is as if you cut the amounts off the canvas and added them together in the same place.
This is a pretty involved example, but most of the time this process is quick and can even be done during class. I drew pictures for clarity, but you can walk through these five steps mentally to save time.
Look through the ideas and think of simple examples that can allow you to explain the concept to yourself. Only if you get stuck do you need to go through the above 5-step process I outlined to create an analogy.
Side note: You don’t need to remember every analogy you create. They serve as scaffolding for understanding the core concept. Once you build several metaphors, you should be able to remember the idea without referring to metaphors or analogies–you’ll just “get” it.
Part Two – Learn Facts Through Association
For a class like Corporate Finance, concepts are the majority of the work. If you can truly “get” the big ideas, then there isn’t a lot of need to know lists of facts. Still, as in all classes, there are facts that need to be memorized.
One such fact is that a bond’s yield-to-maturity is normally expressed as a quoted annual rate, compounded semi-annually (at least in Canada). Forgetting this fact would have cost marks, as this fact is assumed in a lot of the questions.
Continuing from the three principles, the best way to remember facts is through association. Similar to handling concepts, you want to create a few connections that will allow you to remember the idea. With this example, I made a couple of connections:
- This quoted annual, compounded semi-annual was the same for mortgages.
- In the case of mortgages, the result is that you end up paying more effective interest than you would guess, given only the quoted rate. (i.e. the banks trick you on the payments)
- Bonds are normally paid out semi-annually, so it makes sense that they would compound, semiannually.
Unlike for concepts, it’s possible you may forget some of these connections and forget a key fact. That’s why, particularly for factually dense classes, some memorization might be necessary. Either through repetition in practice questions, mnemonics or flashcard-style review.
However, by starting out through associations, you create a mental hook that makes remembering the idea easier.
If you can follow these two parts—using analogies and imagery for concepts and associations to remember facts—then you can greatly cut down on the amount of review you need to learn the subject. If you spend a few minutes after every class practicing these methods, they can become automatic, so they happen automatically whenever you read a chapter or attend a lecture.
Acing Any Class Without Studying
I’ve walked through an example from one class, Corporate Finance. How can you apply this to whatever you’re learning?
Most of the process is the same, but I’ll give a few more notes for generalizing the methods:
#1 – Handling Factually Dense Courses (Anatomy, Medicine, Law, etc.)
The association method still works for these classes, but there are a few more techniques you may want to work on as well:
- Group related facts together. My example only covered a solitary fact, but often facts in large classes have groupings that you can use to generate associations.
- Translate facts into concepts. Sometimes you’ll only be required to learn a fact, but turning it into a concept (which you can use the metaphor method) can make it stick further.
- Learn visual memory techniques such as linking, pegging and vocabulary association. These are outside the scope of this article, but they are powerful ways to cut down the amount of memorization necessary.
#2 – Managing Creative Problem Sets
Many classes require you to go beyond the ideas presented. Instead of just understanding the basics of an idea, you need to apply it to different situations, or solve logic puzzles that might otherwise be difficult.
There’s two ways you can handle this. The first is to do a lot of practice problems and build what Cal describes as hard focus. The second approach is to create more connections and metaphors to understand the idea from a wider range of perspectives. The best method is probably to do both.
These types of courses also brush up on the third type of knowledge you may need in a class, skills. In addition to facts and concepts, you need to build intuition through deliberate practice.
Learning More, By Studying Less
I’ll admit, a lot of these methods can seem overwhelming at first. To summarize, here’s the basics for doing well with less studying:
- Learn by connections, not by memorization.
- Learn things deeply the first time, don’t let confusion compound.
- Handle concepts by creating metaphors and analogies.
- Remember facts through association first, repetition second.
If you follow this approach, it makes sense that it’s possible to ace exams with relatively little studying. After all, if you’re able to lock in knowledge as it comes to you, there isn’t much need for dozens of hours in the library. Learning becomes easier, and even fun.
Author Bio: Scott Young writes a popular self-improvement blog and is the author of Learn More, Study Less. If you enjoyed this article, you can join Scott’s free rapid-learning newsletter to get a free copy of his rapid learning ebook with bonus tactics and case studies.
Note From Cal: If you want to find out more about Scott’s approach to studying, also check out the page for his online course Learn More, Study Less: regardless of whether you want to sign up for his course, this page contains links to many of his blog articles on this topic.