Study Hacks Blog Posts on Tips: Studying

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.

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How Allison Used Her iPod to Ace Biology

December 10th, 2008 · 36 comments

Contest Update: This Saturday I’ll be announcing the rules for the HP Magic contest. If you’ll recall, I’m giving away 5 brand new computers, a wireless printer, a bunch of free software, and more. While you’re waiting for my contest rules to be announced, check out this site for a list of the 49 other blogs also participating.

Post Update (4/8/09): Stefan from the Dutch School Kid blog has posted an article summarizing his experience trying to use this technique to study for his own biology course. 

iTunes Notes

Panic Mode

It was two weeks before her biology final, and Allison, an undergraduate at McGill University, was starting to panic. She had been trying to review her class notes but found the process increasingly tedious. Her concentration would not hold, and the material was not sinking in.

Allison knew she was more an audio than a visual learning, but recognized early in the semester that David’s technique of recording entire lectures to review later would be too inefficient. (The lectures were loooonnng and dddrrryyy.) She needed something more punchy.

That’s when she noticed the iTunes icon on her computer desktop and hatched a clever plan…

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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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Four Ways to Annoy a Professor When Asking For Help (And Four Things You Should Do Instead)

October 14th, 2008 · 28 comments

Note: I was away for the holiday weekend, attending a college conference. Because of this, there was no Monday Master Class yesterday. Today’s post will take the place of both yesterday’s Master Class and the normal Wednesday post.

Professorial WisdomHand

I often recommend to struggling students that they talk to their professors. My philosophy: when a class is giving you trouble, figure out exactly why and then craft a customized solution. Your professor’s input is an invaluable piece of this process.

But here’s the thing: a lot of students have no idea how to approach a professor. As an academic in training I’ve witnessed this firsthand. In this post I want to describe four common mistakes students make when asking a professor for help. I pair each with a suggestion of what to do instead.

Way #1: Saying “I don’t understand this at all.”

Many students see professors as a magic wisdom-imparting machine. To them, the very act of attending office hours holds out the promise of instant understanding. This leads them to show up and say, in essence, “I don’t get it,” and then sit back and wait for glorious comprehension to flow like water.

Here’s the problem: It doesn’t work that way.

The professor has spent hours teaching these subjects, if he could make you understand them from scratch in one short conversation, he wouldn’t have spent so much time going over them in the lecture hall.

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Monday Master Class: The Story Telling Method

September 1st, 2008 · 24 comments

The Study Time Paradox

Tower Room

A common complaint I hear goes something like this: “I studied for hours and hours, reviewing every practice problem I could find, or re-reading every assignment and all my notes, and then, when I sat down for the test, I had no idea how to answer the questions!”

I call this the Study Time Paradox because no matter how hard these students study, their grades don’t seem to improve. In this post, I want to describe a solution to this problem; a simple hack that requires 5 – 10 extra minutes a day but can produce significantly better grades.

Story Time

Lurking behind the Study Time Paradox is the following truth: there’s a difference between knowing information and understanding concepts. This should sound familiar. This is the same observation that motivates the use of question/evidence/conclusion note-taking and quiz-and-recall test review instead of transcription and rote memorization. (See here and here for more on the Study Hacks approach to note-taking and exam prep, respectively.)

The piece of advice presented here, which I call the Story Telling Method, is a complement to these strategies. It can be described as follows:

  • After each class, tell a “story” about the material covered—a five minute summary of the concepts that drove the lecture.
  • Don’t bother writing it down. Instead, just say it to yourself while walking to your next class. Treat it like you’re a literary agent or movie producer pitching the lecture at an important meeting.
  • Cover the big picture flow of ideas, not the small details. Answer the question “why was this lecture important?”, not all the information it contained. Play up the flashy or unexpected.

For example, after an Art History lecture, you might tell the story of early renaissance artists clashing in Italy, and how and why Cimabue and Gitto—the superstars of their era—were able to break out. You can do the same for technical material. After a calculus course, for example, you could talk about what problem a derivative solves and how integration extends the idea to do something even cooler. You don’t need to review the chain rule, instead explain why the hell someone would want to know the slope at a point on a curve.

Constructing a Framework

The Story Telling Method has an important benefit: it takes the large volume of information you just received and organizes it within a coherent framework. Not surprisingly, this makes it much easier to retain this information. Later, when you approach exam studying, having this narrative framework reduces review to a simple task. By contrast, if you approach studying with just a large pile of notes — even if they are taken carefully in the question/evidence/conclusion format — you might have some long nights ahead of you.

The Rise of the Mini-Hack

I call this type of advice a “mini-hack” because it’s a small thing that you can easily integrate into your existing schedule; it’s something you do between classes, not a big new commitment. At the same time, however, it can generate a big boost in your performance. I’m fascinated by this type of advice as I think there is great potential in replacing major habit changes with a constantly evolving arsenal of small little tricks. Expect to hear more of this style of tips in the future. And as always, if you give this strategy a whirl, let me know how it goes.

How to Ace the SAT: A No-Nonsense System for Students Looking to Score High

July 11th, 2008 · 43 comments

The SAT Season LoomsSATs

Over the past two weeks I’ve received three different e-mails asking for advice about SAT prep. I assume, therefore, that we’ve entered a season during which many high school students have begun to look ahead to this most dreaded of the standardized test family.

In this post, I want to summarize the system I typically recommend for high-performance SAT preparation. This advice is motivated by three sources: (1) my own experience preparing for the SAT (which I took only once and did pretty well on); (2) the results of a survey I conducted last fall about test prep habits that worked; and (3) observations I made about how a group of my college friends prepared for the LSATs (all three got into Harvard Law School, so they must have done something right.)

The Practice Test Tsunami

My system for SAT preparation works as follows:

  1. Skim the Princeton Review Book. I find some of its advice to be simplistic (for example, all that nonsense about Joe Bloggs), but it also offers some concrete strategies for tackling the main question types. In particular, their methods for dealing with ratio problems on the math section, and analogies on the verbal section, are fast and work well. Learn these. They make a difference.
  2. During a 5 – 10 week period leading up to the test, take 2 timed practice tests per week. Do one of the tests in one sitting (with breaks calibrated to match the real SAT.) I recommend setting aside a weekend morning each week for this beast. I also recommend the public library as a better location than your noisy house. The other timed test you can be split up. For example, tackle a timed math section one day and a timed verbal section another. Spread these out. If you attempt too much review, you’ll burn out and stop working all together. Similarly, if you don’t take the timed test seriously — and really concentrate — they don’t help nearly as much. So set aside serious time for serious concentration.
  3. Go back and review every single wrong answer. Taking the timed tests will get you used to working under pressure. To further improve your performance, however, it’s crucial that after each timed session you review every single question you got wrong; determine why you got it wrong and why the right answer is right. This post-mortem is by the far the most effective tactic for improving your ability to consistently nail the harder questions.
    (Bonus Tip: A reader wrote me this morning to reveal a twist to the wrong question review process. She recorded her wrong answers on note cards, and then did a quiz-and-recall review. As she took more practice tests, her pile of hard question note cards increased. Each day, she did a fresh Q-and-R on her trouble spots. The result? She claims that it quickly revealed patterns that immediately improved her performance. Her math score — where she was having the most trouble — bounced up 150 points in one week!)

If you find this workload too brutal, start earlier and spread it out more. For example, there would be nothing wrong with starting review now for the October test date. You can do only one timed test per week, and take some weeks off. Don’t make the mistake of equating pain with quality review. The two are unrelated.

But What About…

A few final notes. In my (unverified) opinion, this technique works better than the Princeton Review prep courses. The students who benefit from the prep courses do so because it forces them to take timed sample tests. If you can do practice tests on your own (and follow-through on the resulting post-mortems), you won’t gain anything new from the formal courses.

Second, I’m not a huge believer in memorizing vocabulary lists. The only way to hit the 700 range or above on the verbal section is to read, a lot. If you’re younger, start reading as much real books as possible. (Like many high-scorers on the verbal section I begun reading adult fiction and non-fiction early.) Memorizing words might boost a not high score to slightly less not high, so if that’s you, then, I guess, you can memorize if you want. On the other hand, if you’re a bookworm, you’ll probably find that with practice your scores get where you need them to be without memorization.

Whatever you do, however, don’t buy those stupid fake novels with SAT prep words bolded. They’re a waste of print and an insult to anyone planning on attending college. If you’re in doubt, drop me a line, I’m happy to recommend any number of real books that will boost your vocabulary while having the advantage of not being terrible.

What worked for you? 

Adventure Studying: An Unconventional New Approach to Exam Preperation

May 2nd, 2008 · 34 comments

Exam advice week here at Study Hacks is winding down. So sad! Next week it’s back to the normal mix…

An Inspiring SpaceICA Mediatheque

Two days ago, I spent an afternoon roaming Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art, which, in its new building, is situated right on the harbor. While exploring the main exhibition space on the the fourth floor, I stumbled into a room they call the mediatheque. It was stunning. The ICA’s architecture has the fourth floor cantilevered out over the water of the harbor. This particular room hung off the bottom of this ledge, and featured a steep set of descending tiers. At the bottom was a full-length picture window through which only water is visible. (See the picture above.)

The full effect is hard to describe. You lose your sense of height and location in space. Are you in a ship? In a building? Are you a few feet above the water or hundreds? Very Zen.

My first thought: this would be a damn good place to work on a paper.

You Can’t Do That!

For many students, this thought reeks of heresy. Conventional wisdom says: studying happens on campus, or, if you’re feeling particularly crazy, maybe in a Starbucks near campus. And that’s it. It is supposed to be a grind that takes place in in the same old boring libraries surrounded by the same old boring people. And by the end, with your eyes rimmed red with exhaustion, and your skin sallow and whitened from fluorescent saturation, you can grin, feebly, and announce: I survived…

Here’s my question: does it have to be like this?

Beyond the Ordinary

At Dartmouth, I frequently sought ways to challenge this conventional wisdom. When I would see the hooded sweat-shirted masses trudging toward the library at the beginning of finals period, I would turn and run in the opposite direction. I was known to drive 20 minutes away from campus to study at bookstore where no one knew or cared that my school had exams. I would sometimes tackle thorny take-home exam questions while walking the banks of the Connecticut river. Anything to avoid the cinder-blocked study lounges that most students believed — bafflingly — that they were contractually bound to inhabit during this period.

Introducing Adventure Studying

I call this tactic: adventure studying. The basic idea is simple. Our minds crave novelty. If you work on exam preparation and paper writing in novel environments, it becomes easier to engage the material, be more creative, form stronger comprehension, and, overall, dare I say it, perhaps even enjoy the process.

My Challenge to You

I’m embarrassed, however, that as an undergraduate I didn’t have the confidence to push adventure studying as far as I should have. I want you to make up for my shortcoming. I want you to push the adventure studying concept to its limits. What is the most outrageously exotic yet undeniably perfect location where you can migrate your exam preparation or final exam writing? Try it.

Ignore ingrained student traditions of camping out in libraries and study lounges. Redefine finals period to be a source of personal reflection and novelty and intellectual adventure.

Some examples of adventure studying possibilities:

  1. If you have a car, spend a day reviewing in a completely different town. Preferably one that is small, and idyllic, and more than 30 minutes from campus. Switch between little cafes, the public library, and parks. Meet the locals.
  2. If you’re near a body of water and live somewhere reasonably warm: spend a day reviewing in your bathing suit. Cycle through: reviewing; napping; swimming; then back to reviewing. I’ve never tried running through flashcards at the end of an ocean-battered jetty; but I imagine it’s not a bad way to learn those art history dates.
  3. Head to the nearest big city and camp out at museum. Find your own local equivalent of the ICA mediatheque room.
  4. If your family owns a vacation house that has been opened for the season: camp out for a couple days. Bring a friend. Study during the day, have philosophical, semi-incoherent conversations at night. (Don’t, however, go late-night drunken skinny-dipping. According to the movies this will lead to you getting eaten by a shark.)
  5. Load up some quiz-and-recall study guides in your backpack and hike some place isolated and wild. Switch between studying and wandering and reading and zoning out in a Thoreau-esque state of blissfulness; like Into the Wild — but, hopefully, with less death. Who says you can’t review on a 5000 foot summit? It’s better than the library basement.

The Golden Rule of Study Advice

I’ll let you in on a critical secret: no one cares how or where you study. You don’t have to punch a time card when you enter the library. The dean doesn’t track how you spent your day. Take 100% advantage of this reality.

The Tomb at The MetJust because it’s “tradition” to spend the week before exams holed up in the library in some macho display of academic self-flagellation, this doesn’t mean that you have to follow this path. Why can’t you study alone on the beach? Or in your parent’s cabin in Maine? Or sitting on a bench near that crazy, completely enclosed Egyptian Tomb they have setup at the Met?

The Zen Valedictorian Tackles Finals

You might have noticed that I tagged this article with “The Zen Valedictorian.” I think the adventure studying concept fits nicely with the ZV philosophy. It’s about the larger goal of constructing the college experience you want, not stumbling through the path of least resistance.

If you take up the adventure studying challenge — and I hope you do — keep me posted. We want to hear about your adventures. I’ll share the best with the full gang. Bonus points for pictures.