Study Hacks Blog Posts on Tips: Studying

My World Famous Mechanical Exam Prep Process

April 29th, 2008 · 17 comments

Exam advice week continues here at Study Hacks. I’m posting Wednesday’s article a little early because I’ll be gone tomorrow morning and I wanted to make sure you got your productivity fix in a timely manner.

So Much WasteRobot

Finals period is tough. I can’t change that. But as I watch students slog through this process I keep remarking at the amount of unnecessary stress. The main culprit: waste.

Too many students begin exam prep without a (sufficiently detailed) plan. They have, at best, only a rough idea of how they’re going to review before they dive straight into a pseudo-work grind. Cue the red-eyes; the coffee-stained hooded sweatshirts; and, of course, the early morning competitions to see who slept less. (“You went to be at 4 last night!? For shame! I’ve only slept 18 minutes in the past 9 weeks.”) It’s tedious.

Waste Elimination (The Good Kind)

Exam prep doesn’t have to be this hard. If you’re willing to spend a few more minutes planning, and if you can put aside that childish impulse to procrastinate on absolutely everything until the last minute (it’s not a genetic trait, chief, you’re just being a lazy ass), you can eliminate most of this wasted time from your prep schedule. This elimination, in turn, will push the experience from overwhelming and terrible to hard but manageable.

Trust me, it’s worth it.

In this post I explain the simple mechanical process I used to prepare for exams back when I used to have lots of exams to prepare for. (Ah, the joys of being a senior graduate student.) Yes, it requires that you start things early. But it works. You can follow the plan more or less blindly; avoiding the ill-fated need to draw upon your limited will power to make decisions on a daily basis.

Cal’s Patent-Pending Mechanical Exam Preparation Process

I’m not usually so formal with my habits, but, for the sake of exposition, I’ve clustered the main ideas into clean bullet points. As usual, I expect you to customize, challenge, and experiment with the system until it best fits your situation:

  1. Gather and Plug.
    Spend 20 minutes on each course. Gather together all the material you need to review. This might require printing your notes off your computer. If there are any holes in this material — a missed lecture or, perhaps, an important reading you didn’t get to — make plans in the immediate future to plug the gaps.
  2. Construct Battle Plans.
    Once you fill the gaps you’ll be left with complete collections of information to review for each course. Spend some time to come up with a review battle plan for each of these piles. These plans should consist of — and only of — specific review actions with well-defined endpoints. I can’t stress the latter part enough. I don’t want to hear about you blindly flipping through your book for hours. You need to specify exactly how you are going to review and how you’ll know when you’re done.
  3. Take a Break.
    If you don’t have time to step away for a day or two, then you started too late. You need time to clear your head before the next step.
  4. Make Your Plans Less Dumb.
    Look back at your battle plans with a fresh eye. Ask yourself: where can I make this more efficient? Most likely, you’ll find several strategies that are redundant or could be replaced with something more streamlined. It’s easy, in the heat of the pre-exam moment, to get overzealous with your planning. Always assume things will take longer and your schedule will be tighter. Be prepared by cutting, cutting, and then cutting.
  5. Schedule Your Battle Plans Using the Two Day Rule.
    Assign the different pieces of your battle plans to specific days leading up to the exams. When doing so, I suggest the following simple rule which, if followed, will provide a significant stress reduction: schedule each battle plan to finish two days before the relevant exam. There is something magical about never having to study the day before the test. It’s like a whole different (relaxed) experience. I know, I know, you’re probably saying right now: “I can’t finish a day early! I’m such a wild and crazy procrastinator!” Sigh. Here’s my response: “Man up.” You’re not starring in a National Lampoon movie. No one is impressed that you can put off work.)
  6. Execute.
    Notice I’m avoiding the “s”-word here. “Studying” is for pseudo-working grinds. You’re executing a specific plan custom-designed to minimize time and stress. Bonus: Kelly over at Hack College will pound one beer for every time you work the phrase “I’m executing a specific plan custom-designed to minimize time and stress” into casual conversation with an attractive member of the opposite sex.

In Conclusion

A lot of this might reek of common sense. But that’s also the smell of advice that might actually work. Approach your exam prep like a robot and you’ll be surprised by how smoothly it goes.

Crowd Wisdom: Your Best Study Hacks Revealed

March 5th, 2008 · 13 comments

The Crowd SpeaksThe Crowd

Enough about me! Last week I asked you to share your most effective and unusual study hacks. You sent in some clever strategies. Below are five of particular interest. Hopefully these will help stimulate your own thinking toward the sheer variety of approaches that are possible for mastering your academic environment.

I’m sad to report, however, that I don’t actually have t-shirts, as promised, that feature a smiling picture of me with the caption “Straight-A Students Do It On Schedule.” Although I thought this was infinitely clever, I was informed by Julie that, in fact, it’s infinitely not.

HACK #1: Study in Character
Submitted by jlb

Faced with a tough academic challenge? Imagine a character that would handle it well. Then tackle the challenge in character. Reader jlb admits to being a procrastinating perfectionist. But it when it came to earning his PhD in the classics, he invented: The Efficient Classicist. When ever it came time to work, he first asked “what would the efficient classicist do?”

As jlb recalls: “I was pleasantly surprised to realize that I knew exactly how an efficient classicist would behave, and I stuck to it. Inventing this fictional character helped me to get beyond my limiting ideas about myself.”

HACK #2: Memorize by Connecting to the Unforgettable
Submitted by Vincent

When faced with a straight memorization task, as in a Latin or foreign language class, don’t resort to rote review. Instead, connect each word to a strong visual that ties to both the word itself and its meaning. Not just any visual, mind you, but outrageous, unforgettable visuals. Use sex, drugs, booze, the thought of crazy old Mrs. Hannigan naked — whatever will stick out in your mind.

Reader Vincent describes how he learns Latin words 8 seconds at a time: “To learn “procella” (Latin for “storms”), for example, I imagine Hilary Clinton fervently making a speech on a stand as a “pro” (I mean pro as in an advocate) for “cellars” (of lots of beer) while thunder (”stormy conditions”) strikes in the background. When you do this two to three times a week, it becomes second nature.”

HACK #3: Quiz-and-Recall Using Idea Maps
Submitted by Dominic

When facing a class that presents a large amount of detailed information, using quiz-and-recall method on the raw facts can become overwhelmingly boring; not to mention that it becomes easy to miss the bigger picture connections and ideas that will help you on an advanced test. Try this instead: organize the information into idea maps that connect the information to bigger concepts which in turn connect with each other. When studying, try to reconstruct the idea map from scratch.

As reader Dominic explains: “During an exam, the first thing I do for each problem is to ask: ‘what part of the idea map does this belong to?’ Usually the problem’s core concepts then become clear. Ever since adopting and refining the above strategy, I have received nothing lower than an A in my advanced biology classes.”

HACK #4: Visualize Your Way Into a Flow State
Submitted by David

We work best when hit that magical moment of flow where everything else in the world drops away and your concentration is at its peak. Reaching this state, however, can be tough when you’re in a crowded study lounge, surrounded by over-caffeinated pre-meds loudly debating whose recent panic attack was most spectacular.

To combat this, head to a library that is quiet and that has nothing to do with what you study. This reduces stress and helps you relax. Once there, visualize yourself levitating in the air and looking at the back of your own head. This exercise, when enacted in a calm environment, helps you fall into a flow state.

As reader David explains: “I do this visualization exercise and it allows me to immediately enter the flow state. Having a relaxed environment just reduces the temptation to focus deadlines or upcoming tests and instead concentrate on accomplishing what needs to be done.”

HACK #5: Meditate Your Way Into a Flow State
Submitted by Michael

Not big on visualizing? Reader Michael (of the University Scholar blog) recalls a recent study by Dr. Heidi Wenk-Sormaz that demonstrates how 20 minutes of meditation produced better results on a subsequent concentration task than 20 minutes of relaxing or working on another problem. Take advantage of these concentration-boosting powers of meditation. Consider a quick 10 to 20 minutes of getting your zen on before class, before studying, before working on a paper, before a big test, or, even if you’re just having a hard time getting your motivation amped up.

As Michael notes: “Meditation is easy. You don’t need to find a meditation center or sign up for yoga. All you need to do is sit comfortably, on your knees, in a chair, or cross-legged on the floor and focus on your breathing.”

Monday Master Class: How to Peform a Post-Exam Post-Mortem

February 4th, 2008 · 19 comments

Dweck’s Chemistry StudentsPostmortem

In her recent book, Mindset, Stanford Psychologist Carol Dweck describes a study that followed a group of college students through a difficult pre-med chemistry course. As is common with pre-med courses, most of the students did poorly on the first exam. The real division occurred after those first low grades were returned. Some students got spooked. They assumed the low grade indicated lack of ability. As the semester continued they compensated by increasing their study hours, but not changing how they studied. Their resentment for the subject grew. Their grades, alas, did not.

The second group had a more optimistic mindset. They went back and examined what went wrong on the first exam, made some fixes to their study habits, and then continued with their improved strategy. Not only did they score better on the subsequent exams, but they were all around more happy with the pre-med program in general.

The Rosetta Stone

If you look past the big-“c” Conclusions of this study, you’ll find a tactical gem buried in the narrative — a piece of study advice I’ve been promoting for years: the best guide for how to study for a class is the first exam.

Think about this for a moment. The first exam reveals the exact relationship between the material presented in class and the type of questions that you’ll be asked to answer about it. After your get your first exam back, you have, in essence, been granted the Rosetta Stone for your class. You now know exactly how to study for the exams that follow.

The details work as follows…

The Post-Exam Post-Mortem

After you get back your first exam, set aside 15 or 20 minutes to soak up its lessons and adjust your habits accordingly. Begin by asking yourself the following questions:

  1. What did I do right? What note-taking and study strategies served you well on the exam?
  2. What was a waste of time? Which strategies took up time but did not help?
  3. What did I miss? Where were you caught off guard? What type of question were you not prepared for? What type of material did you miss in your review?

Next, lay out, in detail, the rules for the study system that you’ll follow for the remainder of the semester. Make sure this system includes the tactics you listed in your answer to (1) and excludes the tactics mentioned in your answer to (2). (This sounds obvious, but many students get so comfortable with certain study rituals that they have a hard time abandoning them, even after they’ve identified them as not helping.)

Most important, think hard about your answer for (3). Then ask yourself what’s the most efficient habit you could add to your study arsenal that would fill in those gaps. Add this to your system.

Case Study: MIT Kicks Me in the Ass…Then I Kick Back

In an old Monday Master Class article, originally posted in July, I walk through the tale of a post-exam post-mortem that saved my ass here at MIT. Here’s the bullet-point summary (see the original post for more detail):

  • I studied hard for a course in distributed system design. The course relied on academic papers, several per week, that we reviewed in class. I used quiz-and-recall to make sure I knew the main structure, pros, and cons, of each of the systems studied.
  • Then the test came. I froze on the first question. It was asking for nitty-gritty details; i.e., what would happen to this performance plot if 5% of the processors failed? My high-level quiz-and-recall questions had not prepared me for these down in the dirt detailed prompts. The clock was ticking…
  • I didn’t know how to answer these questions. So I did poorly. Afterwards, it took me about an hour of pacing to wear off the negative energy of the experience. Later that same day, I sat down and began to tweak my study system. I asked myself what went wrong. And then looked for answers.
  • By the end of the day, I had a new strategy. For the remainder of the semester, I would focus on the tables and graphs included in the papers we reviewed. If I could do a quiz-and-recall lecture on each of these figures — explaining what it showed and why — then I should understand the correct level of detail for the subsequent exams. Better yet, this system was efficient. These figures, it turns out, capture all the salient details of the paper. They provided natural, targeted questions for learning the right level of material.

It turned out that I wasn’t the only student to do poorly on that first exam. Most of them, however, did not adjust their study habits for the final, and ended up doing poorly there as well. In comparison, my strong final grade, plus strong problem set performance, earned me an “A.”

Trust Your Conclusions

A good percentage of the e-mails I get from students are instigated by a bad exam. They are worried that they are in danger of taking a turn for the worse academically. I love these e-mails. Having completed one exam makes the polishing of your study system easy. It’s hard to guess how to best study at the beginning of a class. But once you have some feedback you can get specific.

Let your first exam guide you. Learn its lessons, and those that follow will go much more smoothly. And if you can, avoid taking the grad-level distributed system design course at MIT. It’s tough.


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.

Monday Master Class: 5 Bad Study Habits You Should Resolve to Avoid in 2008

December 31st, 2007 · 14 comments

Toxic Study HabitsNew Year

I often tell students that there is no magic bullet strategy for increasing their grades. Different people have different work personalities. Some tips that work great for one person might barely make a dent for others.

Negative habits, however, are universal. There are some distressingly common mistakes made by undergraduates that will always lead to more pain and waste more time than necessary. In this year-end post — the last of 2007 — I want to help you avoid the worse of these toxic habits. Below are five terrible study habits that you should resolve to drop like, well, a bad habit, as you head into 2008.

Bad Habit #1: Studying Without a Plan

Do you still use “study” as a specific verb? For example, as in: “I’m going to go study, see you in 12 hours.” If so, you’re in trouble. “Study” is ambiguous. No one can “study.” What they can do is specific review activities, such as “convert first month of lecture notes into question/evidence/conclusion format,” or “quiz and recall study guides 1 to 3.” If you head to the library planning, vaguely, to spend time “studying,” you are likely to waste time. Instead, always first construct a specific plan that outlines specific activities.

Bad Habit #2: Skipping Classes

Do you regularly skip class? If so, and I say this with all discretion, you’re weak. Attending class is your primary responsibility as a college student. If you can’t handle this small little piece of self-control, requiring, at most, a few hours of your time a day, then how can you expect to muster the discipline required to become an efficient, engaged, high-scoring student? Beyond the general wussyness of side-stepping the lecture hall is the practical reality that every hour of missed class will require 2 – 3 hours of copying notes, bothering your friends, and reading to learn the information from scratch. Attend class. Always. Make this non-negotiable.

Bad Habit #3: Using Rote Review

Do you study by reading and re-reading your notes to yourself silently? Stop! I know it feels good, in a monkish, masochistic, pain equals progress sort of way to beat your brains against a book hour after hour, but it’s also a terribly inefficient way to review. Instead, lecture to an imaginary class, out-loud, about the main topics, without reading off your notes. If you can state an idea once, in complete sentences, out-loud, it will stick. You don’t need to re-read it a dozen times. If you can’t capture it out-loud then you don’t understand it yet. Go back. Review. Then try again.

Bad Habit #4: Studying After Midnight

Do you frequently study well past midnight? If so, and again, I say this with all discretion, then you’re an idiot. But you’re also in good company. A surprisingly large percentage of college students think the proper way to review is to wait until 10 or 11, then push through until 3 or 4. This terrible on so many levels I don’t know where to begin. So let me just sample a few high points from the abundant terribleness. First: you can’t concentrate in the middle of the night. Second: staying up that late screws you up the next day, you get sick, you can’t focus, you need naps, class becomes an ordeal, your health and fitness decrease. And so on. Work early, in small concentrated chunks. Get your work done well and fast, and leave your nights for relaxation and, dare I say it, sleep.

Bad Habit #5: Not Taking Notes on Your Reading

Do you think it’s sufficient to simply make it through your reading assignments without writing anything down? It’s not. Ideas from the reading will show up on the exam. If you don’t learn and record these ideas when you first do the assignment, then how will you be able to answer the corresponding questions on the test? Too many students think they can solve this problem by reviewing their readings right before the test. Obviously, this won’t work. The math is simple. Hundreds of pages of dense reading. A day or two review. You’re not going to make it through everything at the last minute. Treat readings like a lecture. Take concise, informative notes on the main big ideas. You don’t have to record every last fact and pore over every word. Learn to hone in on the main thesis, and capture the bullet points needed to intelligently write about it later on. When review time comes along, you should have no need to crack your books again — the notes should be sufficient for an efficient review.

Monday Master Class: How to Use Gmail to Reduce Your Study Time by 50%

October 29th, 2007 · 3 comments

Filling in the GapsMind the Gap

One of the most overlooked time sinks in the study process is filling in gaps in your understanding. Think back to the last time you prepared for a test. It is likely that around 50% of your time was spent trying to figure out stuff that you missed the first time it was presented in lecture or reading assignments. This holds for both technical and non-technical courses. In the former, the gap might take the form of a technique that went by too fast on the board during lecture. In the latter, it might be a reading assignment that baffled your ability to pull out a clean conclusion.

This reality breeds the following observation: if you can find a way to consistently fill in these gaps in your knowledge as they arise, you can significantly reduce your study time.

In this post I outline a simple system for achieving this goal. To maximize efficiency, it makes use of the label and filter features built into Google’s Gmail system. The basic idea is to capture open questions quickly in your e-mail inbox and then process them once a week to prevent backlog.

The details are as follows…

Step 1: Create an Open Questions Label

Label Step 1Label Step 2

For each of your classes, create an “open questions” label in Gmail. These labels will be used to organize e-mails that describe gaps in your understanding for each class.

Creating these labels is easy (for this step, as for the others that follow, click on the accompanying screenshot thumbnails to see examples):

  1. Click Settings in the upper-right corner of the Gmail screen.
  2. Click the Labels tab.
  3. Scroll down to the text box, type “Open Questions :: <class name>“, and then click the Create Label button.

Step 2: Setup an Open Questions Filter

Filter Step 1Filter Step 2Filter Step 3

The next step is to setup a filter that will recognize e-mails describing an open question, and then automatically label it with the proper label and archive it to keep your inbox clean. This will make it easy to quickly add to your collection of open questions for a given class from any internet connected computer.

To create a filter, do the following:

  1. On the Settings screen, click on the Filters tab.
  2. Click on the Create a New Filter link at the bottom of the page.
  3. In the to field, type: “<Gmail user name>+OQ<classname>
    • For example, if your Gmail address is, and you are setting up an open questions filter for a history class, you would type: “
  4. Click the Next Step button.
  5. Select Skip the Inbox.
  6. Select Apply the Label and then pick the label you constructed in the previous step from the drop-down list.
  7. Click the Create Filter button.

Step 3: Create Shortcuts for your Filter Addresses

Creating a Short Cut

You can now use Gmail to easily capture and organize the open questions for your classes. To do so, send an e-mail describing the question to the special e-mail address you used in the filter for that class.

For example, if you’re confused by an argument in your history class, you can send a description of your confusion to the “<gmail user name>” address you used for the history class open questions filter. When delivering the message, Gmail knows to ignore the extra tag to the right of the “+” sign, so it will make it safely to your inbox. (This feature was added to simplify exactly these types of filtering schemes.)

It can be a pain, however, to type in this full address for each question. To simplify the process we can create a shortcut. To do so, first type the following into your to field:

“shortcut for this e-mail address” <address>

…then send a simple message. Gmail will bind the shortcut to the address. Next time you want to send an e-mail the same address, simply start typing the shortcut and it will pop-up in the list of auto-fill suggestions. For example, for our history example, you might setup a shortcut by sending a message to:

“OQ History” <>

From now on, whenever you need to record another open question for the history class, just start typing “OQ History.” After the first 3 letters your address should be automatically identified. Pressing the tab key will fill in the full address.

Step 4: Capture Your Questions

You’re in class. The professor says something that confuses you. If you have your laptop open, quickly shoot a description of the confusion to the open question e-mail address you setup for that class. If you don’t have a laptop, you can send this e-mail next time you are checking your e-mail on a public computer or back in your dorm. The same applies for reading assignments. If get confused, shoot off an open question e-mail.

Your filter system will automatically label and archive these open question e-mails for later review.

Step 5: Process Your Question Queue

Once a week, you need to process open questions that have been building up in your e-mail inbox. If you don’t, they will collect until you start the studying process. This will lead to a major time sink.

Use the following efficient method to speed up processing:

  1. For each class, click on the label for that class to review the open questions from the preceding week.
  2. Printout all of these e-mails.
  3. For each printout, decide how you are going to resolve the question. You have several options available:
    1. Ask the professor or TA during the next office hours.
    2. E-mail the professor or TA.
    3. Ask a friend in the class.
    4. Consult a resource that you think has an answer.

When you’re done, you’ll have made a plan to close every gap identified in the previous week. An easy habit is to just bring your printouts for a class to office hours each week. Your professor or TA will appreciate your organization and focus.


Once it’s up and running, the system is simple. You access your inbox all the time, so simply shooting off an e-mail with a question you don’t understand is an easy habit to adopt. Similarly, the processing of these questions is an easy addition to a weekly review. Do this, for example, as part of your Sunday ritual.

If you stick with it, however, you’ll be amazed at how much more streamlined your study process becomes. When you only have to review — not learn — in the days leading up to a test, the hours required to become prepared are significantly reduced.

Related Posts

Monday Master Class: How to Talk to a TA

October 22nd, 2007 · One comment

The TA Factor…Frustrated TA

In many classes, your Teaching Assistant (TA) is your most important resource. This is particularly true in technical subjects. If you establish a good relationship with the TA and ask good questions, he or she can make your life in that class significantly easier.

On the other hand, if you abuse the relationship, and badger the TA with aggressive questions, or try to weasel answers, you’ll lose this resource, and your life will become significantly more difficult.

Having spent time on both sides of the student/TA divide, I want to provide some simple rules for managing this relationship. This post lists 5 common things you should never say to your TA. Each is accompanied by an example of the right (and more effective) way to accomplish the same goal.

In your experience, what worked and what didn’t work for forming a good TA relationship?

Stop!Rule 1: Don’t say: “I don’t know how to do this problem. Help!”

TAs know that this is code for: “I spent a few minutes and the solution wasn’t immediately obvious so now I want you to give me the answer.” This pisses them off. No matter how exasperated you act, they won’t give you the answer.

Instead: Be specific! Explain what you tried. Where you are stuck. Why you are stuck. And, most importantly, exactly what type of information you need from the TA that would help you without solving the problem for you.

Stop!Rule 2: Don’t say: “I don’t understand what this problem is asking.”

That is not helpful. Once again, most TAs will assume that you are fishing for an answer; e.g., you hope that in his or her haste to help you understand, the TA will accidentally give away the goods.

Instead: Provide a list of specific things you find ambiguous. For each, explain the differing interpretations that seem possible. Many questions are, in fact, ambiguous, and the TA will appreciate this specificity and be happy to help you clarify.

Stop!Rule 3: Don’t say: “I think the problem is unsolvable.”

It is. Okay, sometimes there is a mistake in the problem write-up. But this is rare. And, when this does occur, it’s usually minor and easily identified if you know what you are doing. Most likely you’re just stuck, and you’re frustrated that you’re stuck, and you’re trying to displace this frustration on the rest of the world.

Instead: Refer to the advice given for Rules 1 and 2. Try to identify exactly where you are stuck, and make sure you have listed any specific parts of the problem you consider ambiguous. Nine times out of ten, this exercise will miraculously make the problem become once again solvable.

Stop!Rule 4: Don’t say: “Can I swing by your office if I have any questions?”

Many students abuse this privilege. They use it as an excuse to bother the poor TA, all day, with the type of irritating questions proscribed in the previous 3 rules.

Instead: It’s okay to try to meet a TA outside of official office hours. This is especially true if office hours are held the day before a problem set is due (a tendency I really disagree with from a pedagogical point of view). The key, however, is to schedule a specific meeting with a specific purpose. Suggest a duration and a list of the specific topics you want to discuss. For example: “I’m getting stuck on the first question because I’m still shaky on how to formulate a quality inductive step, I’m hoping we can go over some examples so I can use it more confidently.”

Stop!Rule 5: Don’t say: “Can you tell me if I’m on the right track here?”

TAs know this is code for: “can you tell if my answer is right?” They are not going to tell you this. You’re being less subtle then you think.

Instead: Make sure you understand the problem. Ask questions where things are unclear. Check your work your group members. Then, just trust yourself. It’s just one problem among hundreds you’ll solve as a student.

The Art of Stealth Studying: How To Earn a 4.0 With Only 1.0 Hours of Work

October 3rd, 2007 · 105 comments

Welcome new readers. Study Hacks is a blog dedicated to productivity hacks for students. If you like this article, you might also like these posts on how as an MIT grad student I never work past 5 PM, the difference between work and pseudo-work, and the key to becoming both impressive and relaxed. If you prefer more technical advice, consider my article on using a Monotypic e-mail inbox, this survey of effective student time management techniques, this story of a student who got a 4.0 with 0.0 notes, and these instructions for building a paper research database.

The Secret Art of Stealth StudyingStealth Studying

Most students don’t mind studying if the work gets done in focused chunks, spread out over a reasonable amount of time. For some, however, reasonable efficiency is not enough. They want more. They want to push academic productivity to its absolute limit. They want nothing less than to eliminate studying all together!

I can’t get you all the way to this goal. But I do know a technique that can get you close. Imagine only having to study for one hour the day before a test? No more stress. No more long nights.

It’s possible. During my research for Straight-A I came across exactly two out of the fifty students I interviewed who managed to accomplish this goal. (And were loving life because of it). Their technique is a little-known art I like to call: Stealth Studying.

In this post, I will teach you this art…

The Stealth Studying Philosophy

Before your torch your notebooks, I should make an important clarification. You cannot avoid capturing and internalizing information. It’s like a law of nature. These activities must take place before you can score high on a test.

The stealth studying philosophy, however, states: the perceived difficulty of work grows with the amount of consecutive time you spend working. If you can take your test preparation and slice and dice it — ninja style — into a large number of small, 5-10 minute chunks, integrated naturally into your daily routine, spread over your whole semester, you will perceive next to no difficulty. In other words, it will feel to you as if you are doing no studying at all.

Let’s dive into the details…

A Five Step Stealth Studying Playbook

There are many ways to implement stealth studying. The approach I am going to describe is based on the tested techniques behind the Straight-A method. (That is, it relies heavily on the quiz-and-recall review structure). Note, this system tackles non-technical courses. It should be easy, however, to adapt the basic tactics to other types of material.

My approach relies on three principles:

  • If you’re already intaking information — in class or doing a reading assignment — you might as well process the hell out of it at the same time. This prevents the need to do this work later in a separate work block.
  • Walking is a great time to review.
  • Fill in gaps in your understanding immediately! If left untreated, these topics collapse into test prep black holes.

I’ve broken my stealth studying system into five separate tactics:

  1. Construct study guides on the fly.
    When taking notes — in class or while doing a reading assignment — start constructing your study guide at the same time. The easiest way to do this is to copy the questions from your question/evidence/conclusion clusters and paste them at the top of your document as you go along.
  2. Print study guides immediately after construction.
    As the professor winds down, or as you finish your reading assignment, send your notes to the nearest public printer. (Or e-mail them to yourself so you can load it up on a public computer connected to a printer). Before doing so, however, reduce the font to the smallest size you can still read. (This will prove useful later.) As you walk out of the classroom, or library, swing by the printer to grab your printout.
  3. Review using the “10-Minute Detour” method.
    Throughout the semester, you will gather a growing collection of these expanded study guides (the “expanded” here refers to the fact that the notes the questions are based on are included in the same printout — this makes them self-contained). As soon as you have your first study guide printed, start looking for ways to add a 10-minute detour to a walk across campus you already need to do. Make these detours pass through somewhere quiet and unpopulated. For example, on your way from lunch to your afternoon class, you might loop down for a 10-minute stroll by the lake before veering back to the lecture hall. During these detours take out one of your expanded study guides and start doing a quick quiz-and-recall review. Do this out loud. As you walk. (It’s okay to do this quietly to prevent unexpected institutionalization). In 10 minutes you might knock off 2-4 questions. Some additional notes on this process:

    • Get in the habit of sprinkling these detours throughout your working hours on working days. (If you’re between classes, your mind is probably already in a deep thinking mode — or a mild coma, depending on the professor).
    • If you can slip in two 10-minute detours most days, you’re doing fine. Keep in mind: these are harmless. Because they are so short, and you do them while walking to something else, the perceived difficulty is near nill.
    • Always have study guides in your pocket. The small font on your printout makes it easier to fit more in less space.
    • Try to review new material within 24-hours to help cement it while it’s still fresh.
  4. Ask questions every class. Attend every office hours.
    To make stealth studying work, you need to understand all the material as quickly as possible. This means you need to come to class attentive and be a question-asking fiend. When you don’t quite understand how something fits a broader point, ask. If you don’t want to keep interrupting the class, save a collection of specific, concise questions to ask the professor immediately following class. Attend office hours most weeks to discuss the topics you found most difficult. Think of this as a pain-free, advanced review session. We have no time to spare for you to re-learn this material later on before the test. If you don’t get it down the first time, we can’t get your study time down to an hour.
  5. The night before the exam do one (and only one) complete Quiz-and-Recall pass.
    Now comes the only traditional studying you will have to do. The night before the test, gather all of your expanded study guides. These guides should have been mastered at some earlier point in the semester during a 10-minute detour. You need, however, to refresh this information. Do a full quiz-and-recall pass through all of the study guides. Because of your earlier review, there should be few questions you don’t nail on your first pass. This should allow you to complete the full quiz-and-recall process in no more than an hour. At this point, you are ready to ace the exam.

In Conclusion

Once you pierce the veil of conventional wisdom, you begin to discover just how much flexibility you actually have with the dreaded activity us students label “studying.” The stealth studying system is a perfect example. With the right discipline, and a taste for experimentation, long blocks of library time can be eliminated almost completely from the process of test preparation. Imagine how much stress this would remove from your student life.

If you plan to give this a try, drop me a line. I’d love to hear your story…