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

October 3rd, 2007 · 81 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…

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

  1. Gideon says:

    Very interesting… I’m not sure if I want to try it (I’m so in my current habits) but it makes me want to try. :grins:

    Damn good advice, at any rate!

  2. Study Hacks says:

    Thanks Gideon. I too was always tempted, but never quite took the full dive into stealth studying. It would be cool though…

  3. Anthony says:

    You’ll have to tell me if this qualifies.

    I had a paper to write for a composition class, 2/3 of the grade. Had most of the semester to write it. The night before, when I didn’t even have an idea, I went to a pinball place that was open all night…at about 3 in the morning.

    After playing for a few hours I went back to school, wrote the paper, finished it about 8:45 and handed it in at 9. Yes, the paper was on pinball.

    And I scored an A.

    Other than that, a quick question. I thought you were hosting a blog carnival here today. Might you take a minute to follow-up with me to let me know when it is, or if it was hosted elsewhere?

    I’d appreciate it.

  4. WindElf says:

    Very helpful!!
    I’ll try it immediately, it’s just like I saw the cornell noting system.

  5. Wow, I really like this idea. As someone who has a 3.9 but studies my ass off to get it by cramming for hours before each test, this might just change a lot about my life. Gonna test it out, thanks for posting!

    Briana of College Fashion .Net

  6. Hi there…Thanks for the nice read, keep up the interesting posts..what a nice Friday

  7. Sue says:

    +bookmarked!

  8. Rae says:

    Wow! Awesome advice! I’m a grad student right now in school psych–and this could’ve eliminated so much stress and hassle when I was an undergrad…I really wish I had stumbled across this when I was in college….thanx so much :)

  9. Juho Seppänen says:

    Two times ten minutes in a subway on each working day helps acing technical material if lived by this article :)

  10. will says:

    AWESOME! THANKS. i will use this!

  11. mattb4rd says:

    Forwarded to my wife. She makes straight A’s, but invests a LOT of time to do so.

  12. Med Wael Khobalatte says:

    I guess it is a good method, but in the same time it is like an energetic drinking!! it won’t last for long, and when you will get to study or do research in a center somewhere, you would stop each 10 minutes because your mind won’t work after that..

  13. Lencias says:

    Can anybody kinda mod this for high school students that dont necessarily have ‘campuses’ to walk around on?

  14. Study Hacks says:

    I guess it is a good method, but in the same time it is like an energetic drinking!! it won’t last for long, and when you will get to study or do research in a center somewhere, you would stop each 10 minutes because your mind won’t work after that..

    That’s definitely possible. As I mentioned, I’ve met two people who have basically lived this lifestyle. Maybe they were special in some way. I’m curious to hear how others who try this approach have fared.

    Can anybody kinda mod this for high school students that don’t necessarily have ‘campuses’ to walk around on?

    Consider condensing the detours until right after school. Go to the library, print out the relevant study sheets, go for a long walk somewhere cool.

  15. Jarlskov says:

    Yeah, spend the school year studying, and you won’t have to do it all just before exams. I’ve tried that, never really worked out :-P

  16. Let me know if you have tried the “livescribe” pen?

  17. Study Hacks says:

    Let me know if you have tried the “livescribe” pen?

    I haven’t. I generally avoid new technology unless I think it will give a significant improvement…

  18. Lu1989 says:

    hii
    thanks a LOT (and attack of the show of course)
    but i have a question
    what questions do we have to copy(the questions our teavhers ask us or those in the books…?
    how many do you recomend?
    how many times per day do you advice?
    how do we anser them(with our note taken in class or what we remember from our class…)?
    and how do we correct them(with our teachers? notes taken in class? friends?)?
    sorry for those stupid questions but i really want to try it out cause i suck at school and studying

    once again thanks :)

  19. Study Hacks says:

    sorry for those stupid questions but i really want to try it out cause i suck at school and studying

    To be honest, if you’re just getting started down the road to improving bad study habits, you should probably begin with something a little less advanced.

    Read this article:

    http://calnewport.com/blog/2008/07/21/monday-master-class-how-to-start-down-the-long-road-from-chaos-to-efficiency/

    Then once you implemented those initial steps, read this article:

    http://calnewport.com/blog/2008/01/25/the-straight-a-method-a-simple-framework-for-conquering-college/

  20. Lu1989 says:

    I`m already doing those 2 steps
    exept for the doing the organisation (google sceduel)
    of course i`ll start doing that
    but the thing is that what ever i tell my self about studying i just fall asleep if i stay more then 15 minutes on a library
    or even on my desk at home
    even when i read a book, i usualy fall asleep even if its really interesting…
    so thats why i asked those questions cause its short.
    i have time between my last class and work (my job is like 3 streets form school so i thought doing the tips on this blog would be perfect (while i walk from school to work))
    and it might sound weird but i often take quizzes that wont affect my grade as a game i have fun with it :P (try to get as most points as i can)
    even in high school, when i barely studied (and my parents were a pain in the a** with it)i had high grades…and when i spent even 1 hour, i failed…
    so thats why i ask those questions
    where do i take the questions from?
    how many?
    how many times per day do i quizz myself?
    where and with who do i correct myself?

    thanks for the links :) I will scedual myself
    and the rest is pretty much done

  21. Thomas V. says:

    Would this work in High School as well?

  22. Study Hacks says:

    Would this work in High School as well?

    Not exactly as described, because there is not enough time between high school classes. On the other hand, as mentioned in an earlier comment, you can simulate roughly the same effect by spending 30 minutes each day at the library on your way home reviewing what you learned that day.

  23. Brandon says:

    yes this will also make my high school classes easier

  24. Lu1989 says:

    all right :D
    now i’m planning myself
    i study (or practice)
    but i still have those anoying questions to ask (sorry)
    i tried taking some questions from class but i’m not sure doing doing the right thing… i just donw want to end up studying useless stuff… please awnser me :)
    dunno if you read my last comment posted on September 18th, 2008 at 3:29 pm..but can you please awnser those questions?
    thanks a lot… it really helps me, even organising myself
    (something i never did before :P)

  25. Study Hacks says:

    where do i take the questions from?
    how many?
    how many times per day do i quizz myself?
    where and with who do i correct myself?

    There’s no magic right answer. Experiment to see what seems to be capturing the main ideas for you in a reasonable amount of time.

  26. gelp needed says:

    so i would make questiond for myself and study every other 10 minutes on the train ride home from hs?

  27. Sam says:

    This technique is great but not at all efficient for those of us in biology and chem classes. You can’t type up these notes, especially not in Q.E.C. format.

  28. eek says:

    Cool idea! I was wondering how you might implement this technique for a mathematics or chemistry class, which heavily relies on problem-solving techniques?

  29. Study Hacks says:

    Cool idea! I was wondering how you might implement this technique for a mathematics or chemistry class, which heavily relies on problem-solving techniques?

    You could apply to the “technical explanation questions” for those classes — which are the questions that have you explain, outloud, big concepts and how to apply them. For example, in calculus, explaining what a derivative is and the rules for applying it. For actually practicing specific problems, however, you probably need a pen and paper and a little bit more time. Though I could certainly imagine doing quick practice problems in between classes, etc.

  30. hugh says:

    cool ideas and advice problem is that i have to cope with the British educational system which is damn stressful.

  31. V says:

    Hey Cal,
    MIT student here. I plan to put this into practice next semester (especially with 14.04; microeconomics is by no means my strong suit) – will let you know how it goes.

  32. Purple says:

    Cal-
    Thanks for this great method. But I have a question: is it possible to stealth study any technical course with math? I’d argue that those classes require actually sitting down and doing the problems. I’d really like to put stealth studying into play for my courses, but almost all my courses are un-stealth-study-able, like a language and Calculus.

  33. Study Hacks says:
    But I have a question: is it possible to stealth study any technical course with math?

    Well, yes and no. If you’re able to walk through a proof, for example, without having to write it down, then this would work. Actually, explaining a problem without writing it down might be a great way to really force an understanding. That being said, I never studied this way for math courses…

  34. Raissa says:

    i happened to get into a schedule like this but by accident – i have a half hour commute back and forth every day and little else to do but prep and review.

    I’ve found that this is a great great great way to study for philosophy class, almost all the time. Playing around with philosophical concepts when they are fresh in your mind, and doing them in small chunks at a time (which this allows for) really lets understanding build. I’m sure this would work for more number/diagram/notjustthought heavy classes too if people actually make study guides. I just found it super easy to do in my head for philo (just thinking: X said this, so that led to this…)

    Also, reviewing right after class made me much more likely to ask the prof questions that week. I’ve found that such dynamic learning is the best way to be engaged with and enjoy a course, and get the most out of it.

  35. This method sounds a lot like spaced repetition, which has been proven to be much more effective at memorization than traditional methods (and of course, way better than cramming, if your goal is long-term retention).

    Instead of making small-font printouts, a more modern and shareable option would be to make Anki databases, which you can then use from your Android or iPhone.

  36. Tom Allen says:

    Some great little hacks here, thanks for the tips!

  37. Christiana says:

    Amazing stuff!!!! I can’t believe I am only finding out about study hacks 6months to the end of my law degree.. This is one of the best things that happened to me. Quick question: do you please have any recommendations for the best way of studying/preparing for law exams? Problem questions in particular. Thank you..

  38. Jessie says:

    This is an awesome idea which I’m definitely going to use. I just wonder if anyone has any opinions on whether it’s better to do print-outs of the study guides to review between classes, or to load the notes onto an iPad? I’m thinking that it could be faster to transfer notes straight onto an iPad rather than seeking a printer…on the other hand, it would be lighter to carry around a sheet of notes instead of an iPad as well as a laptop to class…hmm.

  39. Jessie says:

    Actually, now that I think about it, it’s probably optimal to use Flashcards on iphone/ipod touch for Q/E/C quizzes – you can simply copy/paste your study guides into a spreadsheet with one column for Q, one for E and one for C, then upload through the website. This creates 3-sided flashcards. The app also has the option of spaced repetition, which is cool. Depends how much text you have in your E/C though, in terms of readability.

  40. Briana says:

    Hi Cal, Thanks! Your studying techniques have helped me ( even though I am a high school student). Actually, I have found a way to finish my homwork before I get home and relax. I use the time on the (long)bus ride home to get some bursts of study time, but I don’t study for more than 30 minutes at a time. I listen to classical music sometime to get me moving faster while working or studying,have you tried that?

  41. Thanh K' says:

    Thanks a lot Cal. Its a really interesting article. I will definitely apply it to my next semester’s studying. Lovely!

  42. Ika says:

    I think I had applied this stealth studying when I was at elementary school but sadly forgot, unaware of it, at all, by the time I grew up. Too many things distracted me. Can’t hardly wait to apply your advice soon @ grad school. Hopefully

  43. Lydia says:

    currently in the last semester of my undergraduate study, just found this article :( . gotta try these steps from now on

  44. Lisa says:

    I’m starting college this year and i am so excited to try out this method! Then i start wondering how if it really works, then i’d probably feel strange not really sitting down and studying for hours on end. Student life would be so much better without those study sessions! Thanks so much for sharing it.

  45. L says:

    Good method. Read your How to Become Straight A Student before college. Graduated this May with 4.0 from UC Berkeley. Despite being quite average in intelligence, I still had lots of sleep, work and research experience while in college. Someone should seriously make your blog and books a recommended literature… Just wanted to express my thanks.

  46. La prova says:

    I tried this method for a bio midterm that I had. It worked pretty well, although I suspect, I could have made it more efficient since I ended up studying for 2 hrs the night before and I was not religious with my 5-10 min study breaks.

    There is one minor difficulty with executing this method: if the weather is cold, then it can become difficult to walk around holding a paper in your hands. Putting your hands in your pocket is much more preferable because they like to stay warm and toasty. In this case, gloves do help to a considerable extent, but you will feel your fingers turning into icicles if the walk is especially long.

  47. Caleb says:

    I have just discovered your site and I find everything extremely helpful (Computer Science junior). Can the procedures described in this article be implemented to tackle huge homework assignments/projects? For example, I’m taking several courses that demand not just skill but also lot’s of hours of coding and can, at times, be very stressful.

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