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Case Study: Why the Number of Hours You Spend Studying Means Nothing

July 3rd, 2008 · 29 comments

[Note: Because I’ll be away from technology tomorrow to enjoy the 4th of July festivities, I’m posting Friday’s post one day early. See you on Monday. Enjoy the fireworks…]

Troubles In PhysiologyFrustrated TA

A reader recently wrote me in search of some advice. He was taking an intense human physiology course and worried about his grade. This student is responsible and possesses amazing willpower. Accordingly, in an attempt to ensure top marks, he had been following an incredible study schedule:

Monday – Thursday
Class: 8-12 (Human Physiology)
Lunch: 12-1pm
Working out: 1-1:30
Library: 2- 7
Dinner: 7-9
Library: 9-11

Library: 8-12
Lunch: 12-3
Library: 4-10

Library: 8-12
Lunch: 12-3
Library: 3-6
Dinner: 6-8
Library: 8-10

Library: 8-12
Lunch: 12-3
Library: 3-6
Dinner: 6-8
Library: 8-10

My Advice: Stop!

With such an outrageous number of hours spent hitting the books, this student expected to breeze through the class. Then he took the first exam. He got a 70 — well below the average.

What’s going on here? There are literally no more waking hours left in the day for this student to study.

In response, here is the schedule I recommended he follow instead:

  • Study two hours after lunch, every other day, and a good chunk of time on Sunday morning.

In other words, my advice for improving his grade in this class is to study much, much less. Allow me to explain…

The Quantity Myth

A common myth plaguing college students is that grades are a function of smarts + hours spent studying. Since you can’t change your smarts, your only option to increase your grade is to study more. What I love about this reader’s story is that unless he is taking the absolute most difficult human physiology course ever taught in the history of mankind, his experience completely invalidates the study hour quantity myth.

In other words, if devoting every possible waking hour to a single course doesn’t budge your grade, there must be something else more important playing a major role in determining your score.

This is why I advised the student to significantly reduce his work hours. Once this slash and burn is complete, he can turn his attention to the real question at the core of the studying process: what’s the most efficient way to transform the inputs, arriving in the form of lectures, into outputs, leaving in the form of exam answers?

Here are some resources to jumpstart this thought process:

  • Studying is a Technical Skill
    Why do Olympic swimmers clock worse times when they try harder in the water? In answering this question we discover the crucial different between technique and effort, and why the former is where you should focus when planning your study schedule.
  • Pseudo-Work Does Not Equal Work
    When it comes to measuring how much work you’ve done, hours alone are a terrible metric. This article integrates intensity of focus into the equation and teaches you how to schedule productive work, not simply time.
  • The Focused-Question Cluster Method
    A specific study technique fine-tuned to the type of abundant material presented in the type of class our example student faces.

Beyond these existing articles, I’ll also mention the following specific advice:

  • Don’t think in terms of getting a 70 despite the number of hours you studied. Keep this in mind: most of your study hours were wasted. If you had studied a third of that time you would have probably made the same grade.
  • Concentrate more on understanding what is being said in lecture as it is being said. Ask questions if you need to. When taking notes, try to synthesize and then write the concepts your own words. Understanding is key. Rote transcription is worthless.
  • Eliminate all Rote Review. Also a complete waste of time. Your entire studying schedule should be focused on being able to synthesize and explain the material, out loud, without looking at your notes, as if teaching a class. That’s what indicates learning; not how many times you read the material quietly to yourself.
  • Above all: Relax! It’s human physiology, not the future of the human race. No one actually cares how you do. And it’s possible to sometimes screw up exams. I do it all the time. It happens. Live life. And keep this class only a small part of it.

The take-away message from this reader’s problem should be clear: hours are meaningless when it comes to studying. Keep your focus on learning the material and you’ll avoid landing yourself in a similar, terrible, over-scheduled situation.

29 thoughts on “Case Study: Why the Number of Hours You Spend Studying Means Nothing

  1. Although I do not like anecdotal evidence like this, I do agree with most of the article.

    My advice to add to this is to not go to class and just spend that time studying. This leaves a lot of free time to do whatever else you want to to.

    PS I am actually being serious.

    1. Sajad says:

      I do agree with you. Classes are merely a source of wasted time. I’m a phd student.

  2. a student says:

    In my opinion, for classes such as physiology, one can probably get by perfectly fine via skipping classes — in my experience though, in order to surpass the “average/above average” range and step into the “brilliant/exceptional” range, going to class is an absolute must. Professors are there to teach you the material for a reason..

    Skipping class with the intention of “studying for that class” provides too many opportunities to make procrastination excuses. Not only that, but by going to class your focus when studying for mid-terms/exams is more streamlined because you know exactly what material is important!

    Just my $0.02, from personal experience.

  3. Daisy says:

    @Adrian: Good advice though it probably depends on the professors and classes you have. My professors look for you when you aren’t around, and then they ask where you’ve been when they happen to see you. They also ask your friends. And they give you extra homework. XD

    @Study Hacks:
    Thanks for the advice! My exams are coming up, and I’m trying not to panic as I try out different study methods for the first time.

  4. Vincent says:

    @All above
    The whole purpose of going to any class is to reduce the amount of studying you need to understand the material and get an A.

    Sometimes we do get by fine by not going to lecture. I ditched my mechanics professor’s lecture on the history of physics–that’s not tested material. But it’s the quality and intensity of the studying that matters most, and most of that quality is attained by asking questions in class and using smart techniques like listed above.

    It takes longer for most of us to tackle the physiology textbook by ourselves than to have the professor explain the material. Then the textbook should be skimmed over to patch up any holes in understanding.

    Cal wrote about how lifestyle quality is a more important metric than grades: 4.0’s and high grades are nice, but more important is how you get there…

    Are you acing your physiology exams by rote-reviewing notes in your library prison cell for hours, or do you study INTENSELY for a three hours three times a week with your own collection of amazing study hacks?

    I’m taking physiology later this year, but I’ll just refer to biology and psychology as classes where I would use similar hacks:

    1. Skim the text before class if the material is hard to grasp, or if your professor is often unclear.
    2. Take notes on your laptop of what’s explained (Q/E/C) and draw if you if you need to. Often, I make questions out of the material (Q/A), and follow it up with an answer that the professor speaks out.
    3. I ask any questions, if need be, or make “???” in my notes to ask during office hours or after class.
    4. Immediately, after class, I skim the book for whatever I don’t understand. Then I patch up those holes in my knowledge on my typed notes.
    5. Print out this small packet. While walking around campus from one place to another, recite your notes (Q&R) and check for patches in your understanding. This won’t take too long. And it does boost me to the 90%+ range on tests/exams.
    6. Studying for finals is nothing more than a light stretch before a marathon. By repeating this protocol, and automating it to a schedule, all the studying for classes like physiology are really all done throughout the quarter/semester/summer session.

    That’s a mouthful from me, and a really watered-down summary of how I use Study Hacks for classes similar to physiology. But I hope I proved that most of the studying for high grades is done in class. And I hope I demonstrated by a real tested technique that grinding away like the reader above is nothing more than an example of gross inefficiency.

  5. As someone who teaches college courses, my main advice would be COME TO CLASS. I know some above have mentioned that is useless, a waste of time that you could be studying, etc. But I know, for me at least, I constantly drop hints about what will be on quizzes and exams. Listen for pauses and inflections in your professor’s voice. If he or she reiterates the same list or definition more than once, or in more than one class session, the professor likely thinks it is something very important. We want students to succeed (except for a few d-bags out there). I personally won’t waste precious class time reiterating or further explaining something in-depth that isn’t going to need to be known by the students to succeed.

    I know not all professors are as revealing and transparent about how grades are awarded, etc., as I am, and that’s a real shame. But I know there are plenty out there like myself who won’t give you an A, or even a high B, if you don’t have good attendance. It’s all about participation. I don’t give points just for showing up either just to force people to come to class. I expect discussion, participation in group exercises, etc., from my students. This is 10 percent of their grade for each unit.

    1. Glen says:

      You see that’s the problem with modern education. Why do you have to give students hints of what might come on the exam.

  6. David says:

    To those who claim that skipping class is the way to go:

    What else is there to do with your time in the early morning besides have fun alone? Is there anything that happens in the morning that might benefit your resume that would make skipping class worth it? Any clubs meeting? Not really. Any people socializing? Most likely not. Any big things going on around campus in the morning? Sorry, try the weekends or after dark. Nothing else really happens around campus except for classes. What are you gaining except the thrill of having fun (which can be done anytime), 15 seconds of fame when you tell someone how you’re a hotshot who can skip class and still get by, and, if you care about your grade, probably an obligation to study MORE than people who went to class because you don’t know what’s important in the reading.

    The one instance where skipping probably harms you less is in certain science classes where you just go over the textbook rather than introduce new material, and you get plenty of extra feedback in the form of homework, quizzes, and review sessions over key problem sets. Another might be classes which podcast their lectures (I know of some Med Schools which are doing this), but I don’t see this as “skipping” class, just attending class whenever you want to.

    @Joshua “I know there are plenty out there like myself who won’t give you an A, or even a high B, if you don’t have good attendance”

    Yes this has happened to a few people I’ve known who have skipped class, EVEN when class attendance is not “required” and participation doesn’t make up part of your grade.

  7. Kathryn says:

    Although I agree that one experience doesn’t necessarily prove a generalization, my instinct tells me that there’s a lot of truth to this. Hours don’t necessarily equal great grades. Can I add a couple suggestions of my own?

    1) If you’re having a hard time on tests despite serious studying, talk with your TA or teacher. Maybe you’re having a hard time understanding what you’re studying.
    2) If it’s memorization you need, use memory tricks, rather than repetition alone, to memorize.
    3) If it’s writing, start early and take lots of breaks.

  8. Study Hacks says:

    I’m enjoying this debate about class attendance, and have weighed in on the topic with my Monday Master Class post today.

    Although I agree that one experience doesn’t necessarily prove a generalization, my instinct tells me that there’s a lot of truth to this. Hours don’t necessarily equal great grades. Can I add a couple suggestions of my own?

    Good stuff…

    The whole purpose of going to any class is to reduce the amount of studying you need to understand the material and get an A.

    Vincent, your summary of your work habits is a great snapshot of the type of student lifestyle pushed here on Study Hacks. Well done!

  9. This article is getting handed out to my freshman calculus classes this fall right alongside the syllabus. The “quantity myth” as you put it is the single biggest misconception about college that new students have, and I know plenty of students who have ended up not making it in college just because they persist in this myth. Thanks for this timely info and the good discussion here in the comments.

  10. Study Hacks says:

    This article is getting handed out to my freshman calculus classes this fall right alongside the syllabus.

    Thanks Robert, that means a lot coming from someone of your academic stature.

  11. some student says:

    Hi Cal

    I was wondering if you received an update from the student in which the blog was written about.

    Was your advice taken to heart and was there a significant improvement in marks?


  12. Study Hacks says:

    I was wondering if you received an update from the student in which the blog was written about.

    I haven’t heard from him recently. But if I do, I’ll definitely post a follow-up. Typically I find that student transitions are rarely dramatic. Usually lots of small steps (and back steps) en route to an utlimately different lifestyle.

  13. asas says:

    While I do agree that rote learning does not directly impact learning, I disagree that rote memory is a complete waste of study time. Exposure to content is increased by sitting for hours, and while there are faster ways to get stuff into the mind, increased exposure definitely increases the chances of content enlightenment aka increases understanding.

  14. mayeesha says:

    It’s not the future of human race, brilliant.

  15. John Lox says:

    So, if time does not matter, then what are the best suggestions for taking classes like organic chemistry I & II, quantum mechanics and statistical thermodynamics? Let’s say you’re taking these classes at MIT.

    Thank you!

  16. Yan says:

    Hey Cal,

    I just wanted to let you know that I liked your article so much that I actually linked to it within my latest blog post:

    I would be honored if you checked it out. And if you love it, feel free to share it on the social web. 🙂


  17. Dennis says:

    What about if your taking all online courses? No class setting what so ever…Would love to hear some feed back on study techniques since Online courses seem to mesh together…Thanks

  18. One Topper says:

    Yes, indeed. I’m one of the toppers at school. Everyone studies for two hours daily. When they asked me about my study duration and I answered, they were surprised- I study for two hours daily too! Seriously? They don’t know the simple fact that it depends not on the number of hours of study, but the concentration and hard work you do during these hours. What do others do? They do it blindly and then say that they have “studied”. This is how they got surprised after hearing my answer. My advice to everyone: Please UNDERSTAND what you are studying as much as you can; and don’t parrot!

  19. Brad Greenlands says:

    I studied for 6 years part time while working full time as a manager in my 30s and my job always came first and study came second as the University wasn’t paying my mortgage. I always acted like a high paying customer of an organisation not a student, remember Universities are profit making businesses so it is in their interests to retain you as a customer. Anything more than a pass is a waste because your framed degree on your office wall will look the same whether you scored 100% for each exam or 51%. I did a lot of my reading on public transport and only studied on my days off. I used to start assignments one or 2 days before they were due. With this terrible but realistic study attitude I passed with a GPA of 5.65 across 24 subjects and that degree still sits on my office wall! I was so over it after 6 years I asked them to just mail me the degree and I couldn’t be bothered going to the graduation.

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