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Monday Master Class: A Crash Course in the Straight-A Method

August 19th, 2008 · 15 comments

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I recently did an interview with the Manila Bulletin, in which I discussed the basic ideas underpinning the Straight-A Method (the framework for all of my studying advice). I thought it might be a good idea to reproduce some of the article here as a way to bring my newer readers up to speed on the type of good old fashioned study tips found in my books.

(The full article can be found here.)

STUDENTS AND CAMPUSES BULLETIN (SCB): What are some of the common causes of “underachievement” in school?

Cal Newport (CN): Student culture. It’s seen as uncool to be working hard. Also, there is often a fear that if you admit to working hard then do poorly then this somehow proves that you’re not smart. A lot of talented students develop terrible habits as a way of avoiding this fear. My advice to overcome this culture is “keep it yourself.” Study how much you need to study and don’t make it a topic of conversation.

SCB: How important is motivating yourself to study?

CN: The worse your study habits, the worse your urge to procrastinate – your mind tries to avoid activities that seem painful for no good reason. If you’re on top of your work, follow a reasonable schedule, and use efficient habits, it’s a lot easier to stay motivated.

SCB: What strategies can a student use in each stage of his school life?

CN: In grade school, get used to the habit of setting aside a little block of time each day – maybe right after school – during which you complete your homework.

In high school, overcome the cram habit by keeping a detailed deadline calendar and devising a study plan for papers and major tests; i.e., how you are going to study, for how long, and on what days. This is also a good time to expand your grade school habit and maintain set times, each day, in which the bulk of your work gets done. Finally, and I can’t stress this enough: never, ever do school work on a computer that is connected to the Internet. This is a complete waste of time. Finish the paper early, then you can dedicate your entire night – if you so wish – to facebook.

In college, always attend class. Spread out your assignments over the week (don’t leave them until the night before; this isn’t high school, the work load can’t be crammed into a few hours of intense effort). Study during pockets of free time in the morning and afternoon; definitely don’t leave everything until after dinner. Ignore how your friends study – they’re probably idiots when it comes to these skills – and, instead, run your own experiments to discover what techniques seem to be the most efficient for you. Top students often have crazy tool boxes of custom-built study systems that help them get work done fast.

In graduate school, the culture is more dangerous then the work load. Ignore how much you are “supposed” to be working and focus, during the early years, on getting the work done well. Later, when faced with a dissertation, avoid the “woe is me” attitude, and just get started early, and work consistently over time, with plenty of feedback, to develop something good.

SCB: How can a student be motivated to get good grades even though a boring subject or a teacher gets in the way of an exciting learning situation?

CN: Studying is like a game. You are faced with a source of information, you have to do some sort of processing, at the other end you take a test or write a paper and get a grade for it.

The challenge is to make that middle part – the processing – as efficient and effective as possible. Even if you don’t love the subject, there is always something fulfilling about watching your custom-built note-taking and review system suck in the info, process it, review it, and spit out top-scoring results on the other end.

SCB: What are the top five skills students must learn in order to get high grades in class?

CN: Pay attention in class. Capture big ideas in your notes, not a transcript of every word the teacher uttered.

Energy and focus is more important than time when it comes to studying. Work in focused chunks in the morning and the afternoon – not in long stretches after dinner.

Always have a plan. There is nothing worse than heading off to the library with vague ambitions to “study.” Always be specific about what actual work you are planning on doing and how long it should take.

Avoid rote review. Silently reading and re-reading over notes is a slow way to learn. Instead, try to recall big ideas, out loud, as if lecturing to a class.

Start working much earlier than your classmates. Work in smaller chunks spread out over more time. The results are better and the pain much less.

SCB: What can you advise students who are currently having a hard time in school?

CN: Last fall I wrote a blog article called “The Vital 5” which listed the following five steps for turning around poor academic performance:

1. Attend every class. Take notes on a laptop.

2. Set aside a fixed two-hour study block for every weekday and Sunday. Use this time to study, in a remote corner of the library, without exception, every week of the term.

3. Make a study plan for every test in every class at the beginning of the term. Decide what you are going to do and when.

4. Replace rote review with quiz and recall.

5. Attend office hours every single week to discuss the most challenging material from lecture, or the hardest problems from the problem set. Inform the professor that you are making a real effort this term to turn around your performance.

(photo by permanently scatterbrained)

15 thoughts on “Monday Master Class: A Crash Course in the Straight-A Method

  1. Jen F says:

    hey great article =]

    I know this probably doesnt go here, but I am wondering what your thoughts on the website Chegg.com are. I was looking at textbook prices. For one of my textbook the cheapest amazon has it is 115 while this place has it at 59$

  2. Study Hacks says:

    I know this probably doesnt go here, but I am wondering what your thoughts on the website Chegg.com are…

    I’m not sure if this is a real comment or an ad…either way, I don’t really know anything about textbook buying.

  3. Jen F says:

    hehe sorry, its definitely not an ad =] but thanks a lot. I am an upcoming freshman and since you have great advice about school in general i was wondering if you knew anythng about it.

  4. NK says:

    Good post to remind us of the basics. If I could suggest a topic for you: As a lot of folks head into the new school year, I think it would be helpful to have some “back to school” articles so everyone starts the semester off on the right foot. Just a thought.

  5. Lauren says:

    I agree with NK. I love your advice and as a college sophomore in the fall I would really appreciate some “back to school” articles as well so i can begin my school year right.

  6. Andrew says:

    Okay, so I feel stupid for asking this, but it is about time that I address this.

    What do you actually say when you go in and talk to a professor. I have never needed help in school till college and after two years of terrible (and later descent) work I’d like to step up the game. I like the fifth piece of advice, but I honestly have no clue what I would even say when I would go to office hours. Can you do a post about this?

  7. Study Hacks says:

    If I could suggest a topic for you: As a lot of folks head into the new school year, I think it would be helpful to have some “back to school” articles so everyone starts the semester off on the right foot.

    Good idea. Stay tuned next week…

    What do you actually say when you go in and talk to a professor?

    Note that you hoped to ask for some clarification. Summarize what you understood and how you understood. Then explain the piece that you don’t get, and ask for help fitting it into what you already summarized as understanding.

    In general, specificity and explanation (and proof) of what you do get is key.

    Avoid just saying: “I don’t get it.”

    Avoid being difficult (a lot of students, for some reason, respond to this situation by trying to justify their lack of understanding by resisting the attempts of explanation…as if admitting they now understand would prove their lack of understanding was bad. Don’t do this.)

  8. Chris says:

    Top students often have crazy tool boxes of custom-built study systems that help them get work done fast.

    Could you possibly expand on some of these study systems? I would really appreciate an entire post on this subject. Thanks!

  9. Chris says:

    Cal, any response?

  10. Study Hacks says:

    Could you possibly expand on some of these study systems? I would really appreciate an entire post on this subject. Thanks!

    Hi Chris. The strangest I’ve seen include a student who pastes visual versions of the information all over her room then likes to randomly look and think about them, and another student who made mindmaps using yarn on her wall.

    In terms of slightly less weird options, think like the Morse Code Method and Q/E/C clusters, both of which have been talked about here.

  11. Nick says:

    My reply to the question about chegg.

    It is really a hit or miss. My brother ordered his books and received them. I on the other hand ordered my book, they shipped it out and said that the could not find my address when clearly they shipped books to my brother who lives in the same house. I contacted customer service, which is the definition of terrible. They never answer an email, I had to call them and they said it must have got lost in the mail. Okay, they ship out supposedly another book, Little did I know they did not. They said they were. Emailed them again and then they finally 4 days later emailed me back and told me they will give me a refund. Needless to say 3 weeks later I am without a book. Waste of time.

  12. Angela says:

    Hi! I was just wondering if it is possible to use the quiz and recall method to study for multiple exams in the same period without going crazy! My problem is that it is common that on one day I have 2 or more exams and don’t know how to handle this!!!

  13. Study Hacks says:

    Hi! I was just wondering if it is possible to use the quiz and recall method to study for multiple exams in the same period without going crazy! My problem is that it is common that on one day I have 2 or more exams and don’t know how to handle this!!!

    Start reviewing much earlier. I liked to try to finish my studying two days before an exam as a way of eliminating the feeling of stress from my life. It sounds crazy, but once you start reworking your time frames you’ll see how much easier things can be.

  14. Gabe says:

    Can you either write an article about or just comment back the programs/tools you use for scheduling everything, and taking notes, and staying organized? An overview of the complete system you use would be nice (detailing how something gets from a professors mouth assigning it to your calendar to getting done).

  15. Study Hacks says:

    Can you either write an article about or just comment back the programs/tools you use for scheduling everything, and taking notes, and staying organized? An overview of the complete system you use would be nice

    Check out this post:

    http://calnewport.com/blog/2008/04/09/the-tasty-ingredients-in-my-productivity-secret-sauce/

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