The Study Time Paradox
A common complaint I hear goes something like this: “I studied for hours and hours, reviewing every practice problem I could find, or re-reading every assignment and all my notes, and then, when I sat down for the test, I had no idea how to answer the questions!”
I call this the Study Time Paradox because no matter how hard these students study, their grades don’t seem to improve. In this post, I want to describe a solution to this problem; a simple hack that requires 5 – 10 extra minutes a day but can produce significantly better grades.
Lurking behind the Study Time Paradox is the following truth: there’s a difference between knowing information and understanding concepts. This should sound familiar. This is the same observation that motivates the use of question/evidence/conclusion note-taking and quiz-and-recall test review instead of transcription and rote memorization. (See here and here for more on the Study Hacks approach to note-taking and exam prep, respectively.)
The piece of advice presented here, which I call the Story Telling Method, is a complement to these strategies. It can be described as follows:
- After each class, tell a “story” about the material covered—a five minute summary of the concepts that drove the lecture.
- Don’t bother writing it down. Instead, just say it to yourself while walking to your next class. Treat it like you’re a literary agent or movie producer pitching the lecture at an important meeting.
- Cover the big picture flow of ideas, not the small details. Answer the question “why was this lecture important?”, not all the information it contained. Play up the flashy or unexpected.
For example, after an Art History lecture, you might tell the story of early renaissance artists clashing in Italy, and how and why Cimabue and Gitto—the superstars of their era—were able to break out. You can do the same for technical material. After a calculus course, for example, you could talk about what problem a derivative solves and how integration extends the idea to do something even cooler. You don’t need to review the chain rule, instead explain why the hell someone would want to know the slope at a point on a curve.
Constructing a Framework
The Story Telling Method has an important benefit: it takes the large volume of information you just received and organizes it within a coherent framework. Not surprisingly, this makes it much easier to retain this information. Later, when you approach exam studying, having this narrative framework reduces review to a simple task. By contrast, if you approach studying with just a large pile of notes — even if they are taken carefully in the question/evidence/conclusion format — you might have some long nights ahead of you.
The Rise of the Mini-Hack
I call this type of advice a “mini-hack” because it’s a small thing that you can easily integrate into your existing schedule; it’s something you do between classes, not a big new commitment. At the same time, however, it can generate a big boost in your performance. I’m fascinated by this type of advice as I think there is great potential in replacing major habit changes with a constantly evolving arsenal of small little tricks. Expect to hear more of this style of tips in the future. And as always, if you give this strategy a whirl, let me know how it goes.