Study Hacks Blog Decoding Patterns of Success

How Allison Used Her iPod to Ace Biology

December 10th, 2008 · 35 comments

Contest Update: This Saturday I’ll be announcing the rules for the HP Magic contest. If you’ll recall, I’m giving away 5 brand new computers, a wireless printer, a bunch of free software, and more. While you’re waiting for my contest rules to be announced, check out this site for a list of the 49 other blogs also participating.

Post Update (4/8/09): Stefan from the Dutch School Kid blog has posted an article summarizing his experience trying to use this technique to study for his own biology course. 

iTunes Notes

Panic Mode

It was two weeks before her biology final, and Allison, an undergraduate at McGill University, was starting to panic. She had been trying to review her class notes but found the process increasingly tedious. Her concentration would not hold, and the material was not sinking in.

Allison knew she was more an audio than a visual learning, but recognized early in the semester that David’s technique of recording entire lectures to review later would be too inefficient. (The lectures were loooonnng and dddrrryyy.) She needed something more punchy.

That’s when she noticed the iTunes icon on her computer desktop and hatched a clever plan…


Audio Cue Cards

Allison decided that she would record a short lecture for each of the important topics covered in class. She used Apple’s Garage Band software for the recording and imported the resulting mp3 files into an iTunes playlist. (See the picture at the top of the post.)

The resulting mini-lectures ranged from 1 minute to 11 minute in length. Instead of just reading her notes out loud into the microphone — “it would be hard to listen to someone just narrating from notes,” Allison told me – she forced herself instead to organize the information into more pithy narrations. (In this sense, she was performing an audio version of the Mini Textbook Method.)

When she was done, she had 1 hour and 33 minutes worth of material. She loaded the tracks onto her iPod, put the playlist into random shuffle mode, and then started listening to her cue cards whenever she got a chance — in between classes, in bed, on her couch, at the dining hall…

Faster than Reading

For Allison, this process turned out to be more efficient than old fashioned note review. As she discovered, hearing something made it stick much quicker than reading it — her mind wandered less and and the material became clearer. Furthermore, a lot of her review could transpire in the little downtimes of the day that would otherwise be wasted, leaving her overall schedule more open and more relaxed.

The Results

Allison is still waiting for the results of her biology exam, but she feels good about her performance. As the new semester looms she’s excited to the give the system another try. This time, however, she looks forward to the efficiency she’ll gain by creating (and listening to) the audio cue cards throughout the entire term as oppose to waiting until the final couple weeks.

What unconventional study systems have worked for you?

35 thoughts on “How Allison Used Her iPod to Ace Biology

  1. Sarah says:

    I’m in my third semester of grad school, after a 12-year gap, so I’m working full-time and taking two classes at night. A few minutes in to one of this semester’s courses, I had an urge to share the information with everyone I work with. I took pretty decent notes, then went home and immediately started working on a Google docs presentation of the material, as though I was going to give a class on it myself. In doing that, I had to refer to the readings more than I normally do, so that was one perk, but the bigger thing was I HAD to understand the material in order to build my imaginary presentation.

  2. Jason says:

    Very clever! Great idea, thanks for posting.

  3. Study Hacks says:

    t

    ook pretty decent notes, then went home and immediately started working on a Google docs presentation of the material, as though I was going to give a class on it myself. In doing that, I had to refer to the readings more than I normally do, so that was one perk, but the bigger thing was I HAD to understand the material in order to build my imaginary presentation.

    This is a common theme in the different systems that seem to work: taking the material from your notes and explaining it in your own words; be it outloud, on an audio recording, or in a presentation.

  4. D. says:

    Niice. I had listened to podcasts (lectures on various subjects) while using my desktop at home and thought I’d put some onto my iPod once I got it, but unfortunately never got around to getting one, haha.

  5. Aaron says:

    What a great tip. I’m a little slow about jumping on the ipod train becasue I don’t listen to a lot of music. What are some other ways you use your ipods for school/studying?

  6. Andresito 10 says:

    I don’t consider this to be practical. It sounds more like “figurative repetition” of information.
    Sincerely, how can a student be able to understand “going from genes to a protein” as in track 21 in Allison’s playlist,

    this is probably very fundamental
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image:Genetic_code.svg

    unless you work with the audio tapes while the diagram is used it may work properly, again, why not just using class notes?

    I’ll be glad to receive comments on this ??´???

  7. Margaret says:

    What a clever idea! I spend about an hour a day commuting/walking to class, so this could be really helpful.. though I am a visual learner :/

  8. B says:

    Hey Cal are your books only available on amazon or do bookstores carry it too? I don’t live in America and was wondering how to get a copy.

  9. That’s a really great idea. I should really try it. :)
    Although my current method of learning is still a conventional one – summarise all the notes & load them all on my phone & read them whenever I’m free. :P

  10. Study Hacks says:

    Hey Cal are your books only available on amazon or do bookstores carry it too? I don’t live in America and was wondering how to get a copy.

    Barnes & Nobles carries it in America, as does Borders and most college bookstores. Overseas, I’m not so sure…

  11. Alvin says:

    If you have an iPhone you could also use an SRS (Spaced Repetition System) to review facts/foreign language phrases on the go.

  12. That is the greatest idee!
    I always think of ways to use my time on the bicycle usefull. And I finally found a way! Thanks!

  13. Andresito 10 says:

    @B,

    Try getting the ebook in pdf as I did, no shipping and handling and immediate download… however, it has a drm and you can only read it in one computer. works on both mac and pc

  14. Geoff says:

    On a related note, I found out another cool way to turn your iPod into a study tool — this is probably best suited for “visual learners”. It’s a program called “Text2iPod” or “cPod” (mac and pc versions), and what it does is it will put text files onto your iPod contacts folder and you can use your iPod as a mini-study package type deal without the hassle of pages and pages of notes!

    The trick is to only use this to study material/topics that you have the most trouble with though, otherwise its convenience and efficiency is lost.

  15. Suzie Bee says:

    Andresito 10 – everyone’s brains work differently and, while I fully admit that no one could learn such things from scratch in this way, these are revision “lectures”, desgined to reinforce previously-learned concepts. Therefore having a diagram or suchlike is not necessary as, presumably, she can kind of remember it already.

  16. Heather says:

    This would work brilliantly for me! But, I don’t get how this would technically work. So is Allison recording the entire lecture, editing it out for the important topics later, and then using it as a study source? Or is she only recording the important topics?

  17. Maureen says:

    Here is a link to purchase one of Cal’s books in PDF format.

    http://www.ebooks.com/ebooks/book_display.asp?IID=267094

  18. Sajeda says:

    Hi, EVEN I LIKE THIS STRATEGY, ALTHOUGH I AM ALSO A VISUAL LEARNER. THERE IS ONE THING THAT I DON’T GET…. HOW DO YOU MAKE THOSE BORING LECTURES PITCHY? I MEAN, IS IS EXACTLY LIKE THE MINI- TEXTBOOK FORMAT, OR DID SHE USE ANY MNEMONICS OR RHYMES? JUST LIKED TO KNOW HOW YOU CAN MAKE BIOLOGY INTERESTING.

  19. Study Hacks says:

    This would work brilliantly for me! But, I don’t get how this would technically work. So is Allison recording the entire lecture, editing it out for the important topics later,

    No. She took notes in class. Then recorded herself doing condensed summaries in her words based off of her notes.

    HOW DO YOU MAKE THOSE BORING LECTURES PITCHY?

    Explain them in your own words. Focus in on what’s important. Have some enthusiasm…whatever it takes to keep your attention.

  20. RT Wolf says:

    Excellent post!

    I was thinking of a few things so I thought I’d add them here:

    – If you want to listen to lectures sped up a little bit, you can change their tempo so you can get through audio recordings in as little as half the time. I start with 40% faster and increment 10% every five minutes till I get to about 2 times normal speed. For example, Windows Media Player 9 and above, and Quicktime Pro can do this, and you can find a plugin for winamp to do this, too, on the fly.

    – Different people have different modalities, ie visual, auditory, kinesthetic. I’m a visual person, so I want to be able to build maps of really complicated structures in my head, they look like mindmaps. I’m not sure this method would work for me, and that’s ok, for the people it does work for, more power to you! Identifying which modality you have and then working with that is really powerful.

    – Other great uses of an iPod is audiobooks. I like learning, so I listen to audiobooks a lot. Motivational audiobooks on a daily basis really boost my mood, lessen my self doubt, motivate me, etc. Others give me an new perspective on th world, and others teach me interesting things.

    – I wonder if adventure studying works better because you are in a novel environment, and when you’re taking your exam, you are likely to be in a similar physiological state. Being in similar states stimulates recall later, hell using the same pen for studying and for the exam stimulates recall.

    – Cal, thanks for the wonderful site! Keep up the great work!

  21. amber says:

    Waiting for you to post the HP Magic rules is like waiting for finals week to be over :_p

  22. Leslie says:

    I am also mostly a visual learner, but I tried this method for a biology test I have coming up. Before making the audio files, I summarized chapters using mostly pictures – I got a lot of benefit out of copying pictures from the textbook, trying to combine pictures (if the book uses multiple detailed pictures that together could make up one big process), and finding ways to turn written definitions into something more visual. Then I wrote up a quick “script” for my audio files. When I listen to the audio files, I can either bring up a mental picture (which I think is very constructive because that is what I’ll have to do for the test) or I can look at the pictures I drew. That method is also good because the audio file keeps you focused – you have to keep up!

    I think there’s something to be said for getting information in as many different ways as possible. And so much of the information we take in every day is auditory, whether it’s in a lecture or just talking to friends or coworkers. We’re probably all a little better at auditory learning than we think. And if not, a little practice couldn’t hurt.

  23. Li Hong says:

    I use Allison’s method too, but I often have this fear of summarizing too much in case I missed out anything important so I tend to read aloud almost everything, though in my own words. Any suggestions on how to diminish this fear?

  24. Study Hacks says:

    Any suggestions on how to diminish this fear?

    After the first exam, go back and evaluate about what level of summary would have been sufficient to score well. Then trust that as you study for the next.

  25. Li Hong says:

    thanks! i’ll give it a try ;)

  26. Ilham Hafizovic says:

    @Andresito 10,

    I am not sure if you are in a Biology major or if you only took a couple of courses but most of the Biology students I know tend to memorize the pictures rather quickly. I know this from first hand experience, I only have to look at the picture once, read what its about and I usually am so amazed at the beauty of the system or structure that for some reason it just sticks in my mind. Now, it is true when it comes to the details (such as the exact names of each figure – it does take a while but maybe only an hour).

    Also, if by the time of your test, you do not know all the images and structures without looking at them then you are not going to do so very well on a test/exam (especially the topic 21 on her list, which is considered the central dogma of molec. bio).

    But who knows, maybe I might be an exceptions (as are the people I know) and others can not do this so well.

    @Cal,
    Thanks for this tip – I have been wondering how else to use my iPod and this sounds like an amazing way for auditory learners. For visual learners I would recommend those that can to try and make video podcasts – so that you have the images on screen of iPod while listening (this though does depend on the iPod screen size you have).

  27. I wrote some pro’s and cons about it!

  28. Laura says:

    I used this method for my comprehensive exam for my M.A. It worked pretty well, thanks!

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