Study Hacks Blog Decoding Patterns of Success

The Straight-A Method: How to Ace College Courses

March 9th, 2009 · 32 comments

Last year I introduced The Straight-A Method: a general framework for all of the tactical studying advice that appears in the red book and on this blog. A lot has changed since then, so in this post I describe a new and improved version of this key piece of the Study Hacks canon.

The Straight-A Method

The Straight-A Method

The Straight-A Method is supported by four pillars: capture, control, plan, and evolve. Each pillar is associated with a high-level goal you should strive to achieve as a student. Here’s the promise: If you can satisfy these four goals — regardless of what specific strategies or systems you use — you will ace your courses. All of the study advice presented on this blog (i.e., any article in one of the tips categories) and in the red book support one or more of these four pillars.

Below I describe each pillar, and provide some sample advice to get you started on the road toward satisfying their goals.


Pillar #1: Capture

You must capture, organize, and regularly review all of your obligations as a student. This includes both the academic (e.g., test dates and assignment schedules) and the administrative (e.g., application deadlines and demands from extracurricular involvements).

Taking stock of everything that’s on your plate can be scary, but it’s also crucial for maintaining control over your life. It provides the foundation needed to build intelligent plans and it eliminates the toxic stress generated by disorganization.

Sample advice for accomplishing this goal:

Pillar #2: Control

Control your work schedule. In the short-term: plan each day what hours you’ll dedicate to work and what you will accomplish in these hours. In the long-term: break up large projects into smaller pieces and identify on what days you will work on each. Do not allow any work to exist outside of a carefully considered schedule.

There are two types of college students. Those who are battered around by their workload, always jumping from one looming deadline to the next, and those who manhandle their work into smart schedules that allow them to get things done on their own terms. For the sake of your sanity, strive to be one of the latter.

Sample advice for accomplishing this goal:

Pillar #3: Plan

Never “study.” The word is ambiguous and tied up with too many emotional connotations driven by guilt and what you think school work should feel like (e.g., tiring, boring, painful). While you’re at it, never “write a paper” or “do a problem set” or “read an assignment.” These phrases are all too vague!

Instead, always follow a concrete plan built around specific actions. When you complete the actions according to the plan you’re done. No more late nights reading and re-reading your notes until you feel like you’ve paid your academic dues. Get specific. Then get it done.

Reducing your academic work to a concrete plan made up of concrete actions allows you to streamline and gain efficiency, while avoiding pseudowork and guilt.

Sample advice for accomplishing this goal:

Pillar #4: Evolve

No one gets it right the first time. Even the most carefully calibrated set of study habits can quickly strain under the unexpected reality of student life. Embrace this. Constantly reevaluate and tweak your strategies. Keep what works. Throw out what doesn’t. Try something new where an answer is still lacking. After every test, every paper, every major problem set, ask yourself: what worked and what could I do to be better (and faster) the next time around?

This Darwinian approach is the structure that makes it all work. In a surprisingly small amount of time you’ll evolve your habits to a place that fits the particular demands of your situation and your personality. This process of evaluation and repair is the only way to arrive at your perfect system.

Sample advice for accomplishing this goal:

32 thoughts on “The Straight-A Method: How to Ace College Courses

  1. I love lists! I learn so much easier from lists. Great post!

    Thanks,
    Nate

  2. Just four simple looking steps. But so important!

    In the control part it is really important to be realistic. Allow yourself to list a bit less than you can, so you won’t feel bad when you don’t make it, because you will make it now!

    Great method!

  3. Ashlee says:

    Just wondering…has anyone heard of photoreading or used it in college classes?

  4. Albert says:

    …has anyone heard of photoreading…?

    I have. A while back I watched a YouTube video of a guy photoreading an online version of a Dickens novels: he ‘apparently’ had random questions thrown at him and he ‘apparently’ got them all right from photoreading the book. That is, he started at page 1 and pressed the down arrow button on the bottom right and held on to it, stared at the screen until he could scroll no further.

    It’s really hard to believe. Another YouTube video has a news reporter being briefly guided through this reading process and ‘amazed’ at the information he learnt so effortlessly. There’s even a forum for it where the members are all photoreaders…I haven’t used it in classes – the ability to photoread well for classes (I think) takes a lot of time. You may need to develop the ability to remember your dreams the morning after and other ‘wonderful’ things.

    For the sake of completeness, a study has been done on photoreading: the creator, Paul Scheele was a given a really dense (I think) page of information on biology and then asked to do a comprehension quiz. He got 2 out of 7 I think and someone else got like 5 out of 7. In addition, normal reading and photoreading took basically the same time here. This was done since Scheele claims that photoreading is excellent for technical courses…

    Search around for information – plenty of reasons to doubt a 20k words/min (photo)reading rate.

  5. RF says:

    I have 3 weeks till my maths and chemistry exam. How would you suggest I start preparing, revising and filling in the gaps?

  6. Study Hacks says:

    I have 3 weeks till my maths and chemistry exam. How would you suggest I start preparing, revising and filling in the gaps?

    Start by reading my article on “How to Ace Calculus.” You need to first explicitly identify every concept that you need an insight for. Then identify which of these currently evade your understanding. And from there, make your plan for filling in the gaps. I would suggested doing this census piece ASAP … you might a lot of work ahead of you.

  7. Bib says:

    Hi…very interesting inputs. My question: Is there any difference between a learning strategy for mastery/learning and a strategy for performance?

  8. Bib says:

    Cal,
    mmm…there’s a theory on learning strategies that differentiate between mastery/learning goals and performance goals. It is claimed that those with the latter goal orientation is more likely to get good grades/GPA compared to those who’s goal is mastery. What’s your comment?

  9. Study Hacks says:

    Hi…very interesting inputs. My question: Is there any difference between a learning strategy for mastery/learning and a strategy for performance?

    People debate this point. I think an approach like that pitched above is mastery-based. I deny the idea that you can be mastering the material yet scoring poorly on tests and papers.

  10. Sara Micheal says:

    Hi,
    I must say this one is a very informative blog especially the capture and control pillars are defined well.

  11. Sc_leas says:

    I would like to record my notes to my pc and then to my Ipod shuffle but what do I need to record them? My HP only has a sound recorder which records in 60 sec. sections only.

  12. Study Hacks says:

    I would like to record my notes to my pc and then to my Ipod shuffle but what do I need to record them? My HP only has a sound recorder which records in 60 sec. sections only.

    In this post, Allison used Apple’s Garage Band to record her notes. You would have to find something similar for a PC, but I’m sure tons of options exist:

    http://calnewport.com/blog/2008/12/10/how-allison-used-her-ipod-to-ace-biology/

  13. If I would have discovered your blog three years ago I would have graduated magna cum laude instead of cum laude

  14. MB says:

    Regardless of how hard you study some people simply don’t have the same intelligence as others. I’ve witnessed this first hand: I’ve seen people work non-stop to try to get the highest grade and they simply couldn’t. I strongly believe intelligence is something you’re born with you can.

    Overall your blog is good, but you’re failing to acknowledge this fact.

  15. MB says:

    Regardless of how hard you study some people simply don’t have the same intelligence as others. I’ve witnessed this first hand: I’ve seen people work non-stop to try to get the highest grade and they simply couldn’t. I strongly believe intelligence is something you’re born with.

    Overall your blog is good, but you’re failing to acknowledge this fact.

  16. student says:

    @MB

    I strongly believe intelligence is something you’re born with.

    Your right, and it’s clear your intelligence can’t comprehend the amazing resources/stories on this site completely obliterate your point.

  17. Paul G. says:

    No more late nights reading and re-reading your notes until you feel like you’ve paid your academic dues.

    This is definitely good advice — and something I wish I had heard years ago!

  18. Obelisk says:

    Does this work for Engineering/ Math/ Physics classes? For anyone in the Engineering field, can you tell me that this works?

  19. confused student says:

    Hi. I can’t wait to try these tips. I’m still searching for my ideal study method. I find that for some subjects, I hardly make an effort. I don’t read the textbook, I don’t do past papers and I don’t redo tutorial questions, yet I get a first class pass from merely reading over lecture notes and only doing lecture examples [which are much easier than the tut questions and exam standard] (e.g. Financial reporting and maths). Other courses, however, I do read the textbook and I try so hard, yet I’ll barely scrape through (e.g. Company law, economics and marketing). Why? Somebody help me… It’s driving me crazy.

  20. Sim Ops Guy says:

    @ Obelisk, I am in my second semester of an Industrial Engineering degree. My GPA after my first semester was 3.917!! I read ‘How to Become a Straight A Student’ and it worked for me!! I (barely) graduated from my undergraduate university 14 years ago with a 2.45 GPA and I was very anxious about repeating my mistakes in grad school. I was able to get all my work done between Monday -Thursday (mid terms and finals being exceptions) leaving Friday – Sunday to spend with my wife and kids. Cal’s system worked for me, and I strongly recommend you try it!

  21. Alexis S. says:

    Great post! I never thought of dividing my academics int those four categories- very interesting! Your post really made my reflect on my study habits, and as a result, I think I’m going to alter the way I study. I’m currently in a wellness class at my university, and my intellectual goal is to receive all As in my classes. My short term goals to get all As are starting papers ahead of time, studying before doing anything fun, etc. For the most part, these new habits have worked, but in one class I’m still not at the level I would like to be at. I rewrite my class notes and do multiple other tactics, but for some reason, nothing is working in this class. I try to not get overwhelmed with my work, and just do one thing at a time. Unfortunately, there are times when I just get completely stressed and freak out. I’m definitely going to check out the links you’ve provided. Thanks for giving me new ideas on how to study!

  22. Ginger says:

    Hi Cal, can you please elaborate what ‘specific action’ mean? For instance how could i make my plan to “Do a book review for Lord of the Flies” less vague? I’m sorry for the silly question! Appreciate your help thanks :D

  23. Euclid says:

    Fantastic blog, I just found it the other day. Forgive me if you have addressed this issue yet but how would this model change if say a student were also working six days a week (about 45 hours) on top of full time classes like me? So far this semester I am staying on top of it but I could use some specific advice for my situation if you are willing to offer it. I think your blog is aimed at university students but I believe that many college students who go to community colleges like me have full time jobs, families, etc. Do you have any previously written articles on this and if not would you be willing to consider writing one for us. And thanks again for making this great blog available to us students.

  24. Adler says:

    Hello Cal! I’ve been reading your “How to Become a Straight-A Student”, fantastic book, really concise and practical.

    Although, what really brought me here to leave a comment is the similarity between the advice I found in your book and the advice I found here http://www.ultimate-guitar.com/columns/features/how_to_murder_your_guitar_career_as_a_beginner.html

    It’s about acing guitars, and somehow, the first quotes are so similar to the advice in your book, I found it rather interesting. Maybe the method of acing ANY thing in the world is fundamentally the same…

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