Study Hacks Blog Decoding Patterns of Success

Q & A: Taking Biology Notes, Switching Between Tasks, Deconstructing Crappy Papers, and More…

April 29th, 2009 · 7 comments

Back to Questions… Q & A

It’s been a while since I’ve done a Q & A post, but I’ve received so many good questions recently, I thought it was about time this series made a comeback!

From the reader mailbag:

How would you go about taking notes on Biology textbook chapters?

Cal responds:

Take notes using your laptop and format them directly as focused question clusters. This removes any obstacles between your notetaking now and efficient studying later.

From the reader mailbag:

In grad school, I’ve gotten into a low-productivity loop: Spend two hours ramping up on one class, get nothing completed, repeat with another class. Not only is it unproductive, it’s really, really unpleasant. Most other people I know also report that this is the main difficulty with grad school: switching between multiple tasks.

Cal responds:

On the tactical level, three things have worked for me…

First, use an autopilot schedule to take the decision-making out of what work to be doing when.

Second, move to different locations for different tasks. The change of setting can help reset your mind. (For example, some work I do at my desk at MIT while other work I tackle in various libraries — the specific library depends on the type of work required.)

Third, it helps to have a predefined start-up and shut-down routine, so it’s easier to turn your mind off and on. For example, I often record careful notes in my lab notebook when I finish working on my thesis. These notes cover the main theorems I proved or techniques I tried. By contrast, when I start working on my thesis, I clear my desk, shutdown all computer applications and turn off my monitor, put out a clean sheet of paper, and re-read the last section I worked on; simple stuff, but it works.

At the strategic level, be wary of deep procrastination. For grad students, this can come in the guise of becoming tired of being a student. You might check out my thoughts on grad school for some inspiration on how to recharge your career.

From the reader mailbag:

How do I perform a post-mortem style analysis on a writing assignment I bombed?

Cal responds:

Setup a meeting with your professor. Make it clear that you don’t want a better grade on this assignment. Instead, emphasize that one of your goals is to get better at writing for your future assignments. He or she will be happy to provide feedback on what separates your work from the top papers. After you get this feedback take the time to map out specific changes to your paper-writing system.

From the reader mailbag:

With reading week fast approaching at many colleges, I’m wondering if you could post about how undergrads could best make use of free time during this week? For example, would it be better to focus on one subject a day, or would it be advisable do some work on each subject everyday?

Cal responds:

Work on one or two subjects per day. Any more, and you don’t have enough time to ramp up your focus. Any less, and you’re not studying at all. To ensure you cover everything, make sure you have a plan. I suggest the project folder method (which you can see in action here).

From the reader mailbag:

I looked for posts about this weird problem I’ve been having (I can’t stay awake in my favorite class) but didn’t find anything related.

Cal responds:

Lots of students have this problem. The cause is not lack of sleep, but, instead, lack of a regular sleep pattern. That is, if you go to sleep and wake up and different times each day, this can throw your sleep cycles out of whack and make you crash unexpectedly.

It’s better to get less sleep on a regular schedule, than more sleep on an erratic schedule. During the week stick with a common sleep and wake-up time.

7 thoughts on “Q & A: Taking Biology Notes, Switching Between Tasks, Deconstructing Crappy Papers, and More…

  1. rcas says:

    Just a word of advice on the moving from one place to another, make sure you don’t get in the procrastination mode and just go from one place to another to avoid working. I think its often better to stick in one place and study all the time

    Also for people who work on computers and get distracted easily by checking emails/facebook too often, a good way out of it is to completely disconnect from the net and remove the icons from the computer. This avoids the big temptation of chatting or facebook loitering that is a COMPLETE waste of time. Completely switch your computer off and keep it away from you if you can in any way avoid working on the computer

  2. student says:

    the specific library depends on the type of work required.

    Could you talk more about this? I’m curious to know your thought process.

  3. Study Hacks says:

    Could you talk more about this? I’m curious to know your thought process.

    I probably have half-a-dozen study locations hidden around the MIT campus. I’m not exactly sure how I assigned different work to different locations, but the consistency seems to help. For example, I like to work on proofs in the dark dome room of Barker engineering library, whereas papers I often tackle in front of the picture windows of the humanities library.

  4. I find that clearly separating work and play helps a great deal. For example, I never work on my bed or while watching TV – instead I go to the library or somewhere were I *have* to concentrate. That way I’m never doing half one thing and half the other.

  5. JJ says:

    >>It’s better to get less sleep on a regular schedule, than more sleep on an erratic schedule. During the week stick with a common sleep and wake-up time.

  6. sara says:

    I think I am so stressed out about the amount of work I have to complete that I’m frozen. I’ve been trying to study all day and have not accomplished anything. Also I’m in an undergrad at an ivy and I think the pressure to perform is crushing me. I’ve completely lost my intuition, which makes it impossible to write, and I feel like I’ve become a worse person and student than when I started here. I had dreams of becoming a scholar and now I’m not sure I know how to tie my shoes anymore. How can I turn this around?

  7. Study Hacks says:

    How can I turn this around?

    Read all 6 articles on the right hand column under the label “Next, Read these Important Posts.” Let it stew. Then feel free to shoot me an e-mail.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *