The Shadow Course: A Simple Technique to Produce Extraordinary WorkMay 4th, 2009 · 11 comments
As longtime Study Hacks readers know, I’m a big promoter of the autopilot schedule. In case you’re new, let me briefly review: The autopilot schedule is a set of fixed times and locations for finishing your regular work each week. For example, you might decide to always tackle your history reading assignments Monday morning, from 9 am to 11 am, in the study carrels found on the 6th floor stacks of the main library.
The shadow course, described below, is a simple optimization to the autopilot schedule that can generate huge benefits.
An Imaginary Course
The shadow course method asks that you adjust your autopilot schedule to include an additional course. This course doesn’t really exist, but you pretend like it does. (The name comes from the fact that it shadows your real courses.) Set aside a reasonable amount of time in your autopilot schedule for handling the work for your shadow course; I recommend allocating roughly one hour per course per week.
Here’s the key point: use the time set aside for your shadow course to begin ridiculously early preparation for tests and papers in your real courses. The key words are “ridiculously early.” Starting from week one of your semester, you have to use your shadow course blocks toward this end.
For example, you might use this time to…
- …reformat your notes into study guides that are ready for review.
- …write mini-textbook chapters that cover the material.
- …fill in holes in your knowledge by going to back to the textbook and preparing targeted questions for your TA.
- …review the big ideas from recent lectures by giving talks on the subjects to imaginary classes.
- …practice the proofs and problems from technical courses to master the insights.
- …work through hard concepts using the notebook method.
- …begin collecting and building a database of sources for a large research paper.
To help cement the habit, and to make it an enjoyable part of your student schedule, I recommend that you choose the most exotic possible location for your weekly shadow course time blocks. For example: in the woods (if you’re at Dartmouth, I personally recommend the cross country trail for doing quiz-and-recall lectures); a quiet cafe; or anywhere else equally contemplative and separated from your daily student life.
The Power of the Shadow
The effect of the shadow course can be immense. Imagine, for example, that you divide your shadow course time evenly among your real courses, giving you an extra hour of preparation per course per week. In a 15 week term, this means that when you arrive at the end of the semester, you’ll have an extra 15 hours of preperation under your belt for each final and major paper you face.
Imagine how much better you would have performed on your last test or paper if you had been able to set aside 15 extra hours to prepare.
To make things even better, because this time is spread out across an autopilot schedule, these hours all maintain a high intensity of focus — a feat which would be impossible if this time was condensed into a small number of long study session.
The result: your performance enters A* territory while reducing the amount of time you have to study or write at the last minute.
But I Don’t Have That Time!
Some students will complain that they simply don’t have enough time in their schedule to add an entirely new class. I’m sympathetic. But let me make the following strong suggestion: if you don’t have time for a shadow course, consider quitting something to make time. The benefit gained from your shadow course hours will swamp the benefits gained from whatever boring club you ditched to make room. And studying spread out over the entire semester causes much less pain than studying crammed into reading period.
The Power of Non-Conformity
To steal a phrase my friend — and one of my absolute favorite bloggers — Chris Guillebeau, there is real power in non-conformity. This holds especially true for students. There’s something about thumbing your nose at the conventions followed by your peers and, instead, doing something completely, ridiculously different, that can help pry you out of a rut and make outstanding things happen.
(Photo by Absolut1)