Study Hacks Blog Decoding Patterns of Success

The Grade Whisperer: Mike’s Pre-Med Nightmare

May 7th, 2009 · 20 comments

The Grade Whisperer is an occasional feature in which I use the Study Hacks philosophy of do less, do better, and know why, to help students overcome their academic problems.

Mike’s Mixed BlessingAdvice

I recently received an e-mail from Mike, a pre-med major with an interesting problem. “I’ve read both of your books and have had unbelievable academic success ever since,” he told me. “I’ve had two semesters of straight A’s which include 5 A+’s and some of the most difficult pre-med classes such as physiology and biochemistry. ”

This sounded good to me. But then came the catch:

“However, I realized that I’ve become somewhat of a grind during this miraculous transformation. The problem is, in college, there’s literally always more work to do. ”

With some hesitation, he asked: “Do you think maybe I’m using your methods incorrectly?”


An Avalanche of Notes

Mike’s case is abnormal. The straight-A students I interviewed for the red book tended to study less than the average undergrad. So our friend Mike must be doing something different.

I asked him for more details, and he was happy to supply an example.

Consider the following slide, taken from Mike’s biochemistry class:

Mike Bio Chem Slide

To study this information, Mike would use the focused cluster method. Specifically, he used a 3-ring binder. On on the right side would be a printout of the slide and on the left side he would write out his focused questions. For example, for the slide above, he wrote out the following:

  1. Triacylglycerols are what kind of esters of what molecule? (answer in title of slide)
  2. Describe their water affinity and polarity.
  3. What are the two components of a triacylglycerol?
  4. What kinds of bonds are in triacylglycerols?
  5. Name 2 types of triacylglycerols and what is the difference?
  6. What do triacylglycerols serve as?
  7. What are triacylglycerols cleaved by?
  8. What do lipases do? (be specific)

He could then review by trying to answer these questions out loud, without peeking. This sounds reasonable, until you begin to add up the hours.

“Each lecture contained anywhere from 40-55 of these dense slides,” Mike reported. “The combined time for writing out the questions and learning them took 5 to 8 hours per lecture. With two of these lectures per week, the time really added up!”

Ten to sixteen hours of work per week per class does not sound sustainable. It’s time for the Grade Whisperer to spring into action.

Simplify, Simplify, Simplify…

Mike’s method are fine, but his execution is way too slow. Here was my advice:

  • Ditch the fancy binder. That’s a time sink.
  • Instead, type up your question clusters in class as the professor lectures. Put them all in one big ass, ugly looking Word document, formatted as follows…
    • [Slide #]
    • question…
    • question…
  • Don’t worry about being perfect, just get most of the stuff down during lecture.
  • To study, load up the slides on your laptop, and shoot through this Word document fast, clicking through to the appropriate slide when you need to look up an answer.
  • Next, you have to abandon your quest to learn every last fact from all slides from all classes. No one else in the class will do that, and you just have to do better than them on the exams.
  • Instead, set an arbitrary time limit. I suggest 2 hours for each lecture. In this time, try to learn as much of the material as possible. But stick to this limit. This will require that you haul ass, but I think you’ll find that the pressure and knowledge that it will be over soon, will drive you to learn more than you thought possible in this period.
  • Finally, add a shadow course to your schedule and devote 2 hours per week of this time to review a random assortment of past lectures. This ensures that you won’t forget too much of the material between now and the exam.

Mike Responds

Mike reported the following about the new strategy:

“I have to say, this is some solid advice.”

“By writing up my questions during lecture, I save around 3 hours per week.”

“A younger version of me would have been too afraid to write up questions during lecture, I would have feared missing details mentioned by the professor. But now that I really think about it, the majority of the details mentioned in lecture never even appeared on the exam. ”

“I had this tendency to literally write down everything, but inevitably this means having to write up twice as many questions on the slides and therefore spending just unbelievable amounts of time to master every little detail.”

The Important Points

Mike’s case highlights a crucial point. There are minimal differences in the grades produced by obsessively trying to learn every possible detail and trying to efficiently capture and learn most stuff, fast. Yet, these two strategies induce huge differences in the quality of your life. Mike was literally drowning in information. By slightly reducing his standards, he realized that he could cut his study time at least in half — without affecting his grades.

The strategy I applied to Mike can be generalized as follows:

  1. Ruthlessly cull every inefficiency from your study habits for the class. (For Mike, this meant getting rid of the fancy binders and printouts, and capturing the notes rough and dirty during lecture itself.)
  2. Then constrain yourself with a reasonable but non-negotiable time limit. (For Mike, this was 2 hours per lecture for review.)

If you have a course demanding a ridiculous amount of your time, before you accuse the professor of sadism, consider applying a similar strategy.

(Photo by laughlin)

20 thoughts on “The Grade Whisperer: Mike’s Pre-Med Nightmare

  1. Chris Ward says:

    Great advice, as usual! I’ve been a (quiet) fan for a few years, and you’ve helped me not go insane, but I was wondering how this method could be adopted to a Ph.D. seminar, where you have to get through a large number of journal articles every week.

  2. Andresito says:

    Cal, what do you think of Spaced repetition soft. (SRS)? (Supermemo articles are quite good)

    SRSing has been helping me on “memorizing” sentences in japanese. Details here.
    I wrote “memorizing” meaning this stuff already makes sense to me. Is the need to expose to those sentences often enough with out doing “rote review”.

  3. rupss says:

    Cool title Cal, I’ve been wondering what the Grade Whisperer would be ever since you mentioned it.
    And also, thank you for all your wonderful advice. My battle with AP US History has become a success, thanks to your advice!

  4. Dean says:

    Another great article Cal – I’ve been wrestling with the exact same problem and I know I should take that leap of faith some time but I think I’d still get a bit restless without all the details. Do you think obsessively relistening to the lecture recordings to get the facts may be another form of pseudo studying? Also, sometimes I feel it really is necessary to use a textbook and spend a couple of hours trying to make sense of it before I can go away and learn the material too. How can I get the balance right? Anyways, thanks very much for the books and the blog which really has pulled me up to a new level.

  5. Study Hacks says:

    Do you think obsessively relistening to the lecture recordings to get the facts may be another form of pseudo studying?

    Yes. I didn’t include it in this article, but Mike was doing this same thing — go back over recordings, desperately searching for that one missed fact that might pop up on the test.

    Also, sometimes I feel it really is necessary to use a textbook and spend a couple of hours trying to make sense of it before I can go away and learn the material too.

    Sometimes we get stuck in studying comfort rituals that end up adding a lot of time, and are devilishly hard to abandon. It’s possible that your hours spent with the textbook is one of these rituals. I would recommend to just try diving in. If something really gets you stuck mark it, but continue with the stuff you do understand. Then handle what’s left in a separate session. Depending on the class, I’ve seen students have a lot of success consolidating the things that confuse them until office hours, where through a combination of questions and textbook reading they are able to resolve the confusion in a focused hour. (If you have the read book, see my chapter on academic disaster insurance — it’s all about how to efficiently fill in gaps in your knowledge.)

  6. Study Hacks says:

    Cal, what do you think of Spaced repetition soft. (SRS)?

    I’m wary of new learning technologies. Not because they don’t work, but because they require time to learn and master. I’m quite the luddite when it comes to my studying. Anything that’s very simple and very effective is fine by me. With that in mind, I’ve always had success using the best, most adaptable SRS system on the planet: index cards. You can pile them, and shuffle them, and time them anyway you see fit.

  7. Study Hacks says:

    I was wondering how this method could be adopted to a Ph.D. seminar, where you have to get through a large number of journal articles every week.

    What subject? And what are you responsible for each week?

  8. Pia says:

    Another really useful way to deal with courses that have a lot of information dense slides that works really well for me is going through the slides and making a cheatsheet – you write out definitions that are important and mini diagrams that relate information together, which forces you to think about how its connected/what it means and also just how to condense it into its simplest form. Making cheat sheets tends to take me around 45 minutes to an hour for a given lecture/chapter of about 60-70 slides in Neuro/Bio classes, and then you’ve learned what you have to, and you have the cheat sheets to look over before midterms and finals if you have any cumulative tests. I think the reason it works is because it makes you process the information heavily since you go from verbal information -> visual information + verbal information + conceptual structuring, so its a time efficient method that also forces information into your long term memory and connects it to other information so its quickly accessible. Do any of you use this method?

  9. Pratik says:

    Building off the not copying everything down mentality, I have noticed that some people do not understand this. For example, my organic chemistry professor would specifically state “Do not write this down” and I would look up and half the class was still writing down everything that he put up! I don’t understand what these people are thinking by going against someone who is actually gonna write the tests. My advice: listen to your teachers…they know what they are talking about.

  10. RT Wolf says:

    Mike, Have any of you tried learning memory techniques like from The Memory Book by Harry Lorayne? I know Cal’s wary of techniques that require time to master, but for an abnormal situation like yours, memory techniques will be invaluable. I’d say they take about 5 hours to master (from the book) and after that you can memorize short lists in a minute or less.

    You brought up an excellent point at the end: “There are minimal differences in the grades produced by obsessively trying to learn every possible detail and trying to efficiently capture and learn most stuff, fast. Yet, these two strategies induce huge differences in the quality of your life. ”

    That’s where the 80/20 rule comes in:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pareto_principle
    Which is actually a version of the Law of Diminishing Returns:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Diminishing_returns

  11. Jirka Lahvicka says:

    I second the recommendation of some spaced repetition software. I personally use FullRecall, but there are many applications out there (both free and paid, both simple and complex).

    Time to really master the application: maybe 5-10 hours
    Time saved during learning: many hundreds of hours so far

    It is possible for flashcards to completely replace your notes (you can even create them during lectures if you use a netbook/notebook).

    BTW, any software solution is way more efficient than paper cards (measured by time required to actually learn the majority of all the cards), because it takes care of all the card management (scheduling, difficulty rating…).

  12. Chris Ward says:

    What subject? And what are you responsible for each week?

    I’m in Information Systems, so a decent blend of CS and various business disciplines. As for what I’m responsible for, usually summarizing each article in 1-2 pages and being somewhat intelligent-sounding during discussion. Occasionally (as in, this upcoming fall) I have a seminar heavy in memorizing methods and formulas (financial economics).

  13. Study Hacks says:

    As for what Iā€™m responsible for, usually summarizing each article in 1-2 pages and being somewhat intelligent-sounding during discussion.

    I wonder if the morse code method would work here…

    http://calnewport.com/blog/2008/02/18/monday-master-class-rapid-note-taking-with-the-morse-code-method/

  14. Ed says:

    Cal rules!

    I applied some of your tips from your books and I managed to get A’s in all of my pre-req course work this year!

    Thanks man.

  15. Jose says:

    I also have this fear of missing details mentioned by the professor. I disagree with the idea that “the majority of the details mentioned in lecture never even appeared on the exam.ā€ For me, it is often missing these little details that lower my performance on the test…you get the feeling of “Oh if I had just remembered that little detail I would’ve gotten a much better grade, life is so unfair, blah blah blah.” Professors are out to make a curve, so how can you say that you should ignore the details??? Basically, my question is that for any test, the professor will through in the “detailed” questions to distinguish the A students from the B students. How are you supposed to get around this???

  16. Jose says:

    *throw*

  17. Julie says:

    The student that Mike describes himself as during his younger years is an exact replica of me. Although I not yet a university student, only a high school senior, I notice that as a secretary and minutes recorder for different councils and organizations, I am petrified of missing any detail that may lead to the big picture. I’ve been so consumed that I don’t understand this “big question” phenomenon yet.

    I’ve been following your blog since April and since then, I can attest to the how much I’ve developed all in part of you. I cannot thank you enough as I continue to venture through your blog to perfect my flaws, just kidding, to approach my academic student experience with intelligence šŸ™‚

    I always look forward to your new posts.

    Thank you very much,

    Julie

  18. Andrea says:

    I am trying this for my biochem class. I get a bit overwhelmed with everything. I am trying to read for understanding now and then make cheat sheets. For things I really don’t understand, I am just going to make mind maps of the info.

  19. Molly says:

    It’s amazing the ridiculous ideas some people have about taking notes. One of my friends is a college senior and straight-A student who’s going to a top law school next year. She posted a picture of her notes on Facebook, and she actually writes down EVERYTHING the professor says, by hand, in complete sentences. I was amazed and I can’t imagine how much time it takes just to study all this. And I honestly can’t believe that some people actually record what the professor says. That seems like the ultimate procrastination aid to me – how will you motivate yourself to pay attention in class when you know you can take notes later? – but I guess it helps auditory learners.

  20. Chiavenato says:

    “Literally drowning in information”? Come on, Cal, you’re better than that.

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