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The Grade Whisperer: How Jay Became a Living Incarnation of the Study Hacks Canon

November 5th, 2009 · 31 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.

The 25 Year-Old FreshmanAdvice

When Jay graduated high school in 2002, he bypassed college to compete with a professional drum and bugle corps, eventually becoming head of percussion and winning a regional championship.

Over time, Jay sagely realized that “this was not heading toward a long-term career.” So in the fall of 2008, he enrolled in college as a 25 year-old freshman.

Like many new students, he allowed his study habits to coalesce randomly into a half-assed jumble of procrastination and stress.

“My strategy was to earn a 4.0 through losing lots of sleep cramming for exams and saving papers until the last minute,” Jay recalls.

He was earning good grades this first year, but as he reports: “it was killing me both physically and mentally.” Around this time, his daughter was born, straining an already tight schedule.

“It was a disaster waiting to happen.”

His words proved prophetic. This fall, during his first semester as a sophomore, Jay “hit the wall” with a pair of tough upper-level classes.

“Not knowing how to study or manage my time put me behind,” Jay says. He bombed his first exams, earning a D on one of them.

“I realized that I needed to re-learn how to study,” Jay says. This led him to Barnes & Noble, where he stumbled across an intriguing, yellow-colored book. This, in turn, led him to Study Hacks.

Things began to change…

The Transformation

“Following the advice on your blog,” Jay recalls, “I performed a post-exam post-mortem on my two bombed midterms and realized that my ‘studying’ had consisted of rewriting the textbooks.”

“There was no understanding of the information.”

Inspired by the concept of an autopilot schedule and the philosophy of fixed-schedule productivity, Jay adopted the following structure for his week:

Jay’s Schedule

“It allowed me to study at maximum efficiency and still spend time with my family in the evenings.”

There are two things worth noticing about this schedule. First, it ends at 4:30 every afternoon. And second, it contains blocks labeled “prep course.” This is time Jay set aside as a shadow course: during these blocks he updates study guides and begins ridiculously early preparation for his real courses — preventing the need to add lots of extra study time right before exams.

And that’s not all.

Intent on mining the Study Hacks Canon for all it’s worth, Jay adopted the quiz-and-recall method for review and deploys the stealth studying strategy during walks between buildings. In class, he takes notes with a mixture of Q/E/C and focused question clusters, depending on the material. He also uses one of my all-time favorite strategies, the Sunday ritual — a block of time on Sunday dedicated to “hammering out a plan of action for the week ahead.”

The Results

“I have upped my grades in my two disaster classes to the middle B-level,” Jay reports. “And I’m striving for an A with two more exams left in the semester.”

Even more important: “My daughter gets to see her father in the evening free of hassle, and my girlfriend can enjoy our company without the distractions of open textbooks and half-written papers.”

Conclusion

The maturity that comes with Jay’s age, and the responsibilities of a family,  certainly stoked his motivation to make systemic changes to his student lifestyle. But the general lesson is applicable to any student: big turnarounds require big effort.

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Spread the Word Contest Update: Congratulations to Nazim, who won my reader contest that asked students to help spread the word about the Study Hacks philosophy. Nazim personally recommend my books to dozens of students. He also donated his own copies to his school library, eventually getting them put on prominent display near the entrance. For his efforts he’ll receive a signed copy of a rare yellow-jacketed, galley version of the red book.

31 thoughts on “The Grade Whisperer: How Jay Became a Living Incarnation of the Study Hacks Canon

  1. Eddie says:

    Any chance you can get that schedule image larger?

  2. Chris says:

    Yes can we please see a bigger image of the schedule, its almost unreadable

  3. Anonymous says:

    Same request. Please have the image enlargened.

  4. Study Hacks says:

    The full-sized image is available here.

    (Sorry it didn’t fit into the article, my blog theme has a limited width.)

  5. Stanford '13 says:

    What is POLS on his calendar?

  6. Study Hacks says:

    What is POLS on his calendar?

    It’s his fourth class (i think it stands for POLitical Science) plus the study time for that class combined.

  7. Rigoberto says:

    wow this is one of the best that i have read!
    good luck

  8. Rigoberto says:

    the best thing here is that there´s not limit ( in age )
    to learn new study habits!

  9. Snake says:

    Hey Cal:

    I’m having trouble compressing your strategies into a coherent whole. How would you simplify it so that it is easily understandable? Say, how would you explain it to a first or second grader?

  10. I love the Grade Whisperer. More, please!

  11. Savannah says:

    If you could find out for me which drum corps he was in, that would be great.

  12. Nazim says:

    I would totally become the new Study Hacks mascot if I was in college right now..

    I am a senior and 3 years of rote review and procrastination have had me piled with a whole shit-load of work.

    SAT IIs, ACTs, Finals, College Essays, and College Applications.. all within the span of 1-2 weeks!

    Any help? I know that typical Study Hacks posts focus on someone already fairly ingrained in this Zen V system?

  13. Andrew says:

    Hey Cal Newport!

    Do you check your mail? I sent you one to the author(at) . . . address because I’m in a jam (putting it lightly.)

    Or should I post the question here?
    THanks.

  14. Andrew says:

    Another suggestion for a post:

    It’s flu season in full bloom. Do you have any suggestions for not lagging behind when you’re sick? I got downed with the flu on Friday. . .

  15. Arte says:

    @Nazim I am also a senior in High School. Stressful year I know. But having an autopilot schedule really does help. I know your first part of the day is school so you only have a couple of hours left in the evening. But planning those evening hours is crucial to being productive. I get home at around 4:30, I eat, 20 minute power nap, and start work. Usually AP Physics for 2 hours (50 min increments) Then other HW for the other 2 hours. Having that physics time is crucial for ME. I do my college apps on Wednesday and Friday don;t have lots of hw those days. I also do a lot of college stuff in the morning, I wake at 5:30am. So be flexible and define the time you DO have and make it as productive as possible. When you get to college, you will be able to apply this advice with no problems.

    Oh, I do have a social life, a good one too :)It takes some experimenting but you can make it work fast.

  16. Jay says:

    This is Jay from the blog post, and I again am very grateful to Cal for his work in such an important area of education. His books and blog (and even the research behind both) have been wonderful in helping students such as I take control of their academic lives. Thanks Cal!
    The way I worked through all of the different theories and techniques did require some time and transition. I had been reading quite a bit in the blog archives as well as the yellow book, so I had a good background before making the change.
    While in class or reading a textbook, one can take notes using two good systems noted on this blog:
    1) Question/Evidence/Conclusion, which is good for discussing the “big picture” of the topic, as well as for essay questions found on tests and for book reviews.
    2) Focused Question Clusters, handy for lots and lots of facts being spit out either from a textbook or lecture. These, as Cal pointed out on a different post, are very useful for multiple-choice tests.
    For every two hours of schedule that is blocked (or put onto “autopilot”), you can adapt these strategies to cover material much quicker and more efficiently. Every 50 minutes of study and 10 minute break within those 2 hour blocks and you are on the way. Definitely be ready to adjust to maybe increase or decrease the blocks depending on the level of material you are retaining.
    I use the Sunday ritual and the shadow course as I see fit, although on some days it is hard to actually meet the scheduled times due to my daughter. But having only a set time to work on things makes it easier for me to concentrate on the material, and get quite a bit done. Multiply this by 5 days a week and I am covering a lot of work in really a minimal amount of time.
    Hope this post helps in discussing how to apply the techniques to your study life. Thanks Cal!

    The way I worked through all of the different theories and techniques

  17. Nazim says:

    @Arte Thanks! I’ve unsuccessfully tried to implement the autopilot schedule. I used to wake up at 4 to get my work done and I was always tired. I avoided work at late hours at all costs, but your system seems much better! 😀

  18. Pete says:

    given that you are taking four classes. In General, is it better to work on only two classes each day (longer time periods), or on all four classes each day (shorter daily time periods per class)?

  19. Jay says:

    @ Pete: If this is directed my way, I’ll be happy to answer. I am right now taking four classes, and I work on two classes a day for the most part, usually 2 hours outside of class on that day.

    The Prep Course, which is my shadow course, is usually divided between the courses that really need the extra prep work for study guides, reviewing, and so on. My Sunday Ritual is the same way.

    I have read from many different sources (including Cal at one point) that studying for an hour or so will have to be really focused and efficient. It has been usually more beneficial to study for about two hours with a small break in between. This way, more work gets done with a large amount of focus and efficiency.

    And I don’t do more than three hours tops for one class in a day. This prevents burnout but I still get enough work in to process material effectively.

    Hope this hels, if it was directed at me 🙂

  20. Alex says:

    Google Calendar is a stupendous, quick, and easy scheduling solution. With typing and hotkeys I form and update my daily schedule in no time. 🙂 Cal, you’re my hero. Have you a twitter account?

  21. Gen says:

    I think it would be awesome if you wrote a post about thanksgiving break and making the most of it. just a thought.

  22. Study Hacks says:

    I’m having trouble compressing your strategies into a coherent whole. How would you simplify it so that it is easily understandable? Say, how would you explain it to a first or second grader?

    See this:

    http://calnewport.com/blog/2009/03/27/what-the-hell-is-study-hacks/

    In short: do less; do better; know why.

    If you interested in just the technical aspects of studying (which falls under “do better”), then read this:

    http://calnewport.com/blog/2009/03/09/the-straight-a-method-how-to-ace-college-courses/

  23. Study Hacks says:

    SAT IIs, ACTs, Finals, College Essays, and College Applications.. all within the span of 1-2 weeks!

    Nazim, search for my article on the the visual panic schedule. That will help. The article on the 4D method might help some as well.

    Do you check your mail? I sent you one to the author(at) . . . address because I’m in a jam (putting it lightly.)

    I do respond to all student e-mails. Recently I’ve been averaging about a 7 – 14 day latency on responses.

    It’s flu season in full bloom. Do you have any suggestions for not lagging behind when you’re sick? I got downed with the flu on Friday. . .

    See me recent rapid-fire advice post. One of the questions I answered covered this topic.

    Have you a twitter account?

    Nope. This blog is your one-stop shop for everything Cal.

    If you could find out for me which drum corps he was in, that would be great.

    I do know. But I’ll leave it up to Jay to decide whether he wants to share that information. (If he does, he can leave a comment here.)

  24. Fir says:

    Hey Cal,

    I’m a physiotherapy student and I’ve been trying to implement the advice you give in your blog and the red book. It’s been hard since I’m a bad procrastinator but there have been some positive changes and I’m happy about that.

    I really enjoyed this post because it shows that everyone regardless of age should learn how to study properly. I hope that in the future you could feature how a student taking a technical course without maths employ the straight-A method. Currently I am making quick-draw questions to memorize facts and using the storytelling method to describe how the body functions. It would be nice if I could read about how a real-life example studies for a similar type of course.

  25. Snake says:

    Hey Cal:

    Sorry, another question: can you clarify, for the storytelling method, how you would define the significance of a lecture?

  26. Eric says:

    Hi Cal,

    This blog post is great and all if you’re only taking 4 classes (which I assume amounts to 12 credits). I could afford the review and work sessions to keep up with that kind of load as well.

    However, I feel like this kind of schedule would be impossible for me considering the load I have. At my university, if you are in the College of Business Admin you are required to double major (yes, required). I have to take 135 credits total to graduate, and the only way for me to actually get out in 4 years is to take 18 credits my next three semesters. I noticed Jay’s classload is composed mostly of “soft” classes as well (besides Accounting). I don’t have that ability. My classes are all numbers or programming based–from Applied Business Econ to Managerial Accounting, or from Java to Database Management. And on top of that I have a Business Law class, which is a nightmare.

    I know you advocate not overloading yourself, but I NEED to in order to get out in four years. What would you recommend to keep up with this kind of courseload?

  27. Chris says:

    This was a very good post. However, I noticed that this schedule would not work for a grad student, because the work load is so much heavier. Can you do write something like this that would work for a grad program?

  28. Study Hacks says:

    What would you recommend to keep up with this kind of courseload?

    My whole blog is full of advice for how to tackle school work efficiently. Most of my readers take 4 – 5 courses a semester. Start with my post on the straight-A method (in the sidebar.)

    However, I noticed that this schedule would not work for a grad student, because the work load is so much heavier.

    See my above answer…

  29. Awesome.
    I never think of schedules anymore. But the more I hear about it, the more exciting I get about it. I will try to use it next week!

  30. Jay says:

    Just wanted to let everyone know that I recovered fully from my early-semester follies. With the help of the Cal’s reforms…

    I kept my 4.0 GPA intact!

    Since the new system went into effect, here is how I scored on my exams for the rest of the semester:

    Class 1 (ACCT): 98,92,73 (final not required)
    Class 2 (US HIST): 106,102,96 (did not get final grade back)
    Class 3 (W. HIST): 100,100,94
    Class 4 (POLS): 100,100,150 (final was out of 150)

    Thanks again Cal for the inspiration and the tools to make this work!

  31. Cal you should really do a Case study with someone who works! Especially someone during the weekdays. I work in the mornings and afternoons and I have a pretty decent semi-autopilot schedule going but still, advice from a working student would be great!

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