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4 Weeks to a 4.0: Master Your Assignments

4 Weeks to a 4.0 is a four-part series to help you transform into an efficient student. Each Monday between 3/30 and 4/20 I’ll post a new weekly assignment to aid your transformation.

Welcome to Week 3Time to Change

This is the third post in our four-part series 4 Weeks to a 4.0. In week one, I asked you to take control of your schedule, and in week two we overhauled your classroom notetaking. This week we advance to a crucial topic: your assignments. Nothing requires more time for an undergraduate than suffering through long readings or tackling impossible problem sets. Let’s learn how to dispatch them with maximum effectiveness.

Week 3 Assignment: Efficient Assignments

There are two major types of assignments: readings and problem sets. Below I’ve described a streamlined strategy for dealing with each. Your task this week is to adopt these approaches for dispatching your regular work.

(1) Master Reading Assignments

Let’s start with two simple ground rules:

  1. Always work on your reading assignments in a quiet and isolated location — preferably far from your dorm. (Perhaps really far, when possible.)
  2. Take notes on your laptop. It’s faster and the notes are neater.

For reading assignments, I want you to use the same Question/Evidence/Conclusion format we discussed in week 2. That is, for every reading, start by taking the time to identify what question is being asked and the author’s ultimate conclusion about this question.

Do this before you read the entire assignment.

Next, you need to capture some evidence to connect the question with its conclusion. How much time you spend here depends on how well you’re expected to understand the reading. If you’re going to be asked detailed questions about it on a test or in a paper, then read carefully, marking the sentences that contain relevant evidence. Once you’ve completed the entire assignment, go back and add the marked evidence to your notes — rewriting in your own words.

On the other hand, if you’re only expected to understand the basics of the article — for discussion in class, or to follow the professor better during lecture — skim much faster, marking just a few pieces of evidence that jump out. Don’t waste time trying to master every nuance.

For more information, see step 2 of part 2 of the red book.

(2) Master Problem Sets

Acing a problem set is a three step process:

  1. Set aside 2 – 3 hours to solve the easy problems and attempt to solve the hard problems. The latter step is crucial. When you get stuck on a hard problem, identify exactly why you are stuck — actually spend time trying to solve it, even though it hurts your brain and is frustrating. This will make it easier to crack later.
  2. Meet with your problem set group (assuming this is allowed). Try to choose a group of students who are a similar skill-level and are willing to work in advance. Avoid those goons who take pride in starting at 2 am the night before the deadline. From my experience, finding a single well-matched partner is better than a large group. Discuss the hard problems, why you’re stuck, then explore together different paths for becoming unstuck. Once again, you have to concentrate hard on the sticky problems. I know it’s difficult. But brain pain is part of becoming better at math.
  3. Attend office hours. At this point, there should just be a few problems that thwart you. Furthermore, you’ve spent time with these problems alone and with your group, so you’re familar with their details. Ask your TA specific questions about these problems. Explain what you tried, where you’re stuck, and what you think you need to learn in order to get unstuck. Definitely don’t just say: “I don’t get it,” and then wait for an answer. Work with your group and your TA during office hours until you have solves all the problems. Take advantage of this momentum to finishing writing up the formal version of your problem set right there.

Notice, this technique requires that you start the first step two or three days before office hours, which are typically the night before the deadline. In other words, you have to start early. Sorry. Technical courses are hard.

For more information read this article.

Coming Up…

That’s all for week 3. If you have questions or want to report on your progress, please leave a comment on this post so the other students can learn from your experience. Next week is our final week. We’ll attack the biggest academic beast of them all: studying. So stay tuned…

21 thoughts on “4 Weeks to a 4.0: Master Your Assignments”

  1. Reading far, far away from your dorm is great. I think there isn’t a better place to focus on reading when you are just outside, sitting in the sun or something.
    Of course, when it rains, there is no better place than the library with a cup of hot cacoa 😉


  2. Notes on a laptop? Oh man… I know it’s faster and all, but I’m still lugging around something that weighs more than most modern desktops, I live half an hour away from campus, and I have musical instruments and textbooks to carry as well. I just annotate photocopies and put a short summary next to the title of each piece. Saves the back.

  3. I was wondering when it comes to note taking on laptop, would this be only great for non-technical course. How about technical courses without math – example Biology or Psychology which tend to have a large amount of details, especially molecular biology courses.

  4. How about technical courses without math

    Many of these courses don’t require reading assignments outside of the classroom. If they do, and there’s no math, then the laptop is still the best way to generate clean targeted question clusters.

  5. I had just one question. How do you get yourself to robot-ize yourself to follow fixed schedules and study patterns without seeing the big picture. Its sort of analagous to conforming to society’s norms just to please others without truly knowing the pattern you’re following. I’m not being hostile, I seriously want a reason to believe every word in this blog, I just need a valid reason to follow a pattern and fixed schedule in life, a reason other than just for the sake of having good study habits because they give you good grades that eventually gives you big money
    You can spend all that time you spent studying, doing so much good for others in real life without being self centered with books all the time
    I know I’m eing bizarre but I just want to see your logic for following a fixed pattern(though I loved your folders idea in part 4)

  6. How do you get yourself to robot-ize yourself to follow fixed schedules and study patterns without seeing the big picture…I just need a valid reason to follow a pattern and fixed schedule in life, a reason other than just for the sake of having good study habits because they give you good grades that eventually gives you big money.

    The philosophy behind Study Hacks is: “Do Less. Do Better. Know Why.” The tactics above are part of the “do better” piece. You’re interested in the “know why” piece. For more, read this article where I explain the distinctions:

    At a high level, I can tell you that the “why” piece differs for different student. But the happiest among us are those who: (a) value mastering a tough intellectual subject at the college level as training for gaining mastery in life beyond graduation (this is the key to doing lasting, important, meaningful things in the world); and (b) use college to fuel their lifestyle-centric plans for life after graduation; c.f.,

  7. Hi Call!
    These are your another great posts. Thank You!

    Yet, I should tell you, that you’ve missed one huge important thing, i.e. languages. Of course this is not so important for English speaking students. But in many countries there is no good scientific literature in native languages AT ALL. My country is good example. I’m from Ukraine. So I’m studying using English books and the knowledge of English for me is as important, as the ability to walk.

    So, do you have any ideas on how to learn languages in efficient way? I think about this question rather long time, yet no have answer. I think the starting point should be the Worlds best English test – IELTS. There are 4 exams in it: listening, writing, speaking, reading. I think the person should master each of these skills in independent way. But what is the efficient way of studying for each skill?!

    • Read the book How to Speak Any Language in 1 Month & Never Forget It: A Polyglot’s Journey Into the Wonderland of Language Learning, by Andrew Pham. In summary, make a chart of really common words and their meanings, such as “I, me, we, they, them,” etc. Then get a native speaker to help you make audio recordings of common conversations you anticipate having. Some conversations may be shopping at the grocery store, meeting someone on the bus, asking for directions, talking about sports, or anything else you want to be able to partipate in. Then listen to these audios and work hard to memorize them and the meanings of the words used in them. While you listen, pretend to be one of the people talking, and respond when one person in the recording asks a question.
      Once you have listening down, you can learn very much very fast.

  8. How would I approach Earth Science reading? It’s not exactly arguments or conclusions. Its a lot of factual stuff that you need to remember.

  9. How would I approach Earth Science reading? It’s not exactly arguments or conclusions. Its a lot of factual stuff that you need to remember.

    Search for my article on focused question clusters — I think it’s a great match for Earth Science.

  10. Cal, this is great. But, the chapters from the history textbooks are 40 pages each. How can I use the q/e/c method on on a 40 pg chapter? It’s hard to believe that one question, half a dozen bullet points of evidence, and one conclusion can suffice for a 40 page chapter.

  11. Honestly, lots of techniques that the author used here are just not practical. And the author seems to avoid a lot of questions. For example, how do you identify the questions of the readings of literature? And the teachers tend to ask a lot of questions about the details of the work like place and characters.

  12. And what if everyone else in the class starts the last minute? The class “only” has 200 people, and the few people (if I could find them…) who start assignments early aren’t on the same level (usually smarter people who probably wouldn’t want to work with).

    Do you spend the 20 hours trying to finish the problem set early by yourself anyways or go with the flow and cram the problem set last minute by “collaborating” with everyone else?

  13. @L:

    1.) Don’t assume that people who are “smarter” than you won’t want to work with you. If you’re pleasant to be around and have compatible work habits then most people would be happy to have you in their group.

    2.) But all the same, you don’t need a group. Step #1 is the most important one here, and step #3 is second. If you have a friend who’s already taken the class and whom you can bounce ideas off of, that’s just as good for #2.


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