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Anatomy of an A+: A Look Inside the Process of One of the World’s Most Efficient Studiers

Scott Young’s Graduation Gift to Study Hacks

I have to give credit to Scott Young: it was talking blogs with him back in 2007 that helped convince me to start Study Hacks. The fact that I link to Scott’s material again and again and again and again should tell you that we think in similar patterns.

The reason I’m bringing up Scott today is that he’s about to graduate from university. One of the things that intrigued when I first met him four years ago is that, like many students I profiled in the red book, he had the ability to score top grades without needing to study much.

It turns out that he kept this up: He will graduate this month with a GPA that hovers between an A and an A+, even though he almost never studied for more than a handful of hours.

In honor of Scott’s graduation, I asked him if he would share his secrets. I don’t want vague philosophies, I told him. Study Hacks readers are more interested in a blow-by-blow case study of exactly how he studied for a specific test, including screenshots of his notes and a careful accounting of his time.

Fortunately for us, Scott agreed. Below you’ll find the details of how he scored an A+ on a corporate finance exam that had a 50% failure rate at his university. His total time studying: 3.5 hours.

Take it away Scott…

The Student Secrets of Scott Young

“Looks like you have a test to write.” It’s noon and an unexpected test isn’t how I like to spend my lunch hour.

The subject is chemistry. Mostly multiple choice, a few essay questions. It’s one of those regional contests, which explains why I’m the only one being forced to write it. I haven’t even taken the class being tested.

Three weeks go by. “Congratulations, looks like first place–and a check for $400.”

Undeserved Talent?

That was my senior year in high-school. One university degree later, and not much has changed. My average stayed between an A and an A+ throughout college, and I still rarely study more than 2-3 hours before an exam.

For most students, these results are profoundly unfair. I didn’t study harder; I studied less. I wasn’t taught more; in the first example, I hadn’t even taken the class in question.

But it wasn’t just me—I’ve met dozens of learners who make my accomplishments seem banal. Polyglots that speak dozens of languages. Students who coast through triple course loads. Savants that can memorize sequences of ten thousand numbers.

This bothered me. Scientists have known that differences in IQ are both genetic and environmental. This suggests that innate talent can’t explain everything, that there might be a difference in strategy which allows people to learn more with less studying.

The Strategy of Rapid Learners

The biggest difference I noticed between people who learned easily and those who struggled wasn’t being organized, study location or any of the common advice given to struggling students. It was how they learned the material.

Slow learners memorized, while rapid learners made connections between ideas.

When I first wrote about this idea four years ago, it generated a huge discussion. Many people came out that fit the generalization, heavy studiers tended to memorize, while effortless students made connections between ideas.

Even more, I believe these methods of faster learning are trainable. I’ve coached over 800 students since I first started on this idea, and I’ve had many that cut down on their studying by as much as 75%, while getting better grades.

In this article I’m going to walk you through exactly how you can apply these ideas to your studies. First, by going through one course I recently used the methods on, and second, by generalizing the ideas so you can apply it to any subject you’re taking.

Anatomy of an A+ (With Under 4 Hours Study Time)

Corporate Finance has around a 50% failure rate at my university, and I’ve known people who have taken it over 4 times before passing. Despite this, I was able to score an A+ with a total of 3.5 hours of studying total for the final exam. Let me walk you through how I did it.

Summary Version

The quick version of what I did isn’t terribly revealing. My 3.5 hours were divided between only two tasks:

  1. Ninety minutes creating a notes compression for the core concepts. (This involves cramming all the key facts and concepts onto a 2-sided paper)
  2. Two hours completing and correcting one practice exam.

Here’s a scanned copy of one side of a notes compression I did for another class:

The purpose of the notes compression is to give a good once-over of all the material. It functions as a double-check, making sure there aren’t any conceptual holes or forgotten details. Second, it lets you see the course as a whole to get broader connections between ideas spaced apart in the lectures.

Similarly, the practice exam also works as a safety check. I scored a 90%, so I noted my few errors and finished my studying. Had I scored lower, I would have repeated the exercise with a few studying tactics until I got the grade I wanted. In this case, I was able to avoid problems the first round.

Now this version of events isn’t particularly enlightening. If you take a typical 10-20 hour studying session and replace it with ninety minutes of cursory review and a practice exam, and most students would fail.

The power of the method doesn’t rely on the last minute checks, it’s about how knowledge was engineered from the beginning. Let’s go into more detail to see how this could be achieved over an entire course.

Detailed Version—How to Ace Finals Without Studying

There are a few principles to successfully executing a near-zero studying time A+. I’ll list them here, and keep them in mind when I walk through the specific examples:

Principle #1: Learn It Once

This principle asserts that the correct time to learn something is when you first approach it, either in your readings or lectures. Waiting until the end to study results in a lot of wasted effort and poor grades.

Whenever I uncover a concept that doesn’t immediately click into place, I invest time right away to figure it out. This results in a focused effort to repair any holes in knowledge before they tear at the foundation.

Principle #2: Knowing is Being Able to Teach

If you can’t explain something simply, it means you don’t fully understand it. In keeping with the learn-it-once philosophy, the way you can tell you haven’t learned something is if you can’t teach it.

This is the litmus test to assure that Principle #1 is upheld. If you can’t, out loud or on paper, explain the idea without confusion or contradiction, stop and figure it out right there.

Principle #3: Memorization is a Last Resort

The final principle is that memorizing is a vice to be used only when absolutely necessary. Too many students use memorization as their first weapon of choice and therefore miss out on all the hard, but ultimately time-saving, insights they could have created through connections.

Some knowledge is better memorized than deeply understood. But after taking classes in math, law, psychology, business, economics, computer science and many other areas, I would say that these are in the minority. Medical students and legal scholars need more memorization than mathematicians or physicists, but the principle remains true.

Part One – Learn Concepts by Analogy

So keeping these three principles in mind, learn it once, teach-to-know and memorization as a last resort, I progressed through the class and applied it to each concept or fact, as they were covered.

A good way to do this with concepts is through analogy. If you create metaphors or analogies, that allows you to create connections between the idea and understand it on a deeper level. This is generally my first point of attack against any idea that initially seems hard to remember.

I’ll take an easy example from early in the course and walk through it: present-value of money calculation.

The goal is to learn this formula and concept deeply so that (a) you don’t ever need to relearn it, and (b) it becomes a solid foundation for all future ideas that are based off of it.

It can be tricky to create strong analogies if you’re used to memorizing everything. Here’s one approach I’ve used that helps lock in the ideas:

  1. Break down the formula, idea or concept into smaller pieces.
  2. Ask, “Why?” to probe for patterns in the structure.
  3. Suggest some possible metaphors that fit the pattern.
  4. Use the metaphor to explain the idea.
  5. Strengthen the metaphor and repeat the process.

This process looks laborious, but with practice the entire series of 5 steps can be done in less than sixty seconds. I’ve simply broken it down to atomic components so you can follow through if you get stuck.

With the present-value formula, my first step would be to break it into rough parts. A casual observation shows me that there are several lumps of money, occurring at different times. These are then being divided by an interest rate, which also has an exponent on it. These are then all added together to give one dollar value.

The next step is to use the question “why?” to probe the ideas. Why are we adding the values together? A: Because we want to know what several cash payments spread out over time would be worth as one payment today. Why are we dividing by the interest rate? A: Because that’s how much extra money in interest we could make if we had the money today. Why are we compounding the interest rate? A: Because interest payments compound, and exponent represents how many years of interest would have accumulated, if we had the money today. This could go on and on, but you get the idea.

Now we can suggest some possible metaphors that fit this pattern. Off the top of my head, I think of perspective drawings, car leases, rocks falling to earth and trees growing. Some have vaguely similar properties (trees grow, money grows) others are identical (car lease payments versus lump-sum purchases).

The final step is to explain the idea to yourself in terms of the metaphor. If I used the perspective drawing analogy, I would say imagine that the lumps of money are drawn in cash bags, down a hallway. The interest rate is the angle of view, or how quickly far bags shrink. Finally the equation is as if you cut the amounts off the canvas and added them together in the same place.

This is a pretty involved example, but most of the time this process is quick and can even be done during class. I drew pictures for clarity, but you can walk through these five steps mentally to save time.

Look through the ideas and think of simple examples that can allow you to explain the concept to yourself. Only if you get stuck do you need to go through the above 5-step process I outlined to create an analogy.

Side note: You don’t need to remember every analogy you create. They serve as scaffolding for understanding the core concept. Once you build several metaphors, you should be able to remember the idea without referring to metaphors or analogies–you’ll just “get” it.

Part Two – Learn Facts Through Association

For a class like Corporate Finance, concepts are the majority of the work. If you can truly “get” the big ideas, then there isn’t a lot of need to know lists of facts. Still, as in all classes, there are facts that need to be memorized.

One such fact is that a bond’s yield-to-maturity is normally expressed as a quoted annual rate, compounded semi-annually (at least in Canada). Forgetting this fact would have cost marks, as this fact is assumed in a lot of the questions.

Continuing from the three principles, the best way to remember facts is through association. Similar to handling concepts, you want to create a few connections that will allow you to remember the idea. With this example, I made a couple of connections:

  • This quoted annual, compounded semi-annual was the same for mortgages.
  • In the case of mortgages, the result is that you end up paying more effective interest than you would guess, given only the quoted rate. (i.e. the banks trick you on the payments)
  • Bonds are normally paid out semi-annually, so it makes sense that they would compound, semiannually.

Unlike for concepts, it’s possible you may forget some of these connections and forget a key fact. That’s why, particularly for factually dense classes, some memorization might be necessary. Either through repetition in practice questions, mnemonics or flashcard-style review.

However, by starting out through associations, you create a mental hook that makes remembering the idea easier.

If you can follow these two parts—using analogies and imagery for concepts and associations to remember facts—then you can greatly cut down on the amount of review you need to learn the subject. If you spend a few minutes after every class practicing these methods, they can become automatic, so they happen automatically whenever you read a chapter or attend a lecture.

Acing Any Class Without Studying

I’ve walked through an example from one class, Corporate Finance. How can you apply this to whatever you’re learning?

Most of the process is the same, but I’ll give a few more notes for generalizing the methods:

#1 – Handling Factually Dense Courses (Anatomy, Medicine, Law, etc.)

The association method still works for these classes, but there are a few more techniques you may want to work on as well:

  1. Group related facts together. My example only covered a solitary fact, but often facts in large classes have groupings that you can use to generate associations.
  2. Translate facts into concepts. Sometimes you’ll only be required to learn a fact, but turning it into a concept (which you can use the metaphor method) can make it stick further.
  3. Learn visual memory techniques such as linking, pegging and vocabulary association. These are outside the scope of this article, but they are powerful ways to cut down the amount of memorization necessary.

#2 – Managing Creative Problem Sets

Many classes require you to go beyond the ideas presented. Instead of just understanding the basics of an idea, you need to apply it to different situations, or solve logic puzzles that might otherwise be difficult.

There’s two ways you can handle this. The first is to do a lot of practice problems and build what Cal describes as hard focus. The second approach is to create more connections and metaphors to understand the idea from a wider range of perspectives. The best method is probably to do both.

These types of courses also brush up on the third type of knowledge you may need in a class, skills. In addition to facts and concepts, you need to build intuition through deliberate practice.

Learning More, By Studying Less

I’ll admit, a lot of these methods can seem overwhelming at first. To summarize, here’s the basics for doing well with less studying:

  1. Learn by connections, not by memorization.
  2. Learn things deeply the first time, don’t let confusion compound.
  3. Handle concepts by creating metaphors and analogies.
  4. Remember facts through association first, repetition second.

If you follow this approach, it makes sense that it’s possible to ace exams with relatively little studying. After all, if you’re able to lock in knowledge as it comes to you, there isn’t much need for dozens of hours in the library. Learning becomes easier, and even fun.


Author Bio: Scott Young writes a popular self-improvement blog and is the author of Learn More, Study Less. If you enjoyed this article, you can join Scott’s free rapid-learning newsletter to get a free copy of his rapid learning ebook with bonus tactics and case studies.

Note From Cal: If you want to find out more about Scott’s approach to studying, also check out the page for his online course Learn More, Study Less: regardless of whether you want to sign up for his course, this page contains links to many of his blog articles on this topic.

88 thoughts on “Anatomy of an A+: A Look Inside the Process of One of the World’s Most Efficient Studiers”

  1. Do you keep detailed metrics on your tutees?

    I ask because this is basically how I learn, but I’m skeptical that it can be effectively taught. This is more or less how I learn. If you’re anything like me, you study this way not because you found it most efficient, but simply because you’re curious, and a deep understanding is the only way to satisfy that curiosity. Can curiosity be taught?

  2. Wow what a detailed post on the art of studying. I will recommend this to college friends. I’ve been wrestling with the problem of being unfocused while studying. Its really been an issue during finals weeks. This is a great article. Interested in more solutions

  3. Brandon,

    Yes–it can be taught, but it requires practice.

    The only metrics I have are customer satisfaction reports (85% in my last survey), although I have done case studies on students who have successfully turned around their studying habits.

    My feeling is that most people are curious, but the inherent barriers to learning difficult subjects stifle that curiosity. Learning by connections is about adopting mental tactics so you can avoid some of those roadblocks.

    Of course, as I write in the article, my claim isn’t that you can instantly become a genius using these methods (some genetics is surely involved), but I a significant reduction in studying time is still possible for many.

  4. @Brandon Adams – I hear you. This is very similar to how to I learn things, though I skip the note-taking part; it doesn’t really help me. Like you, I’m a little skeptical about how well these things can be taught, though perhaps that’s because I’ve never tried to systematize my studying the way Scott seems to have done.

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  6. This is awesome. 🙂 I have fallen behind in a few classes and absorbing the material in the way you have laid out will be the best way for me to start catching up. In an ideal world, I wouldn’t have fallen behind, but I am still getting used to this whole college thing. 🙂

  7. I study the complete other way, because when I tried Scott’s method, I was always wasting time trying to understand all the proofs and demonstrations while I could simply memorize facts. For example, I have struggled hours to understand complex stat formulas, I could tell you from where It came from, why are we using it, but it took me HOUUUURS. That’s why I failed my midterms exams in science and math courses. For example, I could tell you what is the limits definition, and why, but since I couldn’t find the tricks to resolve the indetermination by myself, because of lack of practice despite the “deep comprehension” of the limit, I failed my math test.

    BUT now, I memorize A LOT more and finally achieved Scotts results: After having memorized a lot of facts, it gave me the tools to makes links between all those facts. And finally this resulted in a better comprehension.

    In High School, I always thought that I was smart because I could make very fast a lot of conclusion by myself but now I saw that the only reason was that I first learned a lot of facts !

    Now I went back to my old method, and my results in science are improving again.

    Another example : Scientist discoverd thing by EXPERIENCE, only after a lot of them they are able to make some general rules and proofs.

    But starting by trying to have a deep understanding of the concepts and rules and only making exercises at the end to check if you know it well is a bad idea for me ! You just follow a counter intuitive path.

    In maths, I only do a lot of problems, until I finaly make them almost by heart. Even tough I almost memorized them first, its only after this that I was able to slowly really understand the tools I use.

    Well, I am not trying to say that Scotts method doesnt work for anybody, but in my case it didnt.

    Sorry for my very bad primitive english, but I tried my best to make it clear.

  8. Can you post a legible version of the notes pictures? They are so faint I can’t read them. Thanks for the effort!

  9. Poleon Says:
    May 19th, 2011 at 12:18 pm
    [Gravatar image]

    I study the complete other way, because when I tried Scott’s method, I was always wasting time trying to understand all the proofs and demonstrations while I could simply memorize facts. For example, I have struggled hours to understand complex stat formulas, I could tell you from where It came from, why are we using it, but it took me HOUUUURS. That’s why I failed my midterms exams in science and math courses.

    Cal talks about this. It is called procrastination. I once had the same situation in my studies. The answer was to find someone else who can explain it using what Scott spoke about above. Find someone who can show you how and why and how something works with simple images and analogies.

    Use strategy to determine what you really have to know about a subject. That is the “focus” of hard focus. Do you have to know who discovered the equation or in what context you should use the equation to solve problems? Find this out. If you are unable to determine what you should know then speak to your instructor or people who have taken the class and done well.

  10. Scott: Expanding on your self-test would have been great for this article. I was wondering if you followed a similar procedure that Cal does concerning your pretests? Condense notes into the Question/Evidence Conclusion format and turn them into test questions/ practice problems. Do you just pull questions out of the back of your textbook? A combination of both?

    The pretest idea alone is worth gold. It shows what the student knows and doesn’t. Focus on those “don’t knows” to get an A. I started told my classmates in microbiology and anatomy “You should never come into a test and not know how your going to do”

  11. Thanks for this great case study!! I am gearing up to take the professional engineering (licensing) exam, and it’s ALL concepts, math, equations, problems that I haven’t had to know since college. Also might be taking the GRE. These methods will be extremely helpful to both exams.
    I took the GRE a few times but that was 5 years ago so I’m required to retake it…it will be interesting to see the difference by implementing a new approach! I had a rote study method in the past and did well, but I’d love to get a perfect score to increase my grad school application chances. 🙂

  12. I read recently about a memorization contest, where these guys would memorize the order in a pack of cards in less than a minute. They do it buy turning it into a story or a spatial map, basically making connections between the cards. This seems similar. Either way, thank you for posting this. My mind is blown.

  13. Hey,
    I am a Professional Writing major. How can I apply this to writing classes and writing in particular? I am also taking Psychology in the fall and I wonder how i can apply Study Hacks techniques that seem more fact based in a writing based class.


  14. The guide is great and I liked the way it has been applied to both Fact-Basesd courses and others where understanding the concept is as important. I hope to use these this and next year through my IB exams and if they work then hopefully into Oxford!

  15. @jay : Mmhhh you made a good point here. Maybe I took Scott’s method in a too extreme way.

    I have to admit, that altough I learned a lot by heart, I was only able to really memorize if the facts I was trying to learn made sense.

    I think I ll try to make a good compromise between the 2 methods :

    I ll stop trying to memorize by heart (altough in maths I have still hard to do that sometimes), BUT I will always go for the exercises first.

    Because in maths, the point is to be able to resolve the exercises and if i try to do them, I m forced to understand the concepts behind them but I wont waste time in trying to understand all the proofs if I can just apply them.

    So, I wont waste time anymore reading all the useless stuff (or at least, the less important) but I will spend it in resolving exercises (or trying to understand their solutions if I m stuck). In those, I’ll try to make as much links and connexions as possible to fully integrate the concepts.

    I think that my fail was that I focused too much on theory, because I read once on Scott’s blog that after understanding the theory fully, He only did few exercises to check if he got the theory well.

    Maybe I misunderstood his point or Scoot didnt meant something other by saying this ?

    Because in this post we can see that Scott spend more time on practise that on theory.

    Scott, can you explain me your point of view on this ?


  16. Jay,

    Luckily this class offered old exams to practice on. For classes that don’t, using Cal’s method or back-of-the-textbook questions are a decent substitute.


    It depends on what your weak points are. If you can cogently explain the main ideas, but just mess up on executing the calculations/organization of the questions–then deliberate practice is more important.

    My sense, as a generalization, is that most students’ problem is rushing over the hard, but ultimately time-saving, insight-generating phase.


  17. Would really appreciate better resolution photo of those notes. Really curious to see what type if things you include, if possible

  18. Dear Scott/Cal,

    Would you all please upload a higher resolution pictures of Scott’s notes and if possible, make them ‘downloadable’ as well. Thank you!

  19. I love this article! Great techniques! I’m in graduate school for medicine and have been trying to move closer to this kind of study method. But I have been running into problems when I see multiple organization systems and am unsure what is really the primary focus (e.g. am I better off grouping these concepts by molecular mechanisms, treatments or clinical presentation? ideally all three..) and also when I find that the difficult questions–the ones critical to linking facts, the hows and whys–remain unanswered scientifically. I find it tough to find linking concepts when a lot of the information feels like it boils down to a series of observations–lists of similar items to memorize with not real direction or focus. I’ve also run into problems when professors test emphasizing what I’ve mentally understood to be secondary characteristics of the major concepts. I’d like to get to a point where I can really look at these things from all the many possible facets but that’s where time becomes a seriously limiting factor. I would love any thoughts you have on this! Thank you!

  20. I agree with Scott, sadly I didn’t realize the importance and value of deep understanding until law school. That is when I reached a limit for memorization first. If it had not been for understanding the ‘why’ behind some complicated legal principles, I would not have been so successful in law school and passed the bar the first time.

    As for time, it does take some additional time up front, but you gain that time back by not having to ‘re-learn’ the material later.

    Thank you for sharing this valuable information.

  21. How would this be applied to a history class with many obscure facts? They cannot be conceptually linked, and when there are many of them, it’s difficult to memorize them. This is also the case with some math, especially if it’s new.

  22. I’d love to hear about someone who has applied these methods to organic chemistry, which is a notoriously difficult course. If you have a story, drop by my blog, “Master Organic Chemistry”.

  23. This reminds me of something my dad taught me. He says, “Learn one level deeper.” As in, if you have to memorize a map of mountain ranges and rivers (I had to in middle school), learn one interesting fact about each one.

  24. I think it depends on the subject. You are heading towards disaster by trying to memorise Physics concepts. Similarly there is much less deep understanding required by biology where you have to just take it as it is given. But many subjects fall somewhere in between. You memorise the basic forms and try to build the rest via connections.

  25. ^^ that is true. I know my law subjects seem to fall between. They need alot of memorisation just because there is so much content. But just memorising cases and legislation isn’t going to help unless you can apply it, and you can’t apply it if you don’t understand it. I’ve done both… memorising and trying to understand and neither works successfully in isolation. Last year I did fairly badly on an exam because, while I understood the content well, I struggled with recalling the names of cases and the application of them.

    While I’m going to apply Scott’s method, I am not going to rely solely on it. I don’t want to enter an exam unprepared and, while it may be a great method, I don’t want to risk it.

  26. @Anna

    I’ve never been to law school but I have quite a few friends that have and I have helped them to study. One of Scott’s suggestions that could really help is to group like concepts together.

    In law, cases on a particular subject usually start with the same basic issue but then they sprout off with different nuances.

    Group like cases together and then create associations with the complainants names to remember the nuances and application of the case law. If you are visual, create a ‘family tree’ or case organization chart.

    Memorization is not bad, in fact it is necessary; it just shouldn’t be the first line of defense. 🙂 Good luck on your studies!!

  27. Great article – it’s more or less how I studied during my degree days (way back in the mists of time).

    The only variations I had was that I tended to make my note compressions a lot more structured – the entire page would usually be grouped according to top-line concepts with different colors for each concept.

    The second variation was that the majority of my exams used an essay format. Sometimes it could take too much time in an exam situation to mentally ‘remap’ my conceptual model of the material into a linear essay friendly format and add the necessary context, argument etc.

    The best solution I came up with was to review the past papers and based on the common questions construct a logical list of topics to answer each one. Made a big difference timewise during the exam.



  28. This is very cool.

    But, to be honest, I’m not that impressed. I can’t recall ever studying more than 3 hours for a test (usually about 2 hours) and just graduated an Ivy League college with an ~A average.

  29. I should invite him to out Madrid Aeronautical School with failure rates about 90%…i think,the noted above methods are the minima to pass a reasoable tough exam..

  30. I found the example complicated. Real *learning* comes from simplifying. In the case of the provided example, it is trivial to simplify.

    $100 is worth $121 after two 10% interest cycles. The PV formula asks the reverse: what is $121 two cycles out, worth today (what is its present value)? In reverse, we can calculate that by dividing $121 with 1.1 twice. That’s pretty much what the formula is : FV/(1 + i)^N or $121/((1.1)^2) = $100.


  31. @Kevin, History is not full of obscure facts–it’s a story of inter-related facts which the illuminate each other. You can’t understand the beginning WWI without learning everything that was happening in the world just before the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo and how all those movements interacted with each other. History is full of overarching themes and relationships. Teachers don’t always teach this way, but if you take the time to investigate and really understand, the way Scott suggests, history will come alive for you.

  32. “The worlds most efficient studier” ???

    He an economy major!

    I know many dumb people who graduated with an A* from the top Business Schools in Switzerland, England and the US

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  34. David,

    Yes–there’s a lot of examples of “effortless” students out there, I don’t claim to be anything extraordinary. But the fact that some of the linkbacks claim that I was a fake or that I did something impossible without cheating implies that this reality certainly isn’t the norm for most people.


    That’s Cal’s claim–not mine. Business is certainly an easier faculty than some, but there is considerable variance in the courses. This particular one has a higher failure rate than most engineering courses–of course, it’s all relative.


    Part of what is missing from my analogy is that you MUST simplify in order to create the analogy in the first place. That’s what step #1 is in my process, creating a reduction by asking “Why?” for different components, then using that idea to create further connections to sear the idea into your memory and help explore its implications.

    That said–metaphor is just one approach, there are plenty of others that you can use for different purposes.


  35. Hi, Good article.
    I work as a software developer. since you know how to program using php, Do you have a way to understand software code that is written by someone else?

  36. Succinctly put, use Cal’s methods (quiz and recall, etc), however, immediately, or soon after class.


  37. Hi,

    A really awesome post. You two have done more for the study learning process than one hundred of scientific research.

    Thank you.

  38. This is pretty much how I learn, and while it doesn’t always work as well for everyone, it has always worked for me. More recently, I’ve been thinking: What if my success isn’t because of the way I learn, but just because high school isn’t that hard? I’ve been deathly afraid that I’m going to get to college and fail miserably because I’ve forgotten how to “study.” If I attempt to follow the study tips people usually give students (consisting mostly of flashcards and the like) I inevitably forget the information- often right after the test- because I never actually sat down and learned it (like I prefer to do, and like you described). It is a relief to hear from a college student that my natural methods still work in college.

  39. This is awesome Scott. I was torn between Memorizing and Learning concepts. Most of the time I do the latter but still I was not sure whether it was the right way to do “EVERYTHING” NOw ill try to apply it with full faith and effort!

  40. If thats all he had to study that must be an easy as $%!% course. Good luck just studying for your 3/4th year physics course final in 3.5 hrs and getting a 90%.

  41. I wish you had explained what “pegging” was so I didn’t have to google it and find out the OTHER definition of “pegging”. Made me shiver.

  42. Hi Scott,
    Do you have any tips for getting through subjects like Economics? Frankly, the concepts can be challenging for me to fully understand as the textbook/study materials can be very dry or too academic. Amazing advice in the article, thanks for the help!

  43. Hi Scott,

    Out of curiosity, what if you make bad metaphors or connections? Like what if you use metaphors that are logically incorrect? Would that hurt your chances of understanding a topic, and if so how do you avoid bad metaphors and logic?



  44. Did anyone else think that David was a tool?

    David Says:
    June 15th, 2011 at 8:38 pm
    [Gravatar image]

    This is very cool.

    But, to be honest, I’m not that impressed. I can’t recall ever studying more than 3 hours for a test (usually about 2 hours) and just graduated an Ivy League college with an ~A average.

  45. I came upon Cal’s site and yours today while procrastinating on an assignment 🙂


    This way you’ve broken down is how I learn, too. I’m auto-didatic and visual-kinesthetic. Transferring from a technical college (Broadcasting and Media) to a more interdisciplinary academic model (Evergreen State – no, I’m NOT a pothead.) was okay, but not a great study-model experience. During Spring evaluations, one of my professors pegged me as a Systems Learner. Ever since she described me as such, I’ve been able to really dig into that definition and have had a stronger, more motivating desire to accept I learn by “feel” and have translated in into my papers and exams in my present (final) year with decent reception from my new set of professors. It has allowed me to focus on the probability of pursuing my MFA and eventually teach at the college level.

    I appreciate your words and Cal’s as well. This blog is saving me a LOT of heartache as the next two Quarters to freedom approach!

    Thanks a ton,

  46. This is just pure sales copy. I have no doubt there are more or less efficient ways to study, but you cannot ignore the effect of underlying ability. Most of us can do better, but will never ace university level material off a few hours work.

  47. I have to show my appreciation to this writer just for bailing me out of this trouble. Because of looking out throughout the the web and obtaining methods which were not productive, I figured my life was gone. Living minus the answers to the problems you’ve resolved all through your website is a critical case, and the kind which may have adversely damaged my entire career if I hadn’t encountered your website. The skills and kindness in touching all the details was vital. I am not sure what I would’ve done if I hadn’t come across such a thing like this. I can at this moment look forward to my future. Thanks for your time so much for this reliable and result oriented help. I won’t be reluctant to endorse your web site to anybody who requires counselling on this subject matter.

  48. Well, that is how i want to study, but alas, i don’t have a long enough attention span to do that, so i will probably just remember enough to get by. Oh, and i did learn it from a video about how to remember things, but i can’t really study like that because of my lack of focus. It does work better than memorization to me.

  49. This method worked for me. I was so surprised it did. I procrastinated so much and didnot start studying for a corporate finance test until 5 hours before the test. I also didpoorly in past finance courses. I followed the advice here and surprisingly got an almost perfect score.

  50. Great post. Help me!!!!!!This is such a different way to approach studying. All the other blogs and books I have read describe organizational techniques etc…
    I have started to pay attention to myself and my thoughts many of which are unconscious so that I can get all A’s my last year of grad school. I finished by 1st year with 4 A’s and 5 B’s for a 3.1 GPA. I am not happy with this b/c I eventually want to get the best grades possible. I have an interest in a Ph.D and teaching so I want to demonstrate that I have mastered the ability to acquire knowledge in my chosen domain.

    With that said I can say I am fairly motivated, make the subject interesting, and contribute significantly to class discussions but I lack the ability to stop my bad study habits and adopt new study habits. For example, I have mapped out that in order to graduate with at least a 3.3 I can’t get anything less than a A-. Is that even possible with my track record thus far? It brings me anxiety to think about the habits, perseverance, commitment and focus I need for this level of output. Any suggestions.

    I broke down all my behaviors from each of my classes and I must say I have been this way for a loooong time. To name a few of the habits: wait to last minute/overthinking/turn in late work/anxiety/not working with other classmates well/not understanding all the concepts/don’t follow the entire lecture/not practicing enough problems/confused.

    Lastly, any strategies to “stop over thinking” many professors have told me this. I have been told this many times in my academic career (from high school to grad school). Thanks so much for anything anyone wants to offer.

  51. This does not cut the time it takes to study for a test, it simply spreads it over the entire length of the course. I would say that it will improve your grade though.

    I alternate between both studying styles. When I need an A, because I want to boost my GPA or I find the class material to be of importance to my future career and personal interest, I do what you explain here. When I do not need a good grade or am not interested in really learning the material, I simply skip class, and power study a day or two before the exam.

    In all cases, learning as you go resort in better grades, most often A and A+. In fact, I’ve only ever had A and A+ when doing this. And I have done this for the hardest classes normally.

    I would like to say though, in all accounts, this technique probably makes you spend more time ultimately on studying for the class than the last minute memorization does.

  52. Dear Cal,

    I wanted you to know that I used the material on your blog to totally dominate my senior year of college, all while reducing the amount of time I spent studying.

    Using just the FREE material on your blog and your talks on YouTube, I improved my study skills so much that I got a perfect score on my Quantum Physics final, which turned out to be a righteous 115% after the giant curve for the other failing students (the ones who didn’t know about your awesome site, of course).

    I bought all your books for my little sister who is in high school now and she is enjoying them. Thanks for your work! You helped me get into one of the best graduate schools in the US.

  53. So if I were trying to learn anatomy, muscles/skeletal/surface etc, and I have a difficult time learning shapes how could I best implement this advice?

  54. What do you suggest I do?
    I have, quite foolishly, opted for a very rigorous course.
    Due to the enormous nature of my subjects (Physics, Chemistry, Biology AND Maths….French and English) I need to learn a lot of things in a very short amount of time – two months.
    Three of those subjects are concept-based with focus on practical applications. One is purely theoretical and factual (I’m not concerned about the languages).
    I do better than three quarters of my batch but I want to be the top.
    Should I go for the formula-memorizing route or the concept-learning one?

  55. This post definitely has me thinking about new and different ways to study. Personally, I notice how stressed I get when trying to cram hours and hours of study for a test right before I take it. It’s overwhelming and stressful to a point that I recognize my stress more than I do what I’m studying. I like Scott’s ideas about looking over class notes frequently. I also am going to try his idea of being able to explain or write out concepts. I’m glad that Scott shared his different ways to effectively study without spending hours and hours studying.

  56. Studying by applying the information instead of memorization is a interesting approach. I for one, study by memorization and I do spend hours trying to memorize facts and in the end I forget everything, it is a temporary fix for upcoming exams. I would like to work up to Scott’s approach of studying and test his tips, see if they work for me. I believe that applying principles and finding a way to connect to what was taught will be very beneficial in the long run. You tend to remember more information longer instead of just temporarily.

  57. In psychology, Scott’s method utilizes the principles of meaningful encoding, while Cal’s method revolves around retrieval practice. I wonder if there’s an optimal combination (say 80/20 rule) that applies here. Cal’s approach to note-taking attempts to condense Scott’s method – by taking raw material and filtering/converting it into more meaningful information while in class.


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