Case Study: How Tyler Aced a Difficult Course

Tyler Gets NervousA New Beginning

Our friend Tyler, whose quest for student simplicity I profiled last April, recently sent me a message. He was nervous about a course he was taking for his linguistics minor. The grade was based on bluebook essay exams. As he recalled: “The last time I took a bluebook course I almost failed it.”

We traded some e-mails. I gave him some advice and he sent back some updates. The final result: he aced the course.

In this post, I explain how…

Become a Bluebook Master

When Tyler wrote me, he wasn’t happy with the results of his first exam. The course was getting the better of him and he needed shiny new strategies. I gave him some advice, but more importantly he agreed to start actively experimenting and adapting his study strategies to the challenges of the specific course.

“I didn’t take detailed notes for my readings, however, and that’s what scared me on the first exam. From now on, I’m going to do the readings in a few sittings (as some of them are very difficult) and place more emphasis on recording Q/E/C [Question/Evidence/Conclusion] answers for the key readings.”

When we next spoke, his reading plan had adapted more:

“I think the key is doing the readings early in the morning and well before the exam,” he said.

“Skimming the reading before the lecture and then reading in depth only after the relevant lecture really made the whole process easier,” he later added.

A Moment of Appreciation

Let’s pause for a moment to appreciate this adaptation under fire. The readings were killing Tyler. On his first exam, he felt like he was under-prepared. He vowed to take better notes on the readings, but, because they were difficult, this was proving a hopeless task.

Then he innovated.

By our next conversation he had exiled the readings to the early morning, when his energy was high. He also broke them up into multiple sessions, making detailed note-taking less painful. Most importantly he realized that by skimming before class, then conducting detailed read after, he significantly reduced the time required to capture good notes.

Back to the Action

When Tyler next wrote, he had more good news to report.

“I learned from my post-exam post-mortems that giving definitions/real-life examples of concepts mentioned in lecture got one points. Mentioning material from the readings to prove that you did them did not help”

In addition:

“Though, the professor did reveal what he wanted you to get out of the readings, he lectured too fast for most students to record anything but a brief bullet point summary of his words. He wanted us to spend time with the assignments to fill in what we couldn’t capture in class”

“I had a secret weapon in my study arsenal ready for that: my laptop computer. By being able to type quickly, I was able to really flesh out many of his arguments in class and thus not have to read 90% of the readings for the final exam!”

Finally, he also found success deploying the three-minute rule.

From Impossible to Easy

Tyler’s story provides an excellent case study for tackling a college-level course. He started with an impossible situation — a course with a huge amount of difficult readings, essay exams that seemed to be graded randomly, and a lecturer who flew through the material. This probably sounds familiar.

Instead of giving up, however, he payed careful attention to what was really required to do well and what wasn’t. (An idea fleshed out here.) He experimented and adapted, and by the end he was doing less work and understanding much more than most of his classmates. The ‘A’ came easy.

Next time you feel overwhelmed by a course, consider Tyler’s example, and instead of assuming the class is impossible ask yourself: What could I be doing differently to make this easier?

11 thoughts on “Case Study: How Tyler Aced a Difficult Course”

  1. I’ve been meaning to send a note of thanks to you. I guess better late than never…
    I am a full time working mom of two boys, one of which was a newborn last semester (I know) and I diligently followed some of your tips and got A’s on the two courses I had. One of which was my first statistics class which I thought for sure I was going to screw up since I didn’t do so good on the first exam. But through sheer will power, your books and tips I was able to succeed in both. So, a BIG thank you to you and keep up the good work.

    Happy new year.

  2. I’ve been meaning to send a note of thanks to you. I guess better late than never…

    I’m so glad you’re finding success on the academic piece of a very full life. Best of luck!

  3. Cal: Kudos for your blog. As a long-term PhD–who also got canned for both academic and social reasons his freshman year, I wish the web and this kind of input had been available 45 years ago. I had to learn much of it on my own. Thanks again.

  4. Wow! That is great.
    I should start to read the book before class, but I always think ‘Ah, it isn’t needed that much, let’s play a game on the computer instead, I did enough today’.
    Another resolution for 2009 maybe!

  5. On the one hand I’m glad to be reminded that excellence in the classroom can be boiled down to simple implementable steps, but I feel like one has to choose between learning from the class material for the sake of learning (thereby doing all the readings, poring over them) and focusing exclusively on meeting teachers’ expectations and ensuring a high grade. So is this a case of “If you want to win, you have to play by their rules and not yours”?

  6. Hey

    I was wondering if you have any suggestions on how to study microbiology and immunology? The midterms are multiple choice with a few short answer questions, however these are problem solving questions so I don’t think your MC preparation that I read in a previous article would be effective. Any advice?

  7. I was wondering if you have any suggestions on how to study microbiology and immunology?

    If it’s problem-solving oriented, you might consider the strategies I discussed in my recent “How to Ace Calculus” article.

  8. Hi,
    I was wondering if you had any suggestions on how to study large amounts of theory? You see i’m doing a double major (Accounting and banking and finance). Banking and finance has a lot of theory though – every lecture is around 20 ish pages and i’m struggling to remember it all! :

  9. Accounting and banking and finance). Banking and finance has a lot of theory though – every lecture is around 20 ish pages and i’m struggling to remember it all! :

    Check out my recent “How to Ace Calculus” and “How I Aced Discrete Math” posts. You might have to treat the theory like any math course.

  10. Hi, do you have any specific strategies for law school? do you think an average student should try to have a 9-5 work schedule, because it seems to be impossible…thanks!

  11. Everyone knows the best way to do well is to wake in the morning, spend the day studying. To read material before the lecture, then review it afterwards. To begin revising for exams well before they come about. Everyone knows. But we don’t live in a world where these things are easy to do, whether that be due to existing commitments, personal issues, or just a to heavy workload to do everything. This post is naive, yes those that follow it will do well but having a life easy and free enough to do it in is the harder part.


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