I recently did an interview with the Manila Bulletin, in which I discussed the basic ideas underpinning the Straight-A Method (the framework for all of my studying advice). I thought it might be a good idea to reproduce some of the article here as a way to bring my newer readers up to speed on the type of good old fashioned study tips found in my books.
(The full article can be found here.)
STUDENTS AND CAMPUSES BULLETIN (SCB): What are some of the common causes of “underachievement” in school?
Cal Newport (CN): Student culture. It’s seen as uncool to be working hard. Also, there is often a fear that if you admit to working hard then do poorly then this somehow proves that you’re not smart. A lot of talented students develop terrible habits as a way of avoiding this fear. My advice to overcome this culture is “keep it yourself.” Study how much you need to study and don’t make it a topic of conversation.
SCB: How important is motivating yourself to study?
CN: The worse your study habits, the worse your urge to procrastinate – your mind tries to avoid activities that seem painful for no good reason. If you’re on top of your work, follow a reasonable schedule, and use efficient habits, it’s a lot easier to stay motivated.
SCB: What strategies can a student use in each stage of his school life?
CN: In grade school, get used to the habit of setting aside a little block of time each day – maybe right after school – during which you complete your homework.
In high school, overcome the cram habit by keeping a detailed deadline calendar and devising a study plan for papers and major tests; i.e., how you are going to study, for how long, and on what days. This is also a good time to expand your grade school habit and maintain set times, each day, in which the bulk of your work gets done. Finally, and I can’t stress this enough: never, ever do school work on a computer that is connected to the Internet. This is a complete waste of time. Finish the paper early, then you can dedicate your entire night – if you so wish – to facebook.
In college, always attend class. Spread out your assignments over the week (don’t leave them until the night before; this isn’t high school, the work load can’t be crammed into a few hours of intense effort). Study during pockets of free time in the morning and afternoon; definitely don’t leave everything until after dinner. Ignore how your friends study – they’re probably idiots when it comes to these skills – and, instead, run your own experiments to discover what techniques seem to be the most efficient for you. Top students often have crazy tool boxes of custom-built study systems that help them get work done fast.
In graduate school, the culture is more dangerous then the work load. Ignore how much you are “supposed” to be working and focus, during the early years, on getting the work done well. Later, when faced with a dissertation, avoid the “woe is me” attitude, and just get started early, and work consistently over time, with plenty of feedback, to develop something good.
SCB: How can a student be motivated to get good grades even though a boring subject or a teacher gets in the way of an exciting learning situation?
CN: Studying is like a game. You are faced with a source of information, you have to do some sort of processing, at the other end you take a test or write a paper and get a grade for it.
The challenge is to make that middle part – the processing – as efficient and effective as possible. Even if you don’t love the subject, there is always something fulfilling about watching your custom-built note-taking and review system suck in the info, process it, review it, and spit out top-scoring results on the other end.
SCB: What are the top five skills students must learn in order to get high grades in class?
CN: Pay attention in class. Capture big ideas in your notes, not a transcript of every word the teacher uttered.
Energy and focus is more important than time when it comes to studying. Work in focused chunks in the morning and the afternoon – not in long stretches after dinner.
Always have a plan. There is nothing worse than heading off to the library with vague ambitions to “study.” Always be specific about what actual work you are planning on doing and how long it should take.
Avoid rote review. Silently reading and re-reading over notes is a slow way to learn. Instead, try to recall big ideas, out loud, as if lecturing to a class.
Start working much earlier than your classmates. Work in smaller chunks spread out over more time. The results are better and the pain much less.
SCB: What can you advise students who are currently having a hard time in school?
CN: Last fall I wrote a blog article called “The Vital 5” which listed the following five steps for turning around poor academic performance:
1. Attend every class. Take notes on a laptop.
2. Set aside a fixed two-hour study block for every weekday and Sunday. Use this time to study, in a remote corner of the library, without exception, every week of the term.
3. Make a study plan for every test in every class at the beginning of the term. Decide what you are going to do and when.
4. Replace rote review with quiz and recall.
5. Attend office hours every single week to discuss the most challenging material from lecture, or the hardest problems from the problem set. Inform the professor that you are making a real effort this term to turn around your performance.
(photo by permanently scatterbrained)