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Monday Master Class: The Graph as Question

[Originally sent to Study Hacks Newsletter on 6/25/07]

I begin with an academic horror story that motivates today’s advice.
If you want to skip the drama and get straight to the technical
content, scroll down to the section labeled: “USING THE GRAPH AS


In my second semester as a graduate student at MIT I took a course on
distributed system design. Like many science-focused graduate courses,
the reading was exclusively published academic papers. The professor
would tackle a few papers a day — each of which discussed a specific
distributed system — covering the basics.

To prepare for the first exam, I dutifully constructed my study guide,
and studied with the Q/R method. I arrived in the classroom on test
day with a ready grasp of the main features and architecture of each
of the systems we had reviewed.

Then I got hosed.

The exam didn’t cover the main features or architecture. It focused,
instead, on specific scenario-based questions (think: “How much
performance would you gain from doubling the number of processes on
system X while removing 30% of the servers?”) The professor hadn’t
discussed the material at this level of specificity, so my
lecture-derived Q/R questions were woefully inadequate. I, of course,
scored terribly.

I allowed myself exactly one day to mope. A process, which involved,
mainly, informing my wife (then girlfriend), with the solemnity of a
general sending a platoon toward eminent death, that I would soon be
ejected, mercilessly, from MIT.

Then I went back to the drawing board.

As you know from STRAIGHT-A, the most important piece of studying
advice is to never trust any single piece of advice. Instead, always
experiment. See what works and what doesn’t — then change the latter.
(A sentiment I’ve taken to summarizing as: “Study like Darwin”).

After some reflection, I realized that the key to these papers were
the graphs and tables. These captured the crucial information you
needed to know to really understand how the systems operated. (As I’ve
learned from my own peer-reviewed publications, figures are used as a
shorthand between experts in a scientific field to quickly communicate
everything you really need to know about the research being

I completely revised my study strategy. Forget lecture notes. Forget
my old study guide. For the second exam I was going to study only the
figures. I used Q/R, but the figures now became my questions. I went
paper by paper, figure by figure, and tried to lecture out loud
exactly what was being shown. If it was a graph, for example, I had to
explain what the axes were, and what, exactly, was demonstrated by the

This approach pushed my understanding to the core of how these systems
operated. To reach this same understanding from scratch, by reading
and re-reading the papers, would have been a hopeless task. The
figure-based approach, however, fit neatly into the Q/R method, and I
was therefore able to internalize with maximum efficiency.

The effect: I did well on the final exam. Better than most of my
classmates. And yes, true to my titular reputation, I did end up
scoring an “A” — keeping my streak alive.

Let’s now generalize this advice:


For many technical courses you will be presented with reading material
that contains graphs and tables. Economics textbooks, for example, are
full of them. As are statistics texts, or the papers given out in
upper-level computer science courses. I assume this is also probably
true of the chem books in pre-med courses, among others.

In these situations, consider the following adjustment to the strategy
laid out in Part 2 of STRAIGHT-A:

(1) Photocopy every figure in the reading that will be covered by the
upcoming exam. One figure per page.

(2) Integrate these figures into your study guide along with your
other sample problems.

(3) When doing Q/R studying, treat each figure as a question. The
appropriate answer is a full explanation of: (a) exactly what the
figure is measuring; and (b) the implications or explanations for what
it shows. For example, why are the two curves on a graph different.
Or, why do the numbers get larger as you move across the columns in a

(4) You will likely find that a single figure covers the same
information also captured by several other sample problems in your
study guide. Feel free to consolidate by eliminating the redundant

4 thoughts on “Monday Master Class: The Graph as Question”

  1. This works on physics as well,
    usually a big chunk of text followed by a tiny graph
    contains the same info; visually, verbally, mathematically.
    great advice Cal.


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