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Monday Master Class: Use Technical Explanation Questions When Studying For Technical Classes

[Sorry for the one-day delay in this week’s Monday Master Class. I was down in New York City for the holiday weekend. Those of you students who regularly tune into WABC on Sunday mornings (e.g., none of you), may have seen me pitching some back-to-school advice.]

Most students who take technical courses figure out, rather quickly, that reviewing their weekly problem sets is crucial when preparing for a test. In How to Become a Straight-A Student, I take this one step further by discussing how to construct Mega Problem Sets (MPS), which include, in addition to your weekly homework, selected examples from your lecture notes. If you can answer the problems in every MPS, then you are more than prepared for your upcoming test.


Rewind to the summer of 2005, the period in which I wrote the bulk of the manuscript for Straight-A. I was chatting with a high school student about her A.P. chem class. She was having trouble. Having recently worked on the MPS chapter, I gave her the above advice.

I tried that,” she said. “It didn’t work!

After a little more explanation, the issue became clear. She had practiced and practiced until she could answer every single problem set problem without hesitation. But when the test came, and she was faced with new problems, she was stumped. As it turned out, in her zeal, she had simply memorized the steps of her specific sample problems. Without understanding the underlying concepts, this did little to prepare her to tackle new problems on a test.

From this experience was born…

The Technical Explanation Question

When constructing a MPS, you should add, in addition to the sample problems from problem sets and lecture, questions that ask you to explain the major concepts. When studying, you should lecture these answers out loud as if you’re teaching a class. If possible, get a private study room with a whiteboard.

Here are some types of technical explanation questions (TEQs) you might consider adding:

  1. Explaining a general step-by-step process that is repeated in many sample problems. For example, in a calculus class you might have several examples of taking derivatives using the chain rule. Add a TEQ that asks you to explain how the chain-rule works.
  2. Defining specific rules. Following our calculus example, we all remember that many well-known functions have specific derivatives that must be learned. A good TEQ might have you list each from memory (e.g., “List six common functions and their derivatives.”)
  3. Annotating a complicated example. Given a complicated example of a certain type of problem, a good TEQ might have you provide detailed annotation on each step; explaining the logic behind each.
  4. Reviewing rules for use. In many technical courses, a big part of the challenge is figuring out which technique to apply to a given problem. A good TEQ might have you discuss the criteria for choosing from a set of different techniques for a certain type of problem.

Adding TEQs seems like it will extend your study time. But, in the final accounting, they probably will help you learn the other sample problems faster, making up for the addition. More important, they provide the foundation for consistent high performance in challenging technical courses.

8 thoughts on “Monday Master Class: Use Technical Explanation Questions When Studying For Technical Classes”

  1. Hey Cal, I am a veterinary student and I am trying to apply your study hacks to improve my study habits as I am currently struggling to keep afloat in my curriculum. I am considering buying your book and reading it but realize that you have two books about college. Which book would you recommend that suits my needs better? Thank you so much for your help and being such an inspiration.


  2. I read “how to become a straight-A Student” but my issue is that i am having confusion when creating these “Mega problem sets” uniquely for my own situation. We get on average 23 questions per section in Calculus that we are covering so I believe that is what you are referring to with problem sets? then the sample problems are the ones the teacher covers in class? so when creating these sets for review , should i be using ALL the problem sets that i have already completed for homework except add the main concepts/ sample problems to the review?

  3. I am a MS CS Student.
    I forgot most undergrad theory but vaguely remember some concepts.
    How should I ideally prepare ?
    Since most of time gets spent on assignments.
    And it is highly challenging course !!!

  4. Hi Cal!

    It seems to me that I understand the material and what it means but I am never able to apply it in the problem sets. All my courses are proof based and theoretical and its harder and harder to think about the right way to go about these questions. I am getting more and more discouraged by the day


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