Q & A: Complicated Study Systems, Complicated Productivity Software, and Complicated Achievements

From the reader mailbag:Questions and Answers

I want to know about your studying strategies, beyond just quiz and recall. While I do find the quiz and recall method to be VERY helpful it doesn’t offer much structure in comparison with say the SQ4R or 4S=M methods. Is there a way to reconcile these methods with your quiz and recall method? Perhaps you can describe your blow by blow study sessions including what you do with the notes you take in class.

Cal responds:

I’ve never met a high-scoring student who used a system like SQ4R. The reason: they’re too time-consuming! What these students do instead is discover simple, streamlined and devastatingly effective heuristics that can be easily adapted to specific classes. The three biggies described in How to Become a Straight-A Student are:

  • Quiz-and-Recall: Review by explaining the idea or demonstrating the problem out loud, as if lecturing a class.
  • Question/Evidence/Conclusion Note-Taking: Gather the information in lecture and reading assignments into big ideas — described by a question, a conclusion, and the bullet-point notes that connect the two.
  • Sample Problem Gathering: In technical courses, attempt to gather as many sample problems as possible. If you don’t understand the example or technique being explained ask a question right away.

All of my studying follows from some combination of these simple techniques…

From the reader mailbag:

I don’t know if you address this in your books or not, but what kind of software do you recommend for keeping productive?

Cal responds:

None. Or, equivalently: whatever. Here’s my thought: If you follow the first two pillars of the Straight-A Method — (1) capture and regularly review everything you need to do, and (2) plan the hours of the day — you’ll be as productive as you need to be. Whether this means a cheap paper calendar on your desk or a ridiculously sophisticated piece of tricked-out GTD goodness, so be it. Just make sure it’s simple enough that you actually use it.

In case your curious, here’s what I do: I use Google calendar to keep track of day-specific things. I store my tasks in Gmail. Most of my obligations show up as e-mail so the easiest possible way to process them is to slap on a label and then hit “archive.”

When I was an undergraduate, by comparison, I used some freebie calendar program on my iMac and tracked my tasks on a legal pad. They key was always to use whatever seemed easiest at the time.

From the reader mailbag:

I’ve noticed recently that you’ve been emphasizing the idea of focusing on a single activity/goal/project in order to accomplish something significant. I have a question on the exception to the rule: Polymaths. Do you think your philosophy applies to individuals such as Ben Franklin or Da Vinci.

Cal responds:

Here’s the problem. People think they can become a polymath by keeping a brand in several different fires. In the end, however, they become competent, but not unequivocally successful in each of the endeavors. The real reward-generating, stand out achievements tend to come from really focusing on one thing. Reflecting on people I’ve encountered who have are known for several grand accomplishments, it typically turns out that their first big score came from obsessive focus. (Franklin, for example, first became a successful printer, then turned to his science experiments, which made him famous, then turned more attention to political activities.) My point: it’s harder than you think to become really good at just one thing, so why make things even harder by gunning for more at the same time?

6 thoughts on “Q & A: Complicated Study Systems, Complicated Productivity Software, and Complicated Achievements”

  1. Quick question:
    You speak of a 4S=M method of studying/reading. I’ve never encountered that before. A Google search, too, was futile.
    Can you point out to a couple of websites or books that deal with this technique.
    Many thanks.

  2. I really liked the last questions. I do believe that you are right Cal.

    Branches on a tree grow from the trunk. A tree may start with just a few branches, which supply the tree with sunlight to grow; Then the trunk gets bigger and can support more branches. The cycle continues. When caring for a tree you must make sure the branches grow correctly. The branches cannot be cluttered, grow to low, and they can’t grow larger than what the trunk can support, if not they will break. (Think of all that wasted time, too.)

    Your career should grow similarly and with similar care.

    Does the metaphor make sense?

  3. @defenestratedego:

    I don’t know, I’ve never heard of it before either. But they’re all the same, a large number of steps, carefully crafted in some lab, that, in isolation, produce good recall, but become unweildly in practice.


    I think that works. To put it another way, focus on building a strong trunk and the branches will have an easy time growing. Start too soon on the branches, and you get a tangled shrub. Or something…

  4. @defenestratedeg: I found this using Google:

    “4s=M – Four Steps Equal Mastery”

    1. Preliminary Survey
    (a) Read Topic Headings
    (b) Summary Paragraphs
    (c) Study Questions

    2. Reading the Assignment
    (a) Read for Ideas
    (b) Do not read word by word

    3. Quick Review
    (a) Retrace your steps quickly throughout the assignment by skimming, looking for the main topic

    4. Summarize the Assignment
    (a) Write the summary that contains all the important information found in the assignment.


  5. @G.D.:

    Thanks for tracking that down. I think this method suffers from the same problem as other similar methods: too many steps. Here we have 7 different steps students are supposed to follow. Just too hard under fire, as it were.


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