Q & A: Dealing with Killer Classes, Notes in the Age of Note Packets, and Avoiding the Deadly Grind Syndrome

From the reader mailbag:Questions and Answers

I registered for a class that sounded completely awesome. I didn’t have the pre-requisites, but I thought it would be okay. It’s not. I can’t drop it. And I’d like to wrench at least a B out of this bastard. Aside from hounding the TA, what other actions can I take?

Cal responds:

I’ve definitely been there before. First, as a current TA, I highly recommend that you don’t hound your teaching assistant. It will make him cranky. Which doesn’t help your cause. What you can do, however, is the following:

  1. Meet with the professor. Explain you are really interested in the material but are worried about its difficulty. Ask for advice on how best to keep up.
  2. You’ll probably have to spend more time on assignments than normal. That’s the price you pay for taking the course. So man up and just schedule the extra time. This means, among other things, re-reading portions of articles and doing background research on readings. (See here for some guidance.)
  3. Go to office hours regularly to get crash courses on the most confusing subjects.
  4. Don’t be afraid to ask questions when confused in class. Use the following format: <this is my interpretation> + <this is what confused me> + <this is what I want to be clarified>

The course might still suck. But these systems will prevent you from stressing about this suckyness. You are confident that you’re doing the best you can with what you have. No need to worry about it any more.

From the reader mailbag:

I was wondering if you had any tips about how to process information given in a classes with note packets. My accounting professor gives us his (extremely elaborate) notes for each chapter we’re covering. So far I’ve been using them to jot down notes in the margins next to the applicable topics. Is this optimal?

Cal responds:

No. Random margin notes are not enough. It’s too easy for you to zone out during lecture. And this means you’ll have to learn the material from scratch come studying time. Something to avoid.

Instead: pretend like you don’t have the note packets. Take notes from scratch. Later you can use the packets to fill in holes in the occasional spot where you missed something important. But by taking detailed notes you are learning the material on the fly. This is the single most important activity you can do to reduce the hours needed to review later.

From the reader mailbag:

I have many friends who sit at their table in the library, from 8:00 am until lunch, then take a 1 hour break, then return to work until 9:00 pm. These people are all toppers of their class. I understand it may not be needed for other subject areas but I think it’s essential in medicine to be studying for 16 hours a day. I usually manage sitting for only 20 minutes at a time after which I become restless. What should I do?

Cal responds:

You assume they are the top students in your class. But they’re probably not. If there’s one thing I learned from studying straight-A students in the real world is that they often are not who you expect, and they often study a lot less consecutive hours than you think is necessary for high performance.

Here’s my advice: Forget the grinds. All they’re demonstrating is that: (a) they have a high tolerance for boredom; and (b) they have terrible study habits.

Instead: Focus on your situation in the absence of all the emotional baggage and guilt that surrounds schoolwork and how much of it you should be doing. Ask these questions: What exactly do you have to learn? What is the most efficient method to accomplish this? Lay out a system that answers these questions in a way that seems tolerable, then trust it. From my experience, you’ll probably find that the best answers don’t involve sitting like a zombie for 16 hour stretches.

10 thoughts on “Q & A: Dealing with Killer Classes, Notes in the Age of Note Packets, and Avoiding the Deadly Grind Syndrome”

  1. Yet another great post. I found the ” + + ” very helpful. Will use that in future!

    By the way, as a current TA too, I definitely do not advise hounding the TA. Even if he has no tangible effect on your grade outcome, there are always intangibles that may occur!

  2. I think you missed the point of that last reader. He was asking about medical classes. These are unlike undergrad classes because of the sheer volume of information presented. A typical semester may have 30-40 credit hours, tons of reading, and exams every week. In such situations, I think it would be necessary to be a “grind.”

  3. @Nikki:

    Med school is more work than the typical undergrad load, but it still shouldn’t require working from 9 to 9 as that reader observed. At least, based on the med students I’ve talked to.

    Indeed, Med school tends to have a higher concentration of grinds — students who think that anything less than the maximum possible number of working hours is a personal failure. So you have to be extra vigilent to ignore them.

  4. I dont think it’s necessary to work 9to9 in med school, but anything less than 8 hours / day is nearly impossible for anyone of average talent.
    It would be quite cool if you did another “College Chronicles” like series with med students or law students, to see how they cope.

  5. @Manuel:

    That would be interesting. I wonder how many of my readers are non-undergrads? I should do a survey…

    Feel free to keep me posted when you come across hacks that med-school specific. I’d love to expand my study habit arsenal toward these new frontiers.

  6. I’ve found that, often, prerequisites are put into place because — get this — the material covered in the class is difficult to understand without the knowledge gained in the prerequisite classes. Advisors shouldn’t even allow students to sign up for those classes without the prerequisites being met, and sometimes even the online registration software won’t allow it to happen without an override, which brings us back to the issue with the advisors.

    I’m not saying that the student in the first letter is up a creek, but at the same time, I wouldn’t expect a lot of sympathy from TAs or professors who are teaching to a class of (what they assume to be) prepared students.

    I think the key statement, an a wonderful realization, is the bolded statement in the original question: “It’s not.”

  7. @Erik

    I agree. It’s tough. Sometimes pre-requisites really matter. Sometimes not. You would hope that the professor would act accordingly — but, as with the reader above, it doesn’t always happen.

  8. Couldn’t agree more with the answer to question two. I’ve got a class this semester with the same problem. Take notes from scratch, use his as a reference. You’ll understand things in a different way than the teacher chooses to outline them.


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