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Q & A: Five Key Questions About Becoming an Efficient Student

Questions and Answers

Probing the Straight-A Method

A reader recently sent me a collection of thoughtful questions about applying the Straight-A Method in practice. For those of you who read How to Become a Straight-A Student (i.e., “the red book”), these questions should help clarify its advice. For those who have not yet read it, I’ve been careful to word my answers so the tactics are clear.

On the question “Where should you study?” your answer is “In isolation”, but this seems to contradict your talk about studying in public, off-campus places, such as cafes, as suggested in Procrastination Battle Plan 3.

In my chapter on defeating procrastination, I describe the strategy of heading to an off-campus location with the express intent of studying. For example, I used to head to the cafe at a Borders 15 minutes down the road. The idea was that once there you have nothing to do but work. All of your distractions are a car ride (or long walk) away, so you’ll have no choice but to break the procrastination seal and get down to it.

In some ways this does contradict my advice to study in isolation. So let me provide a caveat: when on campus, study in isolation. When you are off campus, just make sure the place is sufficiently quiet that you can concentrate. You don’t have to worry as much about isolation because you aren’t tempted by the same distractions: friends, dining hall, your dorm, checking e-mail.

You advise not to read certain non-critical assignments but keep them handy in class. If I didn’t take a look to them previously, however, won’t it be difficult to read the book while I’m following the lesson?

Once you’ve judged an assignment to be non-critical — and therefore decided not to read it — it’s still important to bring it to class in case the professor starts talking about it (proving your judgment wrong). It’s useful to have the assignment with you if he mentions a specific passage, figure, or page, as you can turn to that page and look at what he’s talking about. You’re not going to be able to do more than that.

Isn’t your concept of “work hard, play hard” in contrast with your other concept that “if you’re studying hard, then you’ve done something wrong”?

The “work hard, play hard” comment ties back to our discussion of pseudo-work. “Hard” in this instance refers to intensity. When you work in short, intense bursts, you accomplish more work than what you would in long, low-intensity grinds.

Later, when I talk about “studying hard” being wrong, in the chapter on study techniques, I am referring to “hard” in the sense of number of hours. If you’re spending days studying, then your techniques are probably inefficient. You should try something more efficient, like the quiz-and-recall method, which makes things much easier. Most straight-A students don’t see studying as a hard activity because they finish it in a small number of intense, efficient bursts — not all-nighters.

About using the Quiz-and-Recall Method for Technical Courses: I make a pass, mark problems I have trouble with, then return after a break to try them again. How I could be sure I learned them, and didn’t just remember the answers in my short term memory?

Two important observations about using the quiz-and-recall method. First, narration is key. You can’t just write out the steps to an answer. You have to lecture, as if you are presenting the solution to an imaginary class, about each step and why you are doing it. Second, the technical discussion questions (also discussed here) help make sure you understand the underlying concepts.

In the Case Study from Part 2, Michael first processes his notes, then spends four days using the quiz-and-recall method to review. Where is the study phase?

One of the keys of the straight-A method is filling in gaps in your understanding as the term progresses (asking questions in class, after class, and in office hours). Doing the quiz-and-recall is only the final piece of the studying. By the time Michael gets here, he has a pretty good idea about most of the problems. Those that give him trouble get “studied” when he reviews the corresponding notes in between quiz-and-recall sessions.

Do you have questions about any advice you’ve read on this blog, in my books, or heard from classmates? Send them to me.

7 thoughts on “Q & A: Five Key Questions About Becoming an Efficient Student”

  1. Thanks for the answers, but about the 4th… isn’t better a large time (for example 1 day) between the notes review and problem retry? I can solve the marked problem because I’ve just read my notes, not because I learned the problem.
    Sorry for my english 😛 and thanks for all! 😀

  2. Rod,

    Because you might have to do many passes, it would take too long to study if you had to wait a day before retrying a question. So long as you do something else between reviewing your notes and your next attempt, you should be fine. The key is the narration. You’ll know if you are explaining the steps intelligently or just making things up while remembering something memorized.

    – Cal

  3. Cal are you suggesting that for each maths unit we lecture out loud and explain how you’re going to do a type of math problem? how can I make sure that I really understand it deeply and not just know how to apply a formula so that when a trickier question comes in the exam I won’t get stuck?

  4. @teeannx:

    I’m pretty sure you *have* to create one technical explanation question for each maths unit to avoid ‘tricky’ questions in the exam.

  5. I have a lot of material to go through (med student) each chapter, so should I do one question and check the answer, or do all the questions in a batch?


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