Studying by Startlight: Adventure Studying and the Quest to Take Back Control of Your Academic Experience

An Adventurous Academic Alcove

Alex’s trouble started with a mathematics course. Something about the material just didn’t click.

“I grew to to dislike the course so much that I could stare at the problem set for hours and get nowhere,” she told me.

Then she came up with a solution:

The image above was taken from the roof of the science center at Alex’s university. This is where she started to take her math homework — usually late at night.

She was definitely not supposed to be up there, but she went anyway — and for good reason.

“I would slip out onto the roof, and go to a little protected alcove I discovered. There was a roof light that lit the area and I had a nice place to sit” she said.

“The total isolation and silence, the total lack of distractions, the novelty of the location, the limited time: it made these sessions really excellently productive.”

The Return of the Romantic Scholar

Alex’s tactic is an example of what I call adventure studying. I introduced this idea back in 2008, but I’m reintroducing it today as part of my ongoing  series on the Romantic Scholar approach to student life. As you might recall, this series presents tactics for transforming your student experience from a trial to survive and into the foundation of a life well-lived.

Adventure studying, as Alex discovered, is a fantastic strategy for advancing this goal. The antiseptic library and distressed dorm lounge are so burdened with cultural significance — studying is hard, boring, tedious work — they make it near impossible to reimagine your academic experience.

Change the context, however, and you gain freedom from these signifiers. Study by a waterfall or at a quiet pub, and you take back control decisions about what role your school work plays in your life.

Keep this strategy in mind as the new semester lurks closer. Tackling your assignments can be a sublime experience, but it’s up to you to make this happen.

Just don’t let the janitor see you sneaking up the fire escape.


This post is the fifth in my series on the Romantic Scholar approach to student life, which details a collection of strategies to transform school from a trial to survive into the foundation of a life well-lived.

Past articles:

22 thoughts on “Studying by Startlight: Adventure Studying and the Quest to Take Back Control of Your Academic Experience”

  1. This is excellent, Cal! I believe that there’s something stimulating about experiencing the profound that we tie into our work. Do you have any recommendations for good places that are pretty commonly scattered throughout cities/college campuses?

  2. Something about the study place has to be connected to the work I am doing in some way. For example, in freshman comp the professor had us analyze and write a critique of a poem about a fountain…and I found a secluded place where I could hear/see a fountain and it helped me not only to focus, but to enjoy the assignment. That sort of connection does it for me.
    My favorite, though, is doing historical research in a museum library….

  3. I’ve adopted the same strategy as a grad student. I’ve found a park near my house with a small lake and I’ve become fanatical about limiting my on-campus obligations to a few hectic days a week so that, on the other days, I can bike out with lunch to my park and spend the day studying. (I get up to wander around when I need to.) For me, connecting with nature seems to really improve my imagination.

  4. I had a perfect time studying in the library during my time in school, but I think it’s important to point out that I loved the library. I would gladly spend hours in the library without any work to do, just perusing the shelves looking for new things to learn and read. I found that doing the type of “adventure studying” you describe above — things like going to the top of a mountain and getting out my Calculus books — just didn’t work for me.

    I think the most important thing about the place you study is that it’s 1) Distraction free, and 2) Somewhere that you love. For some people, that’s a Starbucks where no one recognizes them. For others, that’s the library, for still others, it might be some dark corner on a roof. The key thing is to care enough about studying to take the find to find your place.

  5. Hey Cal, your links are not working properly. Is there some sort of reorganization going on? Lot of links direct me to a 404 not found page..

  6. This is really a great way to stimulate the mind. Some people would opt for food while others go for drinks. Whatever drives you, I believe this is the best, it doesn’t make you fat, no pollution whatsoever…just make sure it is safe. But we couldn’t call it adventure then, would we?

  7. Any tips to studying properly in the outdoors without tables and chairs? I don’t think it’ll be too comfortable studying on the ground. Thanks!

  8. Washington DC was an excellent place for this kind of studying. There were little monuments everywhere that few people ever ventured to. My two favorite outdoor spots were the back side of the Lincoln Memorial (not too many people wander around back) and the Signers of the Declaration of Independence Memorial (I never saw another soul here).

    Now I live in Providence. This post inspires me to see if I can get to the roof of the Brown University SciLi.

  9. Back in highschool if I had alot of work, I would take I to my local barnes and nobles and work there in quiet focus. Much more work could be done there than at my house.

    When are you gonna start doing study hacks tweets!? That would be awesome getting cal newports daily advice!

  10. Colin, I love studying on the ground. I stretch out on the grass to read and write, and I move around frequently. (This is pen-and-paper work, not computer work.) I think it’s actually a lot more ergonomic than sitting still in a chair for a long stretch.

  11. I have bought 2 books you wrote and I think they are amazing. You are really talented. Anyway, in your books, you talk about other people a lot. But I want to know more about your college life because that seems more real to me. I’m not saying you don’t know about the others’ lives well enough. But I guess you know exactly what your life’s like. There is no one who knows better than you.

    I’m looking forward to seeing your work again.

    P.S. I’m planning to transfer to another college. I am wondering if you know anything about admission. I mean, how did u get into a school like Dartmouth?

  12. Hi
    I saw a reference to your blog in The Guardian a couple of weeks ago. I think you are absolutely right and it is something I have been practicing for a while. Going for a long walk on the beach, going over some notes and walking back helps the cogitative process no end. I attach a link to an image I made yesterday in your honour out at Orford Ness which is a windswept beach of shingle with an abandoned military test site on it on the far east coast of the UK. You can just see the bunkers in the background of the image of my reading The Power of the Maker.. Fantastic spot. Until my essay notes blew away and I had to retrieve them from the pebbles anyway.
    Cheers Paul

  13. I am a high school senior, and when I can’t study in my room anymore, my solution would be to go outside. I studied for set of particularly horrible SAT II’s on the grass in my backyard because it was nice outside and I didn’t want to be stuck inside. Also, the local park, library, etc . . can be great because even if the work is boring (as high school work tends to be), at least your surroundings are interesting.

    This fall I am going to be attending NYU Stern, so it’ll be interesting to see where I will study there.

  14. How refreshing! I always feel guilty about embracing the ‘romantic’ side of being a scholar as you put it. But why the hell should I! To the beach! …


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