Note: Having handed in my dissertation last week, I guess, for the first time in over 20 years, I’m no longer a student. Worry not, however, Study Hacks isn’t going anywhere in the near future.
I recently received the following e-mail from a Berkeley student:
I left [an economics] exam positive I would get an A…The mean was a 77…I ended up getting a 55 — absolutely awful…I feel beyond frustrated by this and am wondering why, perhaps in your analysis, did I think I did so well when I absolutely nuked it?
I receive several e-mails of this type each week. They all follow the same basic format. The student is surprised by doing poorly on a test and is hoping that I can offer some ingenious strategies that will prevent the disaster from happening again.
I’m happy to answer these e-mails, but I’ve been fearing recently that a dangerous sentiment lurks beneath — a sentiment I need to combat.
The Black Box
I discuss a lot of technical studying tactics here on Study Hacks. I fear that this may have communicated a false image of studying as a black box: On one side of the box, study strategies are inserted, and, on the other side, test grades are output. Therefore, if the test grades defy your expectation — as it did for our Berkeley student from above — the answer is to change the inputs. When students write me with stories of academic woes, they are often hoping that I can offer up a different set of inputs to the black box that will guarantee to generate the grades they desire.
Busting Open the Black Box
Studying, however, is not so abstract. My response to the Berkeley student, for example, was to ask the following question:
Why did the students who got the top grades on this test score so much higher than you?
My goal with this question was to bust open the black box. I wanted her to think about the details of this specific class with its specific style of tests, and then answer the question of what exact type of preparation would have been best for this challenge. (Longtime fans of Study Hacks will recognize this as the post exam post-mortem method.)
Only once you have an answer to this context-specific question should you turn to the specific study strategies I talk about here. Think of them as an arsenal of tools to help you conquer a well-defined challenge, not inputs to an abstract process.
Our Berkeley student, for example, noted that the professor took concepts that were mentioned only briefly in class, and then expanded them into long, complicated questions on the exam. She stumbled on these questions which led to the poor grade.
With this specific analysis in mind, she can now imagine how to best prepare for the next exam in the course. She might, for example, build a one-page study guide for each concept mentioned in class — even the small ones. In addition to doing an out loud lecture explaining these ideas, she might also search for a few sample problems from her textbook, and even the web, for each concept, so that she can practice applying them in different contexts. This would better prepare her to tackle this style of question on the next exam — both in terms of knowledge and confidence.
The point here is that her studying process is not a black box. The specific strategies enter the scene late, only after she spent the time to immerse herself in the details of the unique challenge before her.
My Challenge to You
Next time you have trouble on an exam, I want you to consider doing the following. First, perform a post-mortem of the type I described above. Get a sense of exactly what type of perparation would produce A’s in this specific class. Second, after this analysis is done, contact me for advice on strategies that best fit the preparation requirements you identified.
Once you bust open the black box, you’ll be surprised by how quickly you can turn around your performance.