The Power of Demolition: Why the Best Study Strategies are New Strategies

Assuming the Worst

I recently received an e-mail from a student who was struggling in his calculus class. “I’m out of options,” he told me. “I practice the problems in the book again and again, and I still do poorly on the tests.” He concluded that he just didn’t “get math.”

I told this story because it highlights a common problem. I’m not talking about math difficulties. Instead, the real issue here is the danger of hidden assumptions. This student was confounded by his assumption that reviewing practice problems is the way to study for math. He decided, therefore, that the only way to improve his grades was to spend more time. Not surprisingly, this did little help — leading to his catastrophic conclusion that he simply couldn’t handle the work.

He needed to change the foundation of his study philosophy, but couldn’t see beyond the surface.

Assumptions plague many areas of our lives, but study habits seem unusually prone to entrenchment. Consider your own academic strategies: How many resulted from rigorous thinking about what work best, and how many are the legacy of some random, ad hoc approach you adopted, for no real reason, as a freshman faced with your first test in the subject? For many students, the latter answer is distressingly common.

Fortunately, there’s a simple strategy that can free you from these issues. It might sound radical, but I’ve used it for years and recommend it frequently to students who write me for help.

The advice can be stated as follows:

At least once a year, demolish your current study habits. Force yourself to build a new collection of strategies from scratch.

As you build these new strategies, let these two questions guide you:

  1. What state of preparation do I need to be in to do really well on the tests in this class?
  2. What is the most efficient way to get from the raw information presented in lectures and reading assignments to this desired state of preparation?

These questions should sound familiar to disciples of the red book and the straight-A method. The key twist in this post, however, is that the frequent demolition of your strategies forces you to re-ask them again and again.

There are three reasons why this is a good thing:

  1. It frees you from the grasp of particularly devastating hidden assumptions. Because you start from scratch once or twice a year, there’s no place for entrenched views to hide. They’ll be swept clean by the next demolition.
  2. It acknowledges the fact that you learn more about studying as you progress through your student career. By rebuilding your habits ofter, you’re taking advantage of this accumulating knowledge.
  3. It introduces novelty. Let’s be honest, it’s straight-up interesting to tweak new strategies and observe how they work. There are few (academic) pleasures greater than earning an ‘A’ while working significantly less than your peers. This novelty, of course, keeps life interesting and can help stave off deep procrastination.

If we return to the math-impaired student from the opening, we see the potential benefit of this strategies cast into stark relief. If he demolished his current study habits, and started from scratch, he would probably realize that rote reviewing of practice problems might not be the most efficient solution. Forced to build a new system, answering the questions above to help guide his actions, he would likely stumble into something that actually works for him.

You too could be in a similar situation – held back by hidden assumptions that are crippling your potential. Eliminate this possibility by embracing the power of starting fresh.

14 thoughts on “The Power of Demolition: Why the Best Study Strategies are New Strategies”

  1. Hey Cal,
    Quick question – you say that this math student must change his habits of doing practice problems, but what approach do you recommend he take instead? Obviously a new approach to studying, but what would constitute this new method?

  2. Seems like a great idea to me, however from my experiences in dealing with students as a teaching assistant, many hold on to their study methods with a death grip/security blanket supercombo.

    I do believe that becoming a multifaceted studier is a great idea but I don’t see many students leaving their ‘favorite’ study methods behind to try something new and untested.

  3. Just delete this:
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    It will close your AdSense account. I sent you an email but you ignored me!.

  4. Sounds like a good idea. Though I wonder how many people will actually try it out.

    I question my assumptions every time I take on a big new goal. Often times, these beliefs have to be let go.

    According to Dr. Jordan Peterson (google him), beliefs help us to map the world and if we have a crappy map, it throws our nervous system into a whack, leading to anxiety, depression, procrastination, loss of motivation, etc. etc. etc. If you try to change someone’s beliefs, especially their core ones, they don’t like it because they don’t want to disregulate their nervous system (would you?) However growth and progress in our lives is dependent on us being willing and able to question that which we hold most dear.

  5. I think this is one of the main reasons I have started a blog about studying. To discover other ways, test them and review them. Changing your way of studying is indeed one of the most powerfull things, it interests me how they work, if they work, so it forces me to test them and indirect it forces me to study!

    Thanks for this great post, I’ll keep ‘the power of demolition’ in mind (what a great title!)


  6. With regards to math I also find myself saying to myself that I am just not a math person, and hence I cannot be as good in math as I am in other subjects. As of the moment I am studying economics, which requires a good amount of math skills (oh the irony :P), and therefore I have had to start and change my beliefs in order to believe that I actually can do this stuff. Math is really not that hard once you master it, and once you do, I actually think it is one of the most rewarding subjects out there.
    Practical tip though: If you know that you are going to have an exam or a big test in math, print out earlier tests from that particular class. But do not go through them from start to end!
    First, divide the different problems up into groups. When you have done that, for instance highlighting the kind of problems that are similar to each other from year to year (for instance red for one type of problem, blue for another), only do that specific problem from each year. For instance, if you see that Lagrange functions problems are pretty much the standard norm, then only do those exercises first. Do 5-6 of these problems and you will have a decent understanding of that kind of problem. Then the next day, do the same but with a different set of problems. This really forces you to learn as you are repeating the same types of problems over and over again in a narrow time frame, rather than going from start to finish and feeling generally confused.

  7. Cal, I genuinely don’t understand how you can rebuild your study skills from scratch? How do you just decide not to do any of the things you usually do? I often try out new techniques but always use them alongside my current ones.

  8. Ok…but, thing is, what are the important techniques? How should I study???? The answer matter to me very much, so pleeeeeeeeease write back!

  9. Often times as students we have a specific way we like to study. Well unfortunately, our study habits aren’t always the best way depending on the course or subject. I really liked this post. I think Cal brings up a good point. If we switch up our study habits we will most likely have more success. It only makes sense that if you’re currently not doing well in a class you need to change your study habits. What people need to realize is that there are multiple ways to study. Time is not necessarily the answer. If your habits aren’t good time won’t help!


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