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The Shadow Course: A Simple Technique to Produce Extraordinary Work

Better AutopilotsThinking by water

As longtime Study Hacks readers know, I’m a big promoter of the autopilot schedule. In case you’re new, let me briefly review: The autopilot schedule is a set of fixed times and locations for finishing your regular work each week. For example, you might decide to always tackle your history reading assignments Monday morning, from 9 am to 11 am, in the study carrels found on the 6th floor stacks of the main library.

The shadow course, described below, is a simple optimization to the autopilot schedule that can generate huge benefits.

An Imaginary Course

The shadow course method asks that you adjust your autopilot schedule to include an additional course. This course doesn’t really exist, but you pretend like it does. (The name comes from the fact that it shadows your real courses.) Set aside a reasonable amount of time in your autopilot schedule for handling the work for your shadow course; I recommend allocating roughly one hour per course per week.

Here’s the key point: use the time set aside for your shadow course to begin ridiculously early preparation for tests and papers in your real courses. The key words are “ridiculously early.” Starting from week one of your semester, you have to use your shadow course blocks toward this end.

For example, you might use this time to…

To help cement the habit, and to make it an enjoyable part of your student schedule, I recommend that you choose the most exotic possible location for your weekly shadow course time blocks. For example: in the woods (if you’re at Dartmouth, I personally recommend the cross country trail for doing quiz-and-recall lectures); a quiet cafe; or anywhere else equally contemplative and separated from your daily student life.

The Power of the Shadow

The effect of the shadow course can be immense. Imagine, for example, that you divide your shadow course time evenly among your real courses, giving you an extra hour of preparation per course per week. In a 15 week term, this means that when you arrive at the end of the semester, you’ll have an extra 15 hours of preperation under your belt for each final and major paper you face.

Imagine how much better you would have performed on your last test or paper if you had been able to set aside 15 extra hours to prepare.

To make things even better, because this time is spread out across an autopilot schedule, these hours all maintain a high intensity of focus — a feat which would be impossible if this time was condensed into a small number of long study session.

The result: your performance enters A* territory while reducing the amount of time you have to study or write at the last minute.

But I Don’t Have That Time!

Some students will complain that they simply don’t have enough time in their schedule to add an entirely new class. I’m sympathetic. But let me make the following strong suggestion: if you don’t have time for a shadow course, consider quitting something to make time. The benefit gained from your shadow course hours will swamp the benefits gained from whatever boring club you ditched to make room. And studying spread out over the entire semester causes much less pain than studying crammed into reading period.

The Power of Non-Conformity

To steal a phrase my friend — and one of my absolute favorite bloggers — Chris Guillebeau, there is real power in non-conformity. This holds especially true for students. There’s something about thumbing your nose at the conventions followed by your peers and, instead, doing something completely, ridiculously different, that can help pry you out of a rut and make outstanding things happen.

(Photo by Absolut1)

11 thoughts on “The Shadow Course: A Simple Technique to Produce Extraordinary Work”

  1. It’s nice to see a proper way to implement all of your studying techniques into one process!

    What a great companion post to the auto-pilot schedule.

  2. A good article!
    Starting ridiculously is early is really ridiculous when you do it. It is just like: ‘Hmm, I have to finish this paper in about 12 weeks, why am I already doing it?’ But after 11 weeks, when you are just tweaking the last things about it and you see your fellow students not having sleep because of that paper, it’s just great. That feeling, is all worth it, not to mention your grades 😉


  3. I love this!!! To me, this honestly sounds so much better than the auto-pilot, even though it’s just an optimization of the auto-pilot. This has more appeal for me, echoing Nate above, it’s a great way to apply the useful studying techniques you offer in in one single process.

    Thank you!

  4. Extremely well implemented studying techniques. We all do need such techniques so we could draw out our maximum potential in our respective field of study.

    Well done!

  5. As a long time reader, and an incoming freshman, this is one technique which I will certainly implement first semester. Back in high school (I say that as if it were eons ago) I was simply bogged down with doing every assignment as it came up–which usually led to day-before-the-exam work. Despite being able to do well in high school, I understand that college isn’t going to simply be more difficult, but it will also be more worthy of my time and effort. After all, we’re working with “big ideas” now, eh?

    I’ll let you know how it works out.

  6. Hello! I’m the student from Taiwan who emailed you a month (I think?) ago, and I’ve applied the autopilot schedule ever since my practice exam grades slapped me in the face. It’s a bit different, for I have to stay at school until 9 at night from Monday to Friday for study periods, and rather trying to finish all the homework on that day, I schedule a subject to study. I feel more at ease knowing I just have to concentrate on this particular subject rather than studying on something, but worrying about another. It’s surprisingly efficient, and I wonder why I never came across your blog before @@

    And the oddest thing is…even when the blackboard is scrawled with homework, I manage to get everything done. Well, almost everything.

    But it’s a satisfying method to soothe my dying sense of security, I nearly went insane when I realized just how many textbooks I have to review before mid-January. (We have 6 core subjects and 3 Science subjects that we’re not actually required to do better on. Using my non-existent math skills, I have 24 textbooks to study for my core subjects, add that with 3, and I have 27 books. I have 99 days left till liftoff)

    As of now, I’m juggling tests, homework, and time to day-dream, all the while feeling less stressed out. Thanks a ton!

  7. Cal,

    This post is a bit old, I know, but I am intrigued with the idea. How would this work in practice? I have 4 classes, thus you recommend devoting 1hr/class every week as a shadow course. Does this mean I set aside a 4hr block of time to work on advanced exam prep for each class, an hour at a time?–this seems contrary to your advice on tackling work in small chunks of intense focus. Or does it mean setting aside 4 separate 1 hour chunks devoted to each class every week (this seems useful, but doesn’t really fit the shadow class metaphor you have set up, as a typical ‘class’ does not meet 4x/wk)? Or perhaps something like 2hrs two days a week to work on advanced exam prep 2 classes at a time?

    Perhaps I’m over-thinking this. I am interested in the theory, but would like more info about applying this method in practice.

  8. I think I really need to implement shadow courses. Just finished my third week in college and recently studying has made me feel a bit burned out. My theory for this is that I keep skipping around from subject to subject in a study session, which probably is what gives me headaches.

    Perhaps if I spent an hour a week devoted on one subject than 2 or 3, I won’t feel as stretched (or rushed). Cal, what are your thoughts on this? Does this plan seem to be what your shadow course idea entails?

  9. I think this is an awesome idea! Totally cuts out procrastination. Gives extra preparation for the classes that I am currently enrolled in and since I am only part time its a good practice for graduate school which I assume will be done full time. At least that is what I hear about law school. It will teach me early on how to take on more.


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