The Straight-A Gospels: Studying is a Technical Skill

This is the second post in a three-part series focusing on the Straight-A Gospels. Today we focus on Gospel #2: Studying is a Technical Skill

The Paradox of the Relaxed Olympian
Wayne Goldsmith, a professional swim coach, recently noted an interesting phenomenon about world-class swimmers. When asked to reflect on races in which they broke major records, these athletes frequently expressed surprise about their performance. Penny Heyns, for example, who recently broke the 100 and 200 meter records, recalled the following about her races:

“When I touched the wall I thought, maybe a 2:30, and this felt too easy for that…I really don’t know what happened.”

As Wayne goes on to clarify, the distinction at play here is speed versus effort. In swimming, there is a clear distinction between these two factors.

Any athletic person can jump into a pool and swim a lap as hard as he can. He is expending a huge amount of effort — most of it in the form of splashing — but he is not likely to be moving fast. Speed, on the other hand, derives from technique: A perfect stroke; a flawless kick-turn; a dive into the pool with no extraneous drag. When swimmers break world records, it’s because they implemented perfect technique during the race. They are, of course, still expending serious effort. But they are not completely draining their batteries. Too much juice and their technique might become sloppy, and the speed gained by better technique dwarfs that gained by simply trying harder.

This is why swimmers are often surprised by how relaxed they feel during their best performances. Breaking a world record in this sport has nothing to do with pushing their body past its limit. It is, instead, dependent on finding that zen rhythm, where all of their carefully calibrated skills deploy with a beautiful synchronous efficiency.

From the Pool to the Library
Students can learn a lot from the observations of sports scientists like Wayne Goldsmith. In studying, as swimming, speed is distinct from effort. Here, “speed” refers to the amount of material internalized, and “effort” captures the number of intensity-hours (i.e., hours spent working at a fixed intensity level) expended. Notice, we use intensity-hours instead of plain hours because, as we learned in the previous post in this series, the intensity at which you study affects the amount of work that is accomplished. We need to fix this variable so we can focus on a single independent parameter, which, in this case, will be technique.

Let’s say, for example, that over a couple days, you study for five hours, each at an equally high intensity level. How much material will you internalize? The answer depends on your technique. In other words, it depends on what you do during those five hours to get the material from paper and into fully-formed concepts captured in your mind. For example: If you spend the time just reading and re-reading the material quietly to yourself, you will likely internalize much less than if you had deployed the quiz and recall method.

Simple enough. But here is the important part: for studying, as with swimming, the benefits gained through better technique grow much faster than the benefits gained through simply expending more effort. Consider the following graph, which captures this intuition:

A graph showing the rate at which material internalized increases with different study techniques.

Notice: as the amount of effort expended increases, the material internalized using good study techniques rises quickly until, around 5 hours, everything has been learned. For the bad study techniques, more effort still, of course, results in more material being internalized, but the rate of this acquisition is slower. It is not until the 11th hour (clever, eh?) that the bad study techniques finish learning the full material.

The lesson is clear. Studying is a technical skill. As with any such skill, the best results come from mastering the relevant techniques. Simply pouring on more effort proves an inefficient approach to accomplishing your goal.

Most students ignore this reality. They approach studying haphazardly, typically just reading and re-reading their notes as many times as possible. They don’t think about how they study. Instead, they consider only how long. Accordingly, they are stuck on the slow growing curve from our chart above. To get top grades, they have to invest a lot of hours. And that’s a large demand. Most settle for less.

You know better. Consider how you study, and you can drastically decrease the effort required to internalize the material. Technique grants so many more advantages than effort, it behooves you, for the sake of reducing study time, to hone your techniques to a sharp edge.

Here are a few practical tips to help you down this path. For a detailed treatment, see Part II of How to Become a Straight-A Student.

Tips for Improving your Study Technique

  1. Study like Darwin. After every test, reflect on which study techniques proved useful and which were a waste of time. Keep the former. Get rid of the latter. Then throw in something new to introduce some variety. Over time, you will evolve a set of optimal practices.
  2. Reject Rote Review. Most students study by silently reading and re-reading their notes and assignments. This is an incredibly inefficient way to internalize information. A surprising number of the straight-A students I interviewed, on the other hand, used the quiz-and-recall method. The idea is to study by lecturing out-loud, to an imaginary class, about the key concepts you need to learn. Something about articulating arguments in complete sentences cements them in your mind like nothing else.
  3. Record Ideas not Facts. When taking notes, don’t just transcribe the facts being spewed by the professor, or presented in the reading. Instead, try to organize the information into big ideas. One approach is to use the Question/Evidence/Conclusion method. Reduce the information to questions paired with conclusions and connected by a sampling of evidence that justifies the link.
  4. Always Operate from a Plan. Never randomly wander through your studying process. Always be operating from a detailed plan, formulated at least one day before you begin work. This prevents wasted effort.

In the next part of this series we tackle the third Straight-A Gospel: Structure Catalyzes Results. Stay Tuned…

9 thoughts on “The Straight-A Gospels: Studying is a Technical Skill”

  1. rote review alone got me into medical school.
    but its not enough. i barely pass in 3.5 years in med skol.
    2.5 years to go. will change for better!

  2. I noticed that on the graph, the good study habits line is, for lack of a better word, crooked. Is that intentional? Or does that demonstrate the energy spikes (well, more like levels) of productivity which result from spacing out your studying?


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