How to Study for Non-Technical Science Courses

In some of my previous posts, I talk about the importance of a refined technique in regards to studying.  In this post I will be responding to a post in which Cal Newport gets into the nitty gritty of how to study for what he calls a non-technical science course.  This would be a course like biology or psychology there is a ton of information but the test are primarily multiple choice.  The post can be found here

The challenge with these courses is that you have to remember so many details and often can’t simply do practice problem after practice problem.  Newport brings up a point that is a staple of his and many others’ advice in regards to studying; you have to learn the material the first time.  He specifically mentions a rule he calls the 48 hour rule.  This rule states that you ensure that you understand everything that you go over in class within 48 hours of covering it.  This rule defines a specific goal in regards to keeping up your understanding that helps hold you accountable.  I question if this rule should change based on whether you have the class on Friday or Monday.  It can be more difficult to hold yourself accountable over the weekend when there or so many things more interesting than studying going on.

I think the 48 hour rule is definitely something would help me in an area that I could do a better job.  It is really easy to just go to class and then push off actually sitting down and understanding the material until closer to the exam.  Covering material sooner definitely takes some of the pressure off in regards to the studying you have to do right before the exam.

In addition, he states that reviewing is the only thing that should be taking place right before the exam.  As mentioned, you shouldn’t be learning material for the first time but you also shouldn’t have to rewrite your notes.  Make an effort to write your notes in a usable form the first time so when it is time to study you don’t have to waste time with rewriting them.  It is hard to stay that attentive and on top of classes but I can see how beneficial it would be if you were.

Newport breaks down how you can actually do this into 3 steps: process, polish and perform.  Process means going to class and being attentive capture the material so you can understand the concepts as the professor teaches them.  He offers a technique although not everything works for everyone so I think it is just as critical that you are mindful of your technique and use something that will help you be most efficient. Polish means that you mark areas where you don’t understand and find ways to learn these things.  This is where the 48 hour rule comes into play.  Perform does not just mean the test but also during your studying right before.   Make sure to use an efficient method to help ensure you know the material.  If you can truly do all these things I think you can ultimately be successful in these courses.


Monday Master Class: Five Ways to Avoid Panicking on a Hard Test

In this post I will be talking about test anxiety which Cal Newport covers in his article “Monday Master Class: Five Ways to Avoid Panicking on a Hard Test” which can be found at

As Newport mentions, although test anxiety may not affect all students it is an important thing to address because those it does affect it can really hurt.  No matter how well you learn the material if you panic on a test you might not perform well.  As students, we focus so much on our preparation for an exam that it would be foolish to ignore ways we can ensure that preparation actually pays off.  In college you don’t get rewarded for just trying you have to perform on exams.  This is often helpful for students who pay attention to their techniques as they can achieve results with less time and effort.  However, even these students can overlook the importance of test taking.  In Geometry class when I was younger, I had a trouble because I panicked on exams and really had to work through my anxiety.  It was only that class but it was so overwhelming that despite knowing the material I just couldn’t perform well on the tests.

Our generation may actually already have the tools we need to address test anxiety.  Due to standardized testing, techniques to do better on tests have been drilled into our heads from an early age.  I feel some student just tended to ignore them but if you truly abide by rules of thumb liking only changing your answer if you’re absolutely sure I feel that you ultimately due better in the long run.

Many students also study up until the last minute before a test because they need to cram.  It is no wonder they panic during the test as their studying itself has been panicked.  Many students procrastinate until they feel they have no choice but to cram.  This will ultimately lead to a much more stressful college career and for that reason procrastination is addressed in other posts.  Perhaps just as important but often overlooked is that students don’t set goals when they study.  I feel it is crucial to have some sort of metric in which you measure where your studying “stopping point” is.  Successful students don’t just study as much as possible they study until they can do this and this then they are done.  Goals are a powerful tool and when I have done this I have had much more confidence going into my exams because I know I am prepared.  This helps reduce the anxiety that leads to panicking.

A key point Newport makes is that one’s goal on exam shouldn’t be to get a particular score but to get as many points as possible.  When I took AP Calculus in high school, I learned this firsthand.  I was not good at Calculus by any means but my teacher emphasized that the AP exam wasn’t about getting every question right it was just about getting as many points as you could.  You really had to pick your spots and know that it was curved so you didn’t have to be perfect.  Even if a test is not curved, you never know where you will stand at the end of the semester.  Sometimes you may be in between two grades and every last point will matter.  Having this mentality will ensure you don’t have any regrets come the end of the semester.

I think the key takeaway from all this is that test taking is a skill that requires techniques and strategies just as much as studying does.  It is a crucial part of one’s academic career that can’t be ignored.

Anatomy of an A+: A Look Inside the Process of One of the World’s Most Efficient Studiers

In this post, Cal Newport has another blogger, Scott Young, document his study strategies for a tough exam. The post can be found at the following link:

Scott Young is like Cal Newport in that he is a star student because of his technique.  He actually focused a great deal on rapid learning while in college and his blog can be found at

It will come as no surprise that if anyone can ace a tough Corporate Finance Exam with only 3.5 hours of studying it would be Young.  This post was useful as it walked through his process piece by piece.

It is apparent that Young and Newport agree that memorizing is an extremely inefficient way to study for an exam.  They focus  on understanding the concepts as opposed to just aimlessly reading over the textbook repeatedly.  I completely agree with this idea.  I believe learning has to be an active experience and the way to truly remember something is by interacting with the material.  This provides a great deal of opportunity for students as interacting can be done by explaining things out loud or doing practice tests.  To paraphrase Newport, this strategy also provides a tangible stopping point because once you reach the point where you can explain everything out loud or ace your practice test you know you are ready for your exam.   Young captures this concept with his statement that, “if you can’t teach it you don’t truly understand if completely.”

Another important concept Young brings up is that it is important to truly learn the material the first time you come across it.  Procrastination is a really big problem for many college students and I believe that settling for not understanding the course material at the time it is taught is a form of procrastination.  Many students go to class, read the book, and take notes but don’t put any time into actually understanding the material or concepts they don’t know until the night before the exam.  Thinking is hard.  Therefore, it is understandable that students put it off.  However, by forcing one to think about what you don’t understand and really seeking to fill the knowledge gaps you force yourself to interact with the material the first time.  This interaction leads to you remembering the concepts better and reduces study time right before the exam.  To be fair, this time isn’t really included in the 3.5 hours Young counts as studying although you are doing what most students may consider studying.  However, you can’t ignore that this concept really helps one reduce the time needed to study right before the exam.

I really like Young’s metaphor idea to help gauge one’s understanding of concepts.  Typically what I really focus on is how the concepts link together.  Things you learn in a course are not independent from one another and students can really excel when they account for this.  I think that the key behind both techniques is that you are looking for the “why?” behind the concept.  There are many different ways to do this but answering that one simple question really forces one to think critically.  This deep thinking will set one apart from most students.

The Same Day Rule

In my opinion, procrastination is probably one of the most widespread problems college students face when it comes to their studies.  In high school, if one procrastinated until the last day it was often still reasonably doable to get the work done in a proficient manner.  Once one reaches college this becomes much more difficult for many reasons.  First, instead of a test every week like in high school, college is split into a few big tests or assignments.  This means there is a great deal more material to cover before a big test than there was in high school.  In addition, since the majority of the work is done outside of class just being in class alone will not be enough for someone to absorb the material.  Lastly, the material in college is more difficult and therefore requires time to sink in to develop a deep understanding.  Memorizing everything the night before doesn’t cut it because college exams test understanding, not just facts.

Procrastination is such a widespread occurrence in college that allnighters have become a mainstay in many college students’ lives.  There is always time to study or do more beforehand so a student doesn’t have to stay up all night.  However, it is so easy to push of the painful task of truly getting to work when a deadline seems far off in the distance.  If you push things off they will jump up on you and you will be forced to cram stuff in during a sleepless night.  In addition, this type of crammed studying probably has a great deal to do with the abuse of Adderal and other prescription “study drugs.”

Cal Newport offers a strategy to help combat procrastination in his article “Monday Master Class: Conquer Cramming with the Same Day Rule” which can be found at

By making oneself start an assignment the day it is assigned, Newport believes that students can take advantage of the fact that often starting initially can be one of the hardest things to make oneself do.  Obviously “starting” will involve more of a planning phase than actually doing work but it is still making the overall task much more approachable as you get over that hump.  The idea that you start the day of is beneficial because it makes it less of a choice and more automatic.  Making decisions is taxing and studies have shown the more decisions one makes, the harder further decisions can become.  By making starting automatic, it is not a decision that is considered constantly until you actually start but something you just do.

A key thing to note is that although starting will give you that initial momentum it is crucial that you stay the course.  There is no good in starting the day of then never touching the assignment again until the night before the project is due.  For this reason, it is especially crucial you have a plan and stick to it.  By breaking the project down into smaller parts it becomes more manageable and less stressful.  However, there will always be the desire to push off that particularly tricky section until the next day, then they day after that, etc.  For this reason we as students must not seek to “defeat” procrastination but be conscious of this natural human tendency that stands in the way of our academic success.

Fixed-Schedule Productivity

Cal Newport talks about how he managed to only work from 9 to 5 M-F and Sunday mornings as a very busy grad student in the post “Fixed-Schedule Productivity: How I Accomplish a Large Amount of Work in a Small Number of Work Hours” which can be found at

I am very skeptical of this approach.  For the most part, Cal Newport claims that by consistently doing work at the same time each week he is able to be a great deal more efficient.  I have trouble seeing this working for your average college student because plans can change so quickly.  While one has to get their work done, there has to be room for flexibility as things come up.  That is part of the fun of college.  Your day can be so unpredictable that it would be a shame to shut yourself off from all the random memories you might form.  To be fair, everything must be in moderation though and being too flexible could definitely lead to problems.

One thing that makes me especially skeptical is that Cal seems to be shutting himself off from a great deal of interaction with others.  While I agree that constantly replying to emails instantly can often result in one being less productive, people/relationships are important and you have to make time for them.  A truly good friend is one who is willing to drop everything when you really need it.  Maybe you won’t get as much done but there is intrinsic value in this.

One reason this likely wouldn’t work for me is that a large portion of my commitment outside of the classroom is spent doing Student Government.  I am extremely passionate about it.  I would hate to not be able to excel in this experience and give back to Clemson.  This commitment provides a unique obstacle because many of the people I work with have “less than stellar work/sleep habits.”  In fact, one of my mentors was a night owl and was in than habit of staying up until 3 or 4 am than waking up at 11.  When I depend on working with these people and they have poor late night work habits, I feel I am somewhat forced to adapt to them thus making the 9 to 5 proposition extremely difficult.  I feel many college students will find this true whether it be a group project or some other commitment but depending on others could lead to problems with this strategy.

Perhaps the most important question is if I could actually get everything I need to do done.  While Cal seems to have mastered this it is hard for me to comprehend being able to fit in all my out of class work between the hours of 9 and 5 on top of the time I spend during my time in class.  At the very least, it would not all happen at once and would have to be a process where I would work towards that goal.

Regardless, through this article I am impressed how much he gets done in so little time and how much free time this opens up.  I also agree that habit is a powerful thing and one would be foolish to ignore it in the pursuit of becoming a successful student.  Perhaps even a larger take away from this article is the power of goal setting in regards to one’s habits.  Cal set the ambitious goal of doing everything it took to only work from 9 to 5 Monday through Friday, even with his crazy workload.  He then took logical steps and made drastic changes in pursuit of his goal.  He then evaluated and adjusted those changes accordingly.  This required a great deal of thought and determination.  Without a doubt, that process of goal setting and revaluation can lead to incredible results in many aspects of out lives.


Going to Class

For this post, I will be responding to the post “Monday Master Class: To Go To Class, Or Not To Go…There Shouldn’t Be Any Question” that can be found at the following link

In the post, Cal Newport makes the argument that a star student should always go to class and there are virtually no excuses for not doing so.  I was especially interested by this post as attendance is something I have been struggling with this semester.  This semester was the first in which I have class every day Monday through Friday starting at 8 or 9 am.  I am somewhat of a morning person once I am up but getting out of bed in the morning on time is something I struggle with.

Cal combats the argument that the professor offers no new material and as such going to class is an inefficient waste of time with a few points.  The one that stuck out to me is that by making yourself go to class you are physically committing yourself to your academics.  I have a class this semester in which the exams are quite easy and I can do just fine reading the book beforehand.  As a result, this class has been especially hard to make myself go to.  However, by going to class I am showing myself I am dedicated which can be key to motivation.

After reading this post, I see that by skipping class for various reasons I have made it an “option” to miss class.  As Cal says if you commit to never missing class.  Ever.  Then it is never a debate about whether you are going to class, going.  I think this would be a useful attitude to take because motivation is so key in college.  Motivation can be thought of as precious currency whether it be motivating oneself to study for a test or start that big assignment.  It is silly of me as a student to waste this precious currency on something as trivial as getting out of bed for class.  By making this non-debateable I feel that it may be possible that I can save mental energy and actually feel more refreshed and on top of things (more so than I would be from a few extra hours of sleep).

I am making a pledge to go to every single one of my classes through the end of October.  I went to all of them today.  This may sound minor but it is a small achievement that builds up “momentum” in tackling the tasks of my day.  I think momentum is a crucial concept when it comes to academics.

The Story Telling Method

In this post, I will be responding to Cal Newport’s blog post “Monday Master Class: The Story Telling Method” which can be found at

In this post, Cal offers a strategy in which after each class as you are walking to your next activity you attempt to tell a “story” about what you just learned and how it relates to other concepts.  The purpose of this is to take what you just learned and think of it in the big picture context of the course.  By understanding “why this was important” you will help put this into a “framework” making it easier to retain information.

In my opinion, there is a gap between what professors want students to do and what actually happens.  Often, I think professors expect students to be keeping up with the material and understanding as they go.  In reality, many students just “kind of” keep up then hope to cram that understanding portion in at the end right before their test.  This strategy may help to alleviate that as it forces you to be thinking about what you just learned and interacting with the information.

A point that relates to this that is something that I believe Cal pushes towards in this post without really stating point blank is there is a benefit to learning constantly as opposed to all at once.  What I mean by this is if you are going to class and really making sure you understand the material you will be in much better shape towards exams and won’t have as much cramming to do.  This seems obvious but I think it is something many students don’t think about.  Many (and I am all too guilty of this) take a passive approach to going to class and interacting with the material until they get close to a test.

While being in class is important, to truly be a great student you must be present and engaged in the material.  Make sure you are working to be prepared and understand the material the first run through as opposed to finding out you don’t the night before the exam.  This is what many professors assume we do but often it rarely happens.  If we work constantly we can truly be more efficient with our study time.  Without being engaged or trying to find out what we don’t know, we are limiting the depth of understanding we will ultimately achieve.

A quick exercise like the story telling method is a great way to check on your understanding as you go.  If you can’t explain the “why” behind something you know you need to look at it again or get help.  That deep understanding is crucial to having information “stick” and performing well in college.