Nov 162009

If you want to get better grades and stop procrastinating, read this book. Period. I went from a B student to getting all As in one semester spending less and less time actually studying. It’s got an excellent companion website called Study Hacks. I wrote the first draft of this post almost a year ago, but I wanted to really test drive the Straight-A Method before giving my recommendation and now I can give one wholeheartedly. I read at least 50 books a year, almost all to do with personal development and this is the most important book I’ve read all year in terms of getting actual results from application. What follows is a review and my own additions to the system.

This book has been the greatest investment in my education to date. I’ve spent thousands of dollars a year in tuition so this book’s sub-$20 cost is certainly worth it. In fact, I expect to win scholarships because of my improved grades, so I’ll certainly make that money back. You can buy or read the reviews at Amazon here.

Edit (Jan 10, 2011): I have won scholarships. Your school likely has an in-course scholarship that you don’t have to apply for but is awarded based on grades.

The Heart of the System – Question-Evidence-Conclusion & Quiz-and-Recall

The main idea in the system is recognizing that academics think in terms of questions and answers that include evidence (facts, studies, arguments, etc) that lead to a conclusion, whether this is explicit or not. If you recognize this and listen to your lectures in this way, as well as take notes and do your readings this way, you’ll understand the information presented much better. Cal’s got similar ideas about technical courses like maths and sciences, which you’ll have to read the book to find out about.

Another important insight is that recall is the best way of memorizing it, especially when it’s tied to a question prompt. That is, ask yourself the question and then try to answer it, unaided, out loud.

Hate the Grind

I’ve read a number of books on improving study habits and all of them suggest what Cal calls The Grind. They don’t care about efficiency of energy or time at all and just tell you to do every single reading and write every single thing down. No mention is made of triage or how to determine what is important and what is not. The methods suggested for studying and understanding are brute force rote reviewing. So, to become a straight-A student just seems to require a lot of time and a lot of energy with questionable rewards (“woohoo! An A! That’s the first letter of the alphabet!”).

However, Cal’s book is different. It focuses entirely on efficient and effective techniques. I’ve improve my grades and invest the same or less amount of time and energy to do so. It may take more energy and time to learn and integrate these skills in the short term, but the pay off is clearly superior in the long run, especially since this calibration will do me well for the next couple of years of school.

One thing that was conspiciously absent, however, was memory techniques. Even the mention of memory techniques was missing and flash cards were suggested in place. There are indeed situations where the only way to learn something is brute force and memorization, however, these are very, very few compared to all the things you can learn using some simple memory techniques. Check out The Memory Book by Harry Lorayne.

Understanding is the Goal

We almost always have implicit goals, otherwise it’d be hard to tell why we should do one thing over another. When students go to class, you can almost tell what their implicit goals are based on how they sit. Some are there just to get through the class, others are there to take down the lecture in notes, but the goal that works best for getting good grades (and enjoying yourself a lot more!) is to make understanding the material┬áthe goal. If you understand what the professor is talking about (the Question-Evidence-Conclusion format makes it a lot leasier to), then you’ll be fine. Then, review your notes right after class, fix any mistakes, fill in Questions and Conclusions, and you may be able to improve recall by as much as 80%. If you don’t spend the five minutes after class doing this, you’re liable to forget everything, even if you just review the next day. Make it a habit and before long it’ll just be something you do. It’ll be painful at the beginning but you’ll soon find it gets easier and easier as you get better and better.

This book gives you an excellent system for understanding things quickly. Some people have commented that it seems gimmicky, but it really isn’t. Deeper understanding is the only way to score great grades in university/college and this book helps you get that quickly.

Set limits

A lot of self-employed people (especially home-based ones) encounter this problem: they feel like they should be working all the time. If you do feel like that, you can never really truly relax and you’ll unconsciously feel guilty and stressed out. Not a good way to live life. What I suggest is setting limits.

Limit your “work time”. Every week, I work 9-5 five or six days a week with a minimum one day off. Stick to it. If you don’t, you’re cheating yourself and you’ve to be able to trust yourself. This has a few benefits: you get more done (Parkinson’s Law) and when you’re done work, you’re done work and you can totally relax and enjoy yourself. If you can also get yourself to stick to this schedule, you’ll know that all-nighters are no longer an option (well, they are, at the expense of your own sense of integrity), so you’ll manage your work better.

Another limit is the feeling that you constantly have to be doing more at school. I feel this way. I can’t just be caught up, I have to be ahead. I can’t just have handwritten notes, they should be typed up and beautiful. So I’ve set limits. I can only be ahead a week. I can only look at my notes once after class to review them, fill in the Question-Evidence-Conclusion structure, get clarification on anything I don’t understand, and I will not type them up. I can only make one mind-map per class. I feel like I should do all readings twice and take notes on all of them, so I limit myself to skimming once for argument, evidence and conclusions and read through it once to make notes. I also decide a limit before an assignment (timeboxing) of how long I’m going to spend on it so I don’t get stuck in endless editing sessions, and to do the best job in the shortest time. I stick to these things for the sake of my integrity, something I care deeply about. I have to be able to trust myself.

Kill Your Procrastination

Surprisingly, this was the biggest benefit to applying this system. I utterly destroyed procrastination. I finished an assignment three weeks ahead of time.

Having a system kills procrastination. If you have to figure out what to do anew every time you sit down to study or write an essay, of course you’re going to procrastinate. Say I have to do an essay on Cognitive Science on the topic of the functional/evolutionary value of consciousness. That’s a tough topic! If I have to make a new decision about how to go about the essay every time, coupled with the inherent difficulty of the topic…well, that’s just too damn hard.

So, having clearly delineated steps really bounds things and destroys procrastination. And the book gives you those. Don’t get me wrong, you’ll probably still procrastinate, but it will be greatly lessened. There’s some great tips on how to deal with procrastination in the book, too.

Know why you want to be a Straight-A student

Cal doesn’t address this because I suppose it’s a given that if you’re picking up a book called, “How to Become a Straight-A Student” you want to be one. However, motivation can wax and wane and you need a solid reason to do better. Sometimes you’ll just do really well because it’s personally important to you to do well in whatever you do. If that’s enough motivation, excellent. If you need more, what I recommend is to set goals that align with doing well but also challenge you.

You can apply the above strategy in smaller ways, as well. For example, I have a research paper coming up. If I try to focus on “I want an A” as motivation, it’s completely unmotivating. However, if I focus on, “I want to add something to this field”, my motivation skyrockets. Sure, the actions required to get an A may be less than those required to really make an original contribution, but the second is a lot more fun and challenging and oddly enough, less likely to fall through. I’m putting in ten hours of my time and energy into something, I’d rather do something that will be meaningful and won’t just be read by the grader and then forgotten. I’d rather add something interesting or original, in however small a way, to the field. And odds are really good that if I aim to make a contribution, I’ll get at least an A. Two birds with one stone, and lots more fun.

Edit (Jan 10, 2011): I wrote a paper using these ideas which a prof of mine liked so much, he’s incorporating into his own paper on wisdom and giving me an author credit.

I’ve always been an ok student. I’ve always gotten along with B’s and the occasional A because I really haven’t had more motivation to do better. This year, though, I set myself a new goal, got lots of energy and found a great guide.

Edit (Jan 10,2011): My grades since I wrote this article have been pretty good. I got my first 90% in university (which at the University of Toronto is tough as hell), and now pull out a steady A- or A grade without trying very much. Additionally, since I only take courses with the best profs (you pay the same for a crap prof and no extra for a great one), I’ve now taken courses with all the profs listed as “life changing” by students. I’ve also enjoyed my experience at university a lot more since I stopped taking full-time course load. A 60% courseload keeps me much happier, I actually enjoy school and I get way better grades. Over 50% of the students at UofT take less than full course load, so many do, even if none of your friends do.

More resources:

10 Tips for College Students – Steve Pavlina

Do it NowSteve Pavlina. Pavlina talks about how he got two degrees in about a year and half.

You can buy or check out reviews for this book here at Amazon.

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