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How to study better and more efficiently

Anna Katharina Vollmer
How to Become a Straight-A Student? Five lessons to learn from Cal Newport’s book

Exam weeks and paper deadlines are right around the corner or you’re already in the middle of it, right? If only there was a handbook on how to score higher grades or even become a Straight-A student while studying less. Well, THERE IS! Cal Newport, Dartmouth graduate and founder of Study Hacks, the Web’s most popular student advice blog, wrote a whole book about unconventional strategies real university students use to achieve exactly that: higher grades that seem effortless. The book, How To Become a Straight-A Student, is a must read for everyone in general, but specially students. Yes, you certainly don’t have time to read a whole book in your busiest time of the semester. So here are five lessons to learn from Cal Newport’s book that will help you survive exam season successfully:

1. Study smart not hard

Exam season is usually filled with all-nighters, 20-hour study days, elevated stress levels and exhaustion. I’m sure that at least 90% of you have noticed that this is not the most effective way to conquer your workload and that your concentration levels are incredibly low. Instead of treading water trying not to drown over an extensive period of time, try incorporating more focused study sessions into your day. You’ll end up with the same or even better results in exchange for less time investment. – So, more time for friends and parties, or whatever it is you’d rather want to do instead of studying!  

In the book, Cal Newport narrows down the ideal length of one study session to 50 minutes. For these 50 minutes, just do one task such as revising notes or writing a paper and nothing else (including distractions from push-notifications on your phone!!).  Set a timer and take a deserved break when the alarm rings. Repeat, and start noticing results without being completely drained half way through your exam season.

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2. Manage your time and defeat procrastination

How do you manage your time? Are you one of the people who owns a monthly, weekly and daily planner that schedule your precious time to the second or do you avoid planning overall and prefer to go with the flow?

Cal Newport suggests that neither is the perfect solution. Actually, just five minutes of scheduling every day would make a difference. Write down the most important tasks you want to get done that day when you wake up. Prioritise and be realistic what you could actually fit into your day but don’t forget to also include all your classes, study to-do’s and other things you plan to do. At the end of the day, tick the boxes of the tasks you accomplished. Nothing new about this, right? However, now you write down an excuse next to every task that you didn’t accomplish that day. It will eventually get old writing “I didn’t study because my favourite Netflix series released a new season that I binge watched instead”, and you’ll finally get it together.

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3. Avoid walls of paper on your desk by taking smart notes in the first place

When it comes down to taking notes, many swear on pen and paper because studies have shown that students tend to remember topics better afterwards. Well, here’s a plot twist for you: Newport actually wants you to do the opposite! He argues that we type much faster than we write, which consequently means that you don’t have to rush with the talking speed of your professor and forget to note important information. Do you have a classmate with a huge stack of very pretty and colourful notes? – Newport says, less is more! In class, try to filter the relevant from the ramble. Almost every argument is built according to this structure: Question – Evidence – Conclusion. Follow it and format the written accordingly. Colours and highlights are usually just a distraction from the important: the content.

Disclaimer: These tips aren’t much use to students in technical courses, such as maths and sciences or any courses that are heavily based on mathematical formulas or computer codes. If you’re enrolled in such a course, the author suggests that you might find it quicker to jot down formulas by hand. Here, more is actually more. The more sample questions, equations and explanations you manage to grasp in the lecture, the easier it will get to study for your upcoming exams and to understand a complex matter.  

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4. Always go to class!

It may sound simple but be honest: Do you go to all of your classes? Or even more honest: Do you go to most or more than 50% of your classes? If your answer was already “yes” on the first question, keep it up! If it was “no”, listen up. Cal Newport interviewed a Straight-A student from Dartmouth who claims that it will take more than twice as much time to make up for the content you’ve missed. Going to class, no matter how hungover, stressed or unmotivated you are, will save you many draining hours of studying in the long run.

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5. Write A-worthy papers by choosing the right topic

Most importantly: Choose a topic you’re actually curious about. Sounds easier as it actually is, since you usually get some guidelines from your professor. So, another rule to follow is to start early. In the lectures and seminars, you could already take notes on the topics that appear most interesting to you, to later on follow up on them and develop a topic for your paper. By the way, this also applies to primary sources given to you by the professor such as textbooks. Another Straight-A interviewee from Cal Newport’s book also advised to be “imaginative and intuitive”. In other words: Try to find new connections and broader themes. Another life-changing tip is to include professors in the process, especially if you’re stuck! They know their field very well and it is their job to not only teach and mark you but to also help you have the best learning experience possible.

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Don’t be discouraged if you’re already in the stress-phase of your semester and you cannot change the fact that you maybe didn’t go to class most of the times or you missed out on taking useful notes. Try to start with other points and take one step a time! Always remember: becoming a straight-A student is all about forming habits so that you’ll study less for better results during the course of your studies!

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