Fall Semester 2022: The Ultimate Guide To Kicking Ass This Year
This is the guide I wished I’d had for fall semester the summer after my Freshman year, because the best thing about summer break is also the worst thing about summer break: forgetting about classes!
WARNING: THIS POST IS MASSIVE – PREPARE YOURSELF
Every fall semester, we resolve to do it better next time.
To jump on our assignments earlier, to actually pay attention in class, to start studying more that 2 nights before the midterm…
But for some reason, all of that motivation floats away, and before you know it, next semester has started, you’re two weeks in, and back in the weeds trying to figure out how to catch back up.
I don’t want you to have to go through that again. A repeated mistake is the worst kind.
So below you’ll find the very best fall semester 2022 strategies for:
- tackling motivation issues
- getting over procrastination
- and working smarter rather than harder
You’ll also find the exact tactics recommended by the top learning experts for studying more effectively, understanding course material more deeply, and sustainably staying on top of your courses.
Because this guide is so huge, I’ve broken it into 12 self-contained sections, some with stories and input from WTFP Readers, and most including my lessons learned and action steps for you to act on immediately.
So, take away what’s most useful to you, implement it and see what the results you get. Then come back and revisit when you’re ready for more.
The more change you make this summer, the more KICK ASS next semester will be.
Let’s jump in..
Summer: The Double-Edged Sword
I couldn’t believe I had made the same mistake, YET AGAIN…
Stuck in a downward spiral of staying up late doing problem sets, not getting enough sleep, struggling to get through class, doing my best just to copy down the notes, and doing it day-after-day leading up until my first set of exams.
I had had a GREAT summer, far far away from the cognitive load of engineering school.
Mind relaxed. Active. Outside every day working.
I’d come home every day aching from getting up at 5am, carrying inch-thick plywood sheets, hauling 2×8″s and metal roofing, and drilling holes in concrete walls…
But now I was experiencing a much different type of pain.
Much more hellish and stressful.
The pain of being stuck in a bad cycle, physically and mentally, despite my best efforts.
Let’s talk about what usually happens over summer, after the spring semester ends.
You just came off of exams and got your final grades (for better or worse).
Maybe you’re let down by how things turned out.
“I could have done so much better if I had just gotten organized or started studying sooner,” you might think…
There could have been less cramming, and more real learning.
There could have been more practice problems, and less mindless textbook reading and Facebook-checking.
There could have been a better feeling coming out of the final exam room, and less regret that your grade didn’t reflect what you thought you knew.
But that’s over now. What’s done is done.
We start to mentally move on – to the things summer is made of: friends, family, internships, summer jobs, vacations…
A much needed break from the intensity of focus from the semester.
The mistakes you made and pain you felt during the past 3 months starts to fade, as you start to work, make some extra cash, get weekends off, and take trips to the beach…
It’s all well and good.
There’s still the a sinking feeling, however faint, that we’re missing something.
“I’m not sure what went wrong last semester, but I’m sure I’ll get back on track next fall.”
But will you?
Or will you forget all of the mistakes you made and problems you created for yourself?
- staying up too late and sleepwalking through class
- procrastinating studying for exams to the last hour
- wanting so bad to do well but not making the grade
Summer is a double-edged sword.
It’s a much-needed break for R&R that will bring you back in the fall mentally fresh, and ready to tear into a whole new set of classes.
But it’s also a way out. A break that comes JUST SOON ENOUGH, so that you can get by with your bad habits still intact without completely self-destructing and forcing yourself to take a hard look at the way you’re approaching your learning process.
Yes vacations and jobs are awesome!
But in many ways they distract us from what happened last semester.
We start to feel okay again, and assume that things will be better.
But does that make any sense?
Have you made any changes to your schedule?
Have you invested in creating productive habits and routines?
Or are you just hoping that things will be different this time around?
What’s that quote about insanity?
“Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”~ Albert Einstein
This is what happened to me.
That summer I got so caught up in making some money, working with friends, playing golf, and working on cars, that before I knew it, classes were starting.
I was in a new dorm, and our floor was AWESOME!
Video games, football, late-night shenanigans. A formula for a great time… and not so great grades.
After a few weeks of staying up late, having buffalo chicken wing eating contests, and participating in tag-team wrestling matches in the dorm lounge, I realized that I hadn’t actually spent that much time on my work.
The problem sets were starting to pile up.
The projects were starting.
And, surprise surprise, the first set of exams were right around the corner…
This is what happens:
- Get super enthusiastic at the beginning of the semester. You’re super excited to learn new stuff, and resolve to “do better” this semester. You’re nice and recovered from summer break, and brimming with energy.
- You don’t really have a plan going in, so you start off a little haphazard with your time. “Oh yea I’ve got plenty of time to get into the rhythm of things again.” One night out with my new friends isn’t going to hurt anything.
- Everyone else is energized too, so you start talking about doing cool side projects, landing jobs at the career fair. So many cool opportunities. In comparison, studying seems so… blah. Can’t I just be smart already?
- You start trying to get into what you’re learning, but for some reason Bernoulli’s equation just isn’t doing it for you. You’re going to class and getting your work done, but not much more than that. And despite your best interests, your friends start to dictate your schedule. You’re continuing with all of the exciting job and side project stuff, and scheduling your work around it, not realizing that you’re starting to become reactive. Browsing reddit and Facebook have started to creep their way in to your study sessions, looking to keep that cycle of excitement going…
- Your professors start introducing the big projects, and make first mention of what will be on… wait for it… EXAM 1. Whoa wait a minute, didn’t we just start classes? How can we have an exam already? It hits you like a ton of bricks.
- Anxious panic.
- Jump right back in to what you know best – i.e. exactly what you did last semester. Here come the cram sessions at the library, late nights finishing project reports and problem sets, and the cycle starts all over again.
Your Perfect Fall Semester, Part 1
Last week I asked you guys what you’re “perfect semester” would look like…
If you had unlimited energy, discipline, and motivation, and could avoid the dreaded “downward spiral” that has the tendency to grab us as we start classes for the season…
What would you do? How would it feel?
Trent K. writes…
“If I had unlimited energy, discipline, and motivation, I would definitely have a 4.0 semester. I would feel a lot more confident in my abilities as a student and as a person overall. I would have countless projects that I’ve had floating around within my head completed. Unfortunately, I don’t have unlimited amounts of these three qualities. It usually depletes by the end of the first month of the semester.”
and Nibas P. writes…
“My perfect semester would doing well in school, being in like 2-3 clubs, having enough sleep and spending a good amount of time with friends. Maybe even read some books that aren’t relevant to engineering, to sort of help with broadening my education.”
Narek B. shares…
“The perfect semester for me (just like almost any other student) would include necessarily good grades, enough to maintain my scholarship and not become a financial burden on my family, butalso this semester I’d like to work as a Java developer (there is a free summer training and the job offer is provided in September), but working as programmer part-time plus trying to maintain A’s sounds nearly impossible if your last year’s GPA was only a 3.3.”
And reader Takshak P. writes…
“My perfect semester would look like this: Completing and submitting each and every assignment on time, scoring above average marks in the internal examinations, setting aside time for in depth research on engineering fields which can be useful to me in the future, and last but not least, scoring awesome marks in the finals!”
I think we can all relate.
You want to do well in classes.
You want to ENJOY yourself and share awesome experiences with your friends.
You want to BUILD cool projects and experience in the real world.
And you want to LEARN things deeply, because they interest you, not just because they’re assigned.
Other answers from your fellow readers include…
- Reading hundreds of books
- Time to go to the gym
- Actually making a schedule that I follow through the semester instead of getting off track
- Spending the time to make a condensed notebook with all the important formulas and other key concepts
- Understanding any given topics fast enough and keep up in class, and being able to APPLY any of those topic
- Getting admitted to the best graduate institutions in the country
- Time to dedicate to volunteer work and charity
- Time to expand my network
Damn that would be nice!
But as we all know too well, it’s not enough to dream it. And most of the time, we disappointingly fall back into our old habits and routines, sacrificing our long-term goals for wants and desires in the moment.
Believe me when I say, you’re not alone.
I certainly wasn’t. I knew my friends were struggling with the same thing.
Hell, my roommate would go through these cycles of all-nighters in the computer lab, followed by sleeping through class, then getting up to watch TV shows. Rinse and repeat.
Some more insight from other students…
“for the life of me, I can not keep myself focused on studying.I never procrastinate work or projects, but I almost always procrastinate on straight studying. I end up not studying for exams until a night or two before, even though I’ve had free time for weeks beforehand. I can’t seem to get into it, even though all the while I’m telling myself I should be studying and not dicking around with whatever I’m doing at the moment.”
“This semester was particular downward spirally because I ended up falling asleep while trying to do an all nighters and waking up on the morning with not a single bit of the assignment done and rushing to do a semi-decent (actually pretty dodgy) attempt of it. Did I learn from my lesson? Of course not :’) it happened again and again til I breathed a sigh of relief yesterday as I scrambled to submit my last terrible assignment of the semester. Now got two weeks to learn everything for my exams…kill me haha”
We get trapped in a bad cycle and don’t know how to get out, feeling perpetually behind and unable to catch up.
The grades start coming in, and they’re not what we expected.
We start to lose motivation.
“I wish I had started earlier… Now I feel like it’s all screwed up.”
What can you do?
Your Guide to Getting it Together and Kicking Ass This Semester
Well, thankfully, I’m here to tell you that there’s a way out.
To get it together BEFORE the shit hits the fan and it all goes downhill.
And actually realize your academic potential, rather than constantly having to make excuses or feel bad about yourself.
That’s the focus of this guide:
Making this fall semester 2017 “The Semester for Getting Your Shit Together.”
Now, know this… I’m not here to be a motivational speaker. To go “rah rah” and blow smoke up your ass.
“You can do it Johnny!”
NO! F* that!
We’re here to cut the malarky, and get down to business.
To stare our mistakes in the face, figure out what happened, and start laying the groundwork for high-level habits, routines, and systems that will have you kicking ass next semester, and not repeating the same mistakes and falling into the same patters you have in the past.
Okay let’s start at the top.
What’s the one thing that, in most cases, prevents you from getting ahead of the semester, setting up a schedule, and staying on track?
“My main problem is that I can’t concentrate for a long time, I get bored easily and also I get frustrated when I don’t understand something. I olso don’t really have a goal to motivate me… :/ Well, I guess I need to start working hard, and when good results come and might retreave may motivation.”
This guy just said what we were all thinking…
“I feel like my tolerance for heavy procrastination is increasing, and I wish I had the motivation to do my work. It’s not even that hard… I just feel lazy, like my brain is floating around in a swimming pool or something and doesn’t want to focus. ”
It’s HARD to want to think about studying when you don’t absolutely have to. And because it’s so hard, the easy things draw us in and we delay, procrastinate, and distract ourselves.
Which is exactly what I did at the start of Sophomore year.
The problem is, succeeding in your classes each semester is a long game.
To do well, without freaking out, crushing energy drinks, and pulling all-nighters at the library, you have to start early, and consistently make progress each day.
Simple enough to say, but hard as shit to actually do.
When you’re faced with the decision in the moment of “Should I pay attention in class or browse Facebook?” or “Should I study tonight or play Call of Duty?” your grand plan starts to fall apart at the seams.
Each time you have to fight off a distraction, something you’d LOVE to be able to escape to but know you shouldn’t, you’re draining your willpower.
Stack on-top of that a couple of late nights, less sleep, and before you know it you’ve just spent 4 hours answering Reddit threads about the best way to construct a personal robot out of Lego Mindstorms kits.
So what to do?
Well to start off, why does motivation matter in the first place?
Do we actually need to feel GREAT in order to get our work done?
What prevents us from “just doing it”?
“I don’t feel like it” and other problems of motivation.
It turns out, there’s some insidious psychology at play.
In a way, we sabotage ourselves with our own story we create for ourselves in our head.
“Ugh, this will be so much easier tomorrow when I have the energy to get through it…”
Here’s what you need to take away:
“Feelings don’t limit your choices.”
You don’t need to feel good to…
- get up off the couch
- open your laptop
- open your book
- start working on a problem set
- start researching for a project
“The great aim of education is not knowledge but action.” ~Herbert Spencer
Most of us think that we have to pay perfect attention, that we have to absorb 100% of everything each time we study, otherwise we won’t know it for the exam.
That somehow, by “not knowing” everything will fall apart.
Behavioral psychology expert Ramit Sethi often talks about the all-or-nothing fallacy we fall into when it comes to making behavior change.
He tells the story of one of his readers…
She wrote back, “I keep saying I want to run 3x/week, but I can never seem to do it.”
I replied: “Why not start once a week?”
Her response was amazing. “Why would I run once/week? That wouldn’t accomplish anything.”
Don’t fall into this trap.
Action Step: Create Imperfect Work
(1) Give yourself permission to not get everything right the first time around, and just START.
Like Steve Chandler talks about in his book Time Warrior, use the “4-minute Rule” – just commit, right now, to put in 4 minutes on that thing you’ve been thinking about.
It might be messy. You might not be at your best. But you’ll GET STARTED, and thats 80% of the battle.
And most of the time, you’ll be carried away into the work.
Before you know it you’ve spent an hour chipping away at that problem set you were going to put off.
Tools and Tricks
Now, principles are great, but where would we be without some super-sweet tools to help us get it done.
So below are some awesome tools that Thomas recommends, which you can use to combat the motivation problem.
Habit RPG: One way to combat waning motivation for studying is to create a habit instead, which requires very little willpower or motivation to do… Problem is, habits are FRIGGIN HARD to set up. Habit RPG takes the principles which make video games so goddamn addicting, and applies them to building habits (P.S. – there’s even a CIG Guild you can join with like-minded students all in the pursuit of improving study habits together).
The Binding Method with Buffer for waking up early: Is getting up early consistently your issue? Is it all too easy for you to just hit snooze, telling yourself you’ll get the notes from class from someone else? Here, Thomas has devised an ingenious system using Buffer to keep you on the straight-and-narrow using negative reinforcement. Because as he likes to say, “Freedom casts a killing curse on your productivity.”
Beeminder: The ultimate in goal-tracking when you need a kick-in-the-ass financial penalty to keep you from going off track (this is one I owe a lot to personally for keeping me on track with my writing goals). Perfect for keeping you on track with homework or study goals each week, Thomas even has a podcast episode with the Beeminder team if you want to really geek out on goals.
Now you might also be thinking, “I just don’t ENJOY this stuff enough to stick with it. I can get started and focus for a little bit, but I quickly lose it and get distracted. How can I stay focused?”
But think for a minute, what about it don’t you enjoy?
- Do you just eternally hate all numbers, and can’t stand math?
- Is your professor simply unbearable?
- Is the textbook super boring?
It turns out, there’s a science to this stuff.
And Professor of Psychology at the University of Virginia, Daniel Willingham, has studied and written about learning and motivation for decades.
The brain is not actually designed for thinking, it’s designed for survival.
Seems weird. But even if we agree, why should we care?
He breaks it down for us in his most recent book Why Don’t Students Like School…
“People like to solve problems, but not to work on unsolvable problems. If schoolwork is always just a bit too difficult for a student, it should be no surprise that she doesn’t like school much.”
His guiding principle is this:
“People are naturally curious, but we are not naturally good thinkers; unless the cognitive conditions are right, we will avoid thinking.”
Solving problems brings pleasure if they are hard enough that the answer isn’t totally certain, but no so hard that we can barely get started.
This is what I like to call The “Goldilocks” Principle.
The content you are learning about (the theory of relativity in physics, for example) might grab your interest initially, but it won’t maintain it. As soon as the professor moves away from the exciting stuff (time dilation, black holes) and into the equations and derivations (ugh… not Shroedinger’s equation again!), you’re back to Facebook status updates about the delicious food you’ve been dreaming about all class.
In actuality, it’s the DIFFICULTY LEVEL of the problem that really determines whether or not you’ll get that dopamine hit (which is what creates that sought-after burst of motivation) that will keep you moving forward.
Not too hard. Not too easy. Just right.
“…we like to think if we judge that the mental work will pay off with the pleasurable feeling we get when we solve a problem.” ~Daniel Willingham
Hmm… can you see a potentially issue here with what we usually do when we study (i.e. listening to lecture and reading the textbook)?
Think for a minute.
We need a problem to be solved, but it can’t be too easy, and it can’t be way over our heads.
What happens in lecture though?
There’s no problem to be solved!
The professor just GIVES you answer after answer and you quickly become disengaged because, ironically it’s too EASY for your brain.
There’s nothing interesting to grab onto. No challenge. No mystery.
Okay so those are issues on the easy side. Lectures, textbooks, the internet… even working in groups with friends who rattle off answers too quickly – they all ruin your chances for finding that “Goldilocks” level of problem that you can latch on to.
On the hard side, working memory is the big limiting factor.
If the problem is bigger than what your working memory can handle (usually considered to be 7 information “chunks” – e.g. digits, names, ideas, etc.) you’ll quickly become overloaded and constantly have to back-track or go over a section multiple times…
You might be able to keep this up for a short period of time, but eventually your attention will wane just from pure mental fatigue.
You’re putting in all of this effort trying to keep track of everything going on in this problem, but you’re not making any progress. It’s like Prometheus, pushing the rock up the hill over and over, only to have it always roll back down.
- Your brain is not designed for learning. If you find learning hard, there’s nothing “wrong” with you.
- Although learning isn’t the “default” mode of thinking, we find pleasure in solving problems under certain conditions.
- If we abide by The “Goldilocks” Principle, and break down our learning in a way where it’s not too easy and not too hard, we can maintain our energy, focus, and motivation for learning without getting bored or frustrated. So, don’t read through the textbook or simply just listen to the professor in class or watch Youtube videos – this is too easy because there really isn’t any problem to solve, they’re just giving you the answers. On the other hand, don’t sit down to do a big-ass problem set under a tight time constraint, that you’re unfamiliar with – break it down into smaller chunks, and slow down so that your working memory can keep track of everything that’s going on.
Action Steps: Breaking Down Your Work
(1) Next time you find yourself bored, either in class or when you’re trying to review your notes studying for an exam, ask yourself: “Is this too easy? Is there actually a problem for me to solve?”
Think of a way you could change it up. If you’re learning about Kirchoff’s Current Law, how can you frame it as a question to be answered or a problem to be solved? Instead of reading the answer (e.g. the equation is i1 = i2 + i3, total current going into a node equals total current coming out, etc.), pick a particular circuit from the examples and ask yourself, “What happens to the current when it hits this split and now has the chance to go in 2 different directions? How does it decide where to go?”
(2) If you find yourself overwhelmed and frustrated when doing homework problems or working through examples covered in class, take a step back.
Slow down and stop trying to rush through to the answer.
Ask yourself “What exactly about this problem do I not understand?” Then slowly walk through the problem and break it down into component parts.
These are your new “problems” and should be treated separately. Take your time and solve each of the mini-problems within the actual problem you’re working on. Then put it all together at the end. This will keep your motivation up as you start racking up small wins, and will prevent overwhelm because you’re not trying to keep track of too many “chunks” in your working memory all at once.
(3) If all else fails, and you’re just totally de-motivated and have no energy to keep working on what you’re working on, change it up.
Change grabs attention in the brain, so switch to a different topic, or go fold your laundry, or get up and move to a different room or your favorite coffee shop. Don’t feel guilty about this, you’ll be more productive if you just accept that you’re not feeling it in the moment, and get back to it later.
Not Preparing, Acting ADD, Procrastinating, Being Lazy, and other BAD study habits that are actually GOOD
Here’s a laundry list of things we know we “shouldn’t do”…
- Jumping into a homework set unprepared, without “learning” how to do it first
- Being ADD and flipping between different subjects
- Being lazy and sleeping in
- Quitting on your schoolwork
And we beat ourselves up about it an awful damn lot about it.
I used to HATE that I had to sleep more than 5 or 6 hours per night, sometimes forcing myself through days of sleep deprivation, just because I thought I could get more done.
So funny thing?
Science actually shows us THE OPPOSITE – that when used appropriately, all of these supposed “bad” study habits can actually significantly improve your academic performance.
Yeaaaa… would have been nice to know thattttt.
The theme for this section?
Stop beating yourself up for not being a “perfect learning machine.”
Doing Problems Before You’re Ready
Ever feel like you know something really well, and understand exactly how to do it, but somehow still do poorly on the exam?
Well it turns out there’s a name for that…
The Fluency Illusion: the idea that just because you can understand the material means that you’ll be able recall it when it comes time to solve a problem without any supporting materials.
All of us have fallen prey to this, listening to the professor’s super-logical explanations and nodding to ourselves, “Oh yea, that’s easy I got this…”
And the way lecture and textbooks are set up (all nice and logical and edited), we continue along this pattern of thinking, believing (incorrectly) that we need to see the explanation and completely understand everything before we jump over to the homework problems.
I’ve felt that resistance myself many times.
It’s that perfectionist tendency of like, “ahh I just need to understand all of this so well so I can fly through the problems and get everything right.”
It’s a nice thought – but APPARENTLY experiments show this is totally wrong.
In his book, Carey highlights a 1930s study on 3,605 grade school students, who were administered reading comprehension quizzes…
“The groups that took pop quizzes soon after reading the passage… did the best on a final exam given at the end of two months… the groups who took their first pop quiz two weeks or more after studying scored much lower…”
So the students who tested themselves early, with only an initial exposure to the material, seemed to “lock in” that learning much more effectively than those who “waited” to test themselves until they were ready.
As the researcher who ran the study concluded,
“Immediate recall in the form of a test is an effective method of aiding the retention of learning and should, therefore, be employed more frequently.” ~Herbert Spitzer
So not only is testing that thing you have to do in your courses to get evaluated after you learn something, it’s actually a highly effective learning tool.
On top of that, you don’t even have to see the material before testing to get the benefit!
“…guessing wrongly increases a person’s likelihood of nailing that question, or a related one, on a later test.”
So don’t feel like you need to know everything before getting started – it will actually benefit you if you don’t.
Being ADD About Flipping Between Different Tasks
There’s also this idea out there that we feel like we need to just sit down and focus on one thing for huge chunks of time, so we can make some “serious” progress.
“If I could just focus on learning Diff Eq. for like 2-3 hours at a time, I’d do so much better on the exam.”
Again, nice idea, but not realistic or effective.
Interleaving, is what researchers refer to as “mixing related but distinct material during study.”
And they find that knowledge acquired using an interleaving strategy (versus just straight up studying only one subject or topic at a time) is much more robust.
Don’t think you have to sit and focus on “JUST MATH” for 4 hours until it’s done.
In our case, it makes more sense to do a little Diff Eq., then maybe switch over to Physics, and then work through some Statics problems.
Like we said before, change grabs your attention. You actually benefit from switching it up.
“The mixing of items, skills, or concepts during practice, over the long term, seems to help us not only see the distinctions between them but also to achieve a clearer grasp of each on individually. The hardest part is abandoning our primal faith in repetition.”
Being Lazy and Sleeping In
This is a biggie.
In our culture, lack of sleep = a badge of honor.
And it becomes a bragging point among many hardcore students, boasting about 80-100 hour study weeks, getting by on 5 hours of sleep per night.
Such a noble sacrifice in the name of learning.
It’s also quite possibly the dumbest thing you could do as a student.
“The preponderance of evidence to date finds that sleep improves retention and comprehension of what was studied the day before… The improvements tend to be striking, between 10 and 30 percent.”
As I said earlier, I struggled with this for a long time.
I always thought to myself,
“If I could only just figure out how to get like 4-6 hours of sleep per night THINK OF ALL THE EXTRA TIME I WOULD HAVE. I could get so much done.”
But every time I would try something – cutting back for 3 weeks trying to “train” myself to sleep less, testing out polyphasic sleep cycles, and a whole slew of other sleep “gimmicks” – it would backfire big time.
I’d get tired, and frustrated, and depressed, and everything seemed to just suck.
Then I’d crash and sleep for like 10 hours each night for a few days and slowly start to feel good again (imagine that!).
As much as we hate to admit it, sleep is an essential function that plays a HUGE role in the consolidation of new memories.
Instead of thinking of it as a chore that we’re required to do, we should instead think of sleep as just another phase of the learning process, where all of the hard work you put in during the day gets recognized, re-organized, and stored for easy access next time you need it.
And good sleep – the kind where you go through all of the sleep phases multiple times – is what’s really key.
Each phase – light, slow wave (deep sleep), and REM – all do different things in the brain, and help us to take all of those equations and problem solving methods and make them robust and permanent. Making sure you go through each cycle is of the utmost importance to your GPA.
“I have not yet begun to procrastinate.”
I don’t need to talk to you about this.
You know it’s a problem.
Each project you turn in, each exam you take, is always with the caveat of “If I had only started sooner.”
This is one we REALLY love to beat ourselves up about.
“I’m such a procrastinator… Why can’t I just sit down and get it done??”
Want to hear the good new though?
Research has found that solving tough problems is actually aided by procrastination…. when done at the appropriate time.
When you focus on something intently, you narrow the range of thought patterns available to you. This is good, because it prevents distraction and keeps you on track with whatever procedure you’re actively thinking about.
But on the flip side, if you get stuck and can’t figure out how to solve a problem despite repeated tries, you will probably benefit from an “incubation period” once you’ve reached in impasse (i.e. you work hard until you get stuck and can’t get the answer).
As Barbara Oakley, Professor of Engineering at Oakland University (and author of A Mind for Numbers) calls it, it’s the difference between “focused” and “diffuse” thinking.
Focused thinking locks you into a familiar pattern, but you have trouble seeing other alternatives.
It’s what we typically think of when we refer to “thinking” and requires hard conscious effort.
Diffuse thinking, on the other hand, is more loosey-goosey.
You have a wide variety of alternatives available to you, though they’re not all totally clear, and are below your level of conscious awareness.
This is what we typically refer to as “sub-conscious” thought, and it’s only activated when you release yourself from that hard conscious effort and occupy your mind with something less focus-intensive.
Which means you should stop banging your head against the wall trying to solve that math problem…
“To the extent that such diversions steal our attention from learning that requires continuous focus – like a lecture, for instance… – of course they get in our way. The same is true if we spend half our study time on Facebook, or watching TV. The exact opposite is true, however, when we… are stuck on a problem requiring insight and are motivated to solve it. In this case, distraction is not a hindrance: It’s a valuable weapon.”
There you go. License to procrastinate (productively)…
Quitting on Your Schoolwork
Similarly, it might also be a good idea to not finish your work.
Ernest Hemingway would famously leave off each day in the middle of the sentence he was writing, thinking this would keep the mind churning on the idea overnight until the next morning session, and keeping up the momentum.
The same is true for your learning strategy…
As Benedict Carey puts it,
“we should start work on large projects as soon as possible and stop when we get stuck, with the confidence that we are initiating percolation, not quitting”
This idea is what researchers call percolation. And as Carey describes it, it’s
“a means of using procrastination in my favor. When I’m engrossed in a complex assignment, I try to do a little each day, and if I get some momentum in one session, I ride it for a while – and then stop, in the middle of some section, when I’m stalled. I return and complete it the next workday”
So again, what matters is not sitting and powering your way through 4-hour super-focused study sessions, but starting early, and persisting over time.
Giving yourself permission to be imperfect, not get it right away, and quit… knowing that you’ll stick with it and come back tomorrow.
- Much of the guilt we feel about not concentrating, not feeling like we understand the material well enough, procrastinating, and being distracted is actually misplaced. Instead, we should focus on being honest with ourselves and strategically employing testing, breaks, and distractions to our benefit.
- Testing our knowledge far before we consider ourselves “ready” significantly improves long-term retention of the material.
- Flipping between different subjects can actually aid the learning process, creating more robust knowledge than focusing just on simple repetition.
- Getting to bed or sleeping in is better than staying up to study more (assuming you’re putting in the hard work to learn during the day). This is not “laziness” but is a conscious effort at improving your learning process.
- Procrastination is an effective problem solving strategy if used at the right time. Use it strategically to activate your “diffuse” thinking mode to access insights that are not available to you when you’re focusing hard.
- Quitting while you’re ahead is a good thing. A big assignment or project is much better served by working on it in fits and starts than setting aside long periods of work to get it all done at once.
Action Steps: Self-Testing, Switching it Up, Fits and Starts
(1) Employ testing during your study sessions.
Try working on your homework problem set first, before ever looking back at your notes or example problems. Even though you’ll struggle, and may have to guess at an answer, this process will significantly improve your ability to solve problems when it comes time for the midterm or final.
(2) When you’re working on a problem and can’t figure it out, stop and shift your focus.
Either move to a different subject and “interleave” homework from another class, or totally blow off work for a while and go hang out with your friends, get food, or browse Facebook. The come back to the problem and see how you do. Chances are you’ll have some new insights available to you on how you could solve the problem that you didn’t “see” before.
(3) The next time you’re working through a long assignment or project, don’t limit yourself to completing it during 1 or 2 long marathon sessions.
Better to take advantage of the effects of percolation by quitting and returning later once you start to lose steam. This will not only improve the quality of your work, but will lead to new insights you might not otherwise have had. It will also feel better psychologically, like less of a long slog. And better yet, quit and sleep on it. If you’re thinking about staying up late to get a few more hours in on that programming assignment, and are planning on getting 6 hours of sleep… try instead going to bed, getting 8, and then returning to the project later, when you’re fully rested.
Now yes, a lot of our issues have to do with motivation, energy, and procrastination, but what about the subject matter itself?
Is understanding Diff Eq and Physics just limited to those weirdos who seem to “get it” right off the bat, or is there something missing from how we’re approaching those subjects?
Well you’ll be happy to know that much like the principles that underlie a robust learning routine that we’ve talked about already, there are also principles that should guide our approach to the subject matter itself.
So real quick. Not to brag, but I did pretty well in engineering school…
Want to know a secret though?
I didn’t have all that great of an understanding of the concepts we were learning about!
I’d go to the ASME lounge and listen to other students talk about designing hydraulic suspensions and mechanical advantage and control systems they were studying in the vibrations lab down in the basement.
It almost felt like there was an “engineers club” where everybody was super-smart and could whip up combustion engine designs at the toss of a hat.
And I wasn’t invited…
Where did these kids come from?
And how do they know so much more than me?
I didn’t understand. I wasn’t one of the “them.”
But I was also curious. Were these like superstar students? I never really saw them in any of my classes…
Then I started listening a little more closely.
They would talk about these amazing side projects – about Formula SAE and undergrad research and designing theoretical spaceships. But when they talked about classes, their understanding of how to actually solve practice problems was… surprisingly… really really poor.
Like, real bad. To the point where I started wondering whether they ever actually paid attention in class or made it through a problem set.
It was then that I realized (although not consciously) that your theoretical understanding and excitement about a topic really doesn’t have too much to do with how well you can solve problems and perform technically.
I wasn’t a member of the “engineers club,” but hot-damn I could power through a problem set.
And now looking back, I can see exactly how I was able to develop my problem solving abilities WITHOUT learning everything under the sun about fluids or vibrations.
“I feel like I have a decent understanding of the concepts presented, but when it comes time to applying a general equation or idea to a specific problem I’m at a loss.”
This is a super common problem.
You understand what the professor is saying in class, and the textbook seems to make logical sense. You find yourself nodding along, but when it comes time to dig into the first homework problem, you find yourself at a loss, flipping back through your notes in search of that thing you must have missed.
Why does this happen?
Again back to Daniel Willingham, who makes the distinction between three types of knowledge:
- Conceptual: your big-picture understanding of how things fit together and relate
- Procedural: your knowledge of what to do, when to do it, and the rules that apply along the way
- Factual: 1+1=2, Annapolis is the capital of Maryland, and other such “building blocks” of memory
You can be really good conceptually (like the other guys and gals in the ASME lounge), while lacking virtually any procedural ability (which explains how they got such poor grades on homework and exams).
But when it all comes down to it, as Mr. Willingham states:
“Automatic retrieval of basic math facts is critical to solving complex problems because complex problems have simpler problems embedded in them…
For most topics, it does not make sense to teach concepts first or to teach procedures first; both should be taught in concert.”
You need to accumulate all 3 types of knowledge in a relatively parallel manner.
Factual knowledge allows you to more quickly whip out symbols and equations, which enables you to…
Accumulate more procedural knowledge by breaking down problem-solving methods and solving your own problems from scratch. This allows you to further “chunk” new material so that when you go to solve problems you don’t have to rely as much an storing lot’s of things in working memory, which prevents you from building…
Conceptual knowledge of how all the different concepts fit together. If you miss this, you might become a problem-solving robot that can power through homeworks on WebAssign, but is thrown off by the slightest curveball the professor throws your way on the exam.
- Understanding something in theory says nothing about your ability to use in in practice. You need both in order to be successful in your classes. To do this you’ll need to accumulate facts (which are the essential building blocks you just need to simply remember through repetition), procedures (which you build by observing and reverse engineering solutions to problems and solving problems yourself), and concepts (which you build up through higher-level understanding, analogies, and intuitions related to real-world experience – see the ADEPT section for more on this).
Action Step: What Type of Knowledge Are You Missing?
(1) Choose a course that you took last semester that you found particularly disjointed or confusing. Can you identify which of the 3 types of knowledge you were missing?
For example: Did you do okay on the homework and maybe even the exam, but not ever really understand what the point was or what the professor was talking about during lecture? Or were you enthusiastic about the subject, enthralled during lecture, but then bombed the exams because you weren’t sure how to solve the problems, or couldn’t remember the right equations to use.
Write this down and ask yourself how you might modify your study strategy the next time around to fill in the missing link.
Now, all subjects tend to fit into the “factual/procedural/conceptual” model, but not all classes are structured in the same way.
Some, like Calc 1, can follow a fairly logical and flowing progression…
Limits lead to derivatives, lead to more complex derivatives, eventually giving way to anti-derivatives and integrals.
Others, like Physics 3, are all over the place.
Some optics here, thermo there, circuits here, and WAYYY over here to relativity and quantum mechanics…
James Ashenhurst, friend of WTF Professor and Organic Chemistry Master, breaks down two familiar course models that help understand the lay of the land…
Orgo 1 falls into this category, as do virtually all math courses (algebra, geometry, calculus, etc.).
As James describes, there’s a base of basic concepts you’ll draw from for everything else that comes later in the semester.
Ever feel like you’re moving along okay during the first couple weeks of a course, and all the sudden it feels like the professor slams on the accelerator, sending you off into a world of super-complex, impossible-to-understand concepts that leave you lost and confused?
Chances are it’s a “pyramid” course, and you weren’t ready with your base before the good ole prof decided to take it up a notch.
You need these fundamental building blocks down early so that you aren’t completely bewildered later on.
Because once you move past the fundamentals, it starts to build up fast.
Eventually, as James points out, you hit that point in class where everyone really starts to struggle (usually about 2/3rds the way through the semester).
“ALL the concepts in the previous levels will be applied here. It’s the point where you finally start to stitch together the somewhat disconnected previous chapters into a coherent whole.”
If you make it through this, you’re pretty much home free, in good shape for the final exam, and probably well ahead of your peers.
If you got tripped up early on, you’ll know why it feels like class is being taught in a completely different language…
On the other hand, there are Fork Classes.
As James puts it,
“If Org 1 is “Star Wars: A New Hope”, which begins slowly and has to introduce all the main characters, Org 2 is “The Empire Strikes Back”: action, action, action from beginning to end…
Instead of building up like a pyramid, like Org 1 does, I tend to see Org 2 as proceeding along three main “forks”, with a somewhat disconnected section on biomolecules at the end.”
Org 2, like Physics 3, is all about progressing through multiple different forks throughout the semester. They’re not necessarily conceptually related but still fit under the subject’s umbrella (or are too small to stand alone as a whole other required course).
If you come across a class like this, it’s not as dependent on getting a set of fundamentals down and building on those throughout the semester, but has more to do with simply keeping your motivation up throughout the course even though the topics covered may seem disjointed and unrelated.
- Different courses fit different models. Most fall under either the Pyramid model, requiring diligence making sure that you understand the base fundamentals very very well; or the Fork model, requiring persistence to stick with seemingly arbitrary “forks” of unrelated segments of topics (and still remembering everything for the final exam).
Action Step: Diagnose Your Courses
(1) Look at your course schedule for next semester. Can you identify which courses are more Pyramid-based and which are more Fork-based?
How will your approach change depending on which type it is?
How to Tie Everything Together: Progressive learning, the ADEPT method, and making sense of it all by keeping the big picture in mind
A lot of times, it also feels like through the course of the semester you’re just going through the motions.
You know you have to get up and walk to class, but you don’t really find out what you’re going to be learning until you sit down, put the date at the top of the page, and listen to what the professor starts talking about…
“Oh that’s interesting, we’re learning “eigenvalues” today… sounds awful. Whatever, maybe it’ll start to makes sense once we get into it…”
Not only is this quite possibly the most painful way you could approach going to class and taking notes, it’s also totally ineffective when it comes to actually building a deep understanding of the material and stitching together all of the little concepts into a big picture of what you’re supposed to be taking away from the course.
So what’s the alternative?
Baseline vs. Progressive Learning
As Kalid Azad, learning aficionado, math concept expert, and intuition guru over at Better Explained puts it, we get stuck in the mode of thinking we need to linearly progress through each topic, learning it completely and clearly before moving onto the next:
“The “start-to-finish” approach seems official. Orderly. Rigorous. And it doesn’t work.”
He calls this the “Baseline Teaching” model (as in Baseline Rendering: downloading an image from start to finish in full resolution), where you “cover individual concepts in full-depth, one after another.”
Unfortunately, if you don’t have any context for what you’re learning, it’s not going to stick.
You need an idea of what the goal is, where you’re going, and what the point of it all should be.
So for Calculus, it doesn’t make too much sense for us to think we need to learn everything about limits, just cuz… Limits are actually pretty useless on their own (unless you’re some harebrained mathematician working through problems covered with chalk all day).
That’s a recipe for boredom, lack of motivation for the subject, and total compartmentalization of whatever you’re learning.
What if instead, you had a nice framework to fit it into?
For instance, maybe you start out with a vague idea that calculus is all about geometry, and chunking graphs into different sections, and finding either the slope or the area of those sections. And that the smaller you can divide up and make calculations of the slope of those sections, the more accurate you can be. And that limits are just a mathematical tool we use to make those sections as small as possible so we can predict the rate of change of something really really accurately.
Not totally clear, and certainly not a complete picture. But you have SOME idea of where you’re going with it… and that limits are a tool that you’ll potentially need down the road to understand how to actually do a derivative.
Kalid calls this the “Progressive Teaching” model, where you “see the big picture, how the whole fits together, then sharpen the detail.”
You get a vague view of the big picture, then you improve your understanding of each section of the big picture as you go through the course material. But always still within the context and view of the initial image you developed…
The ADEPT Model
Okay this is great, but how do we do it?
Thankfully, Kalid’s ahead of us on that, and has a nice, cleanly-packaged model for how we should approach each new concept we come across in our courses, called “ADEPT” (check out the link for some great examples of how to apply this to math concepts).
Analogy: relate it to something you already know about
Diagram: sketch it out so you can visualize what’s going on
Example: come up with an actual example problem that puts the concept into action
Plain-English: describe it in plain english (so that a 6-year-old could understand)
Technical Definition: link it all back to the formal language of what you’re studying
Ultimately the goal here is not just to churn through concept after concept, but to build a general sense (and “intuition”) of how to put it all together.
As Kalid likes to describe, it’s like in cooking: some people can follow one specific recipe over and over but as soon as they don’t have one key ingredient they’re lost.
On the other hand other more serious cooks, develop a real sense of “taste” through repeated practice and experience, where they can “throw some stuff together” (e.g. grandma’s soup that she doesn’t have a recipe for) and it always comes out great.
- We often fall into the trap of going to class and passively letting the professor dictate notes to us, that we copy into our notebook without second thought. This leaves us we a shaky, disjointed understanding of how “everything fits together.” Instead we should approach new topics from a “Progressive” approach, getting some idea of the big picture (either through Google, Youtube, or skimming ahead in your textbook) and the “sewing” it all together as you sharpen your understanding of each piece of the puzzle.
- An excellent way to formalize that process is to obey the ADEPT model. For each new concept, first come up with an analogy (to relate to what you already know), then a diagram (to visualize what’s going on), followed by an example (to put it into practice), then a plain-english explanation (to make it concise), and then and only then, the technical description (what’s the equation?). This keeps us aware of the big picture as we learn what to do solving practice problems and which equations and variables are used when writing it out mathematically.
Action Step: Build Your Own ADEPT Model
(1) Pick a concept from your latest math, physics or science course that you didn’t understand that well and put together an ADEPT model, as Kalid describes.
Afterwards check your understanding…
How does it compare to what you thought you understood before?
What’s different now that you’ve looked at the concept in this way?
Well… we’ve come a long way – talking about motivation, and cool anti-procrastination methods, and learning models, and how sleeping in is good for you.
And that’s all well and good. We’re getting our process down, building a better “learning machine” out of ourselves.
But at some point you’re probably sitting there and asking yourself:
“Okay, but how in the actual F** is this going to get my GPA up from a 2.9 to a 3.5???”
After all, learning things so they stick is great, but if that doesn’t translate to the grades you want, we’re kind of wasting our time here (assuming you have a degree to finish).
So what gives?
Gimme the juicy stuff.
Okay, okay… fine.
Now that you know about all of the good structural stuff, here are my 4 key tactics for putting it all together where the rubber hits the road.
1. The Consolidation Method…
Turning traditional note-taking and studying on its head, into an efficient, semi-automated process for getting the stuff from lecture and the textbook into your head in an organized and effective way.
Most note-taking is truly a complete waste of time.
We go to class and copy what’s there, mindlessly – like half-asleep fleshy robots.
Then, the week before the exam, we freak out, trying to make sense of the pages and pages of carbon copy notes that we haven’t put ANY thought into until now.
Good luck with that…
Instead, we should be focused on taking notes on the RIGHT things (in technical classes this usually means diagrams, examples and key equations) and IGNORING the non-essentials (background info, derivations, wild tangents, etc.).
Then, invest a small amount of time each week to organize and consolidate those notes in a way that makes them useful, makes them easy to reference, and solidifies them in our memory.
This is the perfect way to integrate “studying” into your schedule in the most painless manner, while still feeling fully prepared when it comes time to do practice problems before the exam.
2. The Reverse Learning Technique…
Breaking down actual solved problems in a way that leaves you with a deep understanding of exactly how to APPLY what you’ve learned to real-life this-is-for-a-grade type problems.
Our default mode is often to jump directly from lecture to homework problems. You scribble down the last of the notes for the day, head back to your dorm room, get something to eat, and promptly log in to WebAssign and start knocking off problems.
By doing this though, we miss a crucial step in the process – understanding the “how” and the “why” behind each problem solving method, assumption, and equation we’re using in the process.
Instead, before getting too far into plowing through your homework, spend the time to dissect and understand practice problems that have already been solved.
This is what I call Reverse Learning.
Starting with the solution, and working backwards to “reverse engineer” how the person solving the problem got there.
By doing this you’ll unlock insights along the lines of…
“Ohhhh, that’s why we do that here.”
“Okay, so because of X assumption, they’re using Y equation, which makes solving for Z variable super easy…”
Which are essential for building a deep toolbox of problem solving abilities that is a must for handling the inevitable curveballs that will be thrown your way on your exams.
3. Active Recall…
Once you know what to do, it’s now a matter of engraining that so deeply in your brain that it becomes second nature.
We spend plenty of time observing how others solve problems – professors, textbooks, TA’s, Youtube videos…
And for the most part, we understand exactly what they’re doing.
But understanding is not enough.
There’s a big difference between being able to recognize what someone is doing, and being able to actually recall the process yourself independent of any supporting materials.
So this means one thing and one thing only…
We HAVE TO put in the time SOLVING PROBLEMS FROM SCRATCH.
No textbooks, no example problems, no notes.
This will be painful.
This will be difficult.
You’ll feel like you just lifted weights for your brain.
But this is the deep practice the experts in any field put in to build their skills.
Active Recall practice will mean the difference between…
“Just took my exam. Not too bad. Felt a little rushed but I think I remembered how to do everything right.”
“OHHH GODD. I thought I knew it but as soon as I saw the first question I drew a complete blank! It was like that thing was written in another language…”
4. Exam Rehearsals…
Taking all of the knowledge and skills you’ve built up over the weeks and months before the exam and pulling it all together into a perfectly orchestrated performance.
Ah yes… The final leg of our journey.
The thing we allll fear and obsess about.
Exams are like gatekeepers. If you have the “right stuff” at the “right time,” they let you in. And once you’re in, it’s smooth sailing to high-GPA-town.
But if you get tripped up. If you think you have it, but can’t seem to get it together when you get there, the gatekeepers will reject you with FULL FORCE.
Nervousness. Anxiety. Elation. Depression. Fury.
All the result of feeling the pressure of being JUDGED on your ability to write a few things on a piece of paper in the correct manner.
Thankfully though, I’m mostly being dramatic. If you’ve done the hard work up until this point, there are only a few finishing touches we need to put on your preparation to get your ready to perform for game time.
Because when you think about it, the only difference between solving problems correctly on your own (assuming you’re doing them from scratch), and solving problems correctly on an exam is the ENVIRONMENT.
So getting used to the time pressure, uncomfortable environment, and somewhat intimidating instructions and test administrators, is all you need to do in these final stages before cashing in your semester’s work for a grade.
This means: practice exams replicating, as closely as possible, the exact conditions you expect to see on the exam.
Take this final step, and you’ll be rewarded handsomely.
Your Perfect Fall Semester, Part 2: Bringing it All Home
So what ever happened to me that first semester back after my Freshman summer?
Honestly, at some point in the midst the blur of late nights, football games, and poker marathons, I realized… “Oh shit I might have to start buckling down now.”
The fear of last semester (where I didn’t pay attention in Physics or Diff Eq and bombed my first 2 exams) kicked in, and I started to study… frantically… in all the wrong ways.
Ultimately I gutted it out. But it wasn’t fun…
- Constantly feeling like you’re behind
- Getting all the problem sets done, but not totally understanding what’s going on
- Feeling like you KNOW NOTHING before each exam, only to go and put in a whole weekend of studying, feel okay, take the exam, and promptly forget everything you knew
In some ways I’d learned my lesson from last semester, and actually looked ahead to what was coming up on the syllabus, took more appropriate notes (instead of just copying), and actually asked a question here and there.
But it was far from enjoyable.
If I had known what I do now just think…
Instead of the downward spiral we’re all so familiar with, if you start putting into practice the action steps we’ve talked about in this guide, you might actually find yourself in an… upward spiral (yes this is possible – I checked).
Here’s how it might go:
- You head into the semester, with a general sense of what’s to come in each of your courses. You’ve reviewed the syllabus and have plotted out each lecture topic in your calendar.
- You’ve also worked out a routine that will get you your 7-9 hours of sleep, while still leaving plenty of time for unanticipated schoolwork, clubs, the gym, and hanging out with friends.
- As the first few classes are starting up, you already have a “Progressive” model of what’s to come, keeping the big picture in mind as you go to class, take notes, and sharpen your understanding. You’re aware of whether it’s a course built on a key set of fundamentals that you need to know cold, or whether it’s going to be a little more “all over the place”, jumping from topic to topic.
- You spend your afternoons working through homework problem sets in short bursts, stopping when you get stuck, switching topics, and possibly even returning to it the next day, letting your subconscious do some of the heavy lifting instead of banging your head against the wall. You’ve started early, so you have the luxury of working in fits and starts, that fit much better with your natural working style.
- You walk into your first set of exams, calm and confident, knowing that you’ve been progressively consolidating each new concept your learn in class, putting in Reverse Learning and Active Recall practice so you’re ready for whatever curveballs your professor is going to throw at you, and having rehearsed what you’ll do during the exam under time constraints. You’re happy with what you’ve learned up until this point, and the grades you get back a week later reflect that.
- You get super interested in the research one of your engineering professors is doing on piezoelectric materials, and volunteer to go help out. You also start reading more widely about new renewable technologies and exciting new applications. Your professor even commissions you to help edit and co-author a review paper he’s writing on just that topic.
- And ultimately, your grades and assignments are no longer these high-energy, somewhat-terrifying events, but are just part of the process. You know if you keep following your routine, and stick to the learning principles you now embody, everything will fall into place in due course. You can’t even remember what it was like to not have it all together. Last semester seems so far away. You’ve now entered the zone of the “perfect semester” and your now, truly, finally, kicking ass…