How to get a good degree 3: How to become a straight-A student
Usually I am against books offering general study advice, I favour those that focus on a particular subject. (Which is why I wrote How to Think Like a Mathematician. Mathematics students may also be interested in Lara Alcock’s How to Study for a Mathematics Degree.) I’ll make an exception for Cal Newport’s How to Become a Straight-A Student.
Let’s get the bad stuff out of the way first. The subtitle is The Unconventional Strategies Real College Students Use to Score High While Studying Less which, along with the book’s other marketing, makes the scam-like sounding promise that you can do less work and get better grades. This can of course happen but does lend the book a feeling of too-goo-too-be-true. Furthermore, the book could do with some trimming of excess material though, at 216 pages, it is quite short for this type of book. The book could do without the regular mentions of partying and beer swigging but I suspect I’m not the target market for those bits.
But leave aside those problems. Why would I recommend the book? Essentially, most of the advice is good. There is the standard stuff that all students know that they should do: get plenty of rest, eat properly, do your work in the morning between lectures to gain a sense of accomplishment. The non-standard stuff is good too. He doesn’t advocate lots of highlighter pens or even a highly detailed to do list. Instead he mostly focusses on the methods for efficient and effective learning. For example, on page 105, he talks of the Quiz-and-Recall method, [emphasis mine]
Whether it’s philosophy or calculus, the most effective way to imprint a concept is to first review it and then try to explain it, unaided, in your own words.
This is particularly difficult in high level mathematics as the student has to develop the skill of knowing when to write in their own words and when to provide word-for-word copies, such as giving a definition or formula. Tip for new students: You probably already know that you have to precisely recall formulae for exams. Now, you also have to reproduce definitions exactly as given. An effective way to learn a definition is to cover it up and write it out immediately after meeting it. Repeat that until it goes in. Newport backs this up (p105 again)
Most students make the mistake of relying only on passive review; they read and reread their notes and assignments, and assume that the more they read, the more they will remember.
As I say in my book, be active, for example, study with pencil and paper to hand and use them.
So as a new academic year starts here in the UK, if you are a new student, that would be my book to recommend for advice on general study techniques.Get the newsletter! Fancy a newsletter keeping you up-to-date with maths news, articles, videos and events you might otherwise miss? Then sign up below. (No spam and I will never share your details with anyone else.)