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Reflection Paper #1


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In this reflection paper, you will need to identify which chapter/topics you will reflect upon. You will then need to address the four questions listed below.

How does the chapter you read connect with what you already knew about the topic?

What did the information in the chapter reveal about you as a learner and as an international graduate student studying in the US?

Of the information you learned, what key concepts would you share with a new international graduate student preparing to study in the US. Why do you think this information would benefit this student?

How will you use the information in the chapter to build your skills for future graduate success?

Reflections need to be a balance of your ideas/experiences with the information/concepts you gained from the chapter you read. Your paper should interpret and connect ideas from the chapter rather than summarize the text or give unsupported opinions. Your reflection paper should have a clear introduction and conclusion. Do not simply write the questions with your responses below them. Your reflection paper should read as a coherent paper that fully addresses each of the four questions. All borrowed ideas, words, and phrases are to be given proper credit with the use of APA style citation.

The reflection paper should be typed, set in Times New Roman, 12-point font, double spaced, and paper should not exceed 800 words. You will need to save your document as a Word doc or PDF. Before you submit your work, be sure to proofread your paper for sentence structure and grammar.

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RP#1 Instruction/Chapter 1-3.pdf


10 Steps to Earning Awesome Grades (While Studying Less)


This book is free! Have a friend who would find it useful? They can get their own copy right here.

If you like what you read here, you’ll find tons more study tips, career advice, and other info on becoming an awesome college student at College Info Geek (


Copyright © 2015 Thomas Frank

All rights reserved.

Done with the help of coffee and more coffee.

Thanks to all the students who helped edit the first draft of this book!

– Ransom P. – Victoria C. – Clayton B. – Audrey C.

Cover icons:

– “Coffee” symbol is by Edward Boatman. – “Book” symbol is by Dmitry Baranovskiy. – “Goat” symbol is by Anand Prahlad. – “Brain” symbol is by anonymous, public domain.

All icons are from


Step 1 – Pay Better Attention in Class

Since your Class Time is a constant rather than a variable, I think it makes sense to prioritize Learning Quality first. The more you can learn while you’re part of your professor’s captive audience, the less work your Study Efficiency will have to do later when you’d rather be hanging with friends and playing Fibbage (the best party game ever, I might add)

The first step to upgrading your learning quality is deceptively simple: Pay better attention in class.

This is one of those “easier said than done” pieces of advice; semesters are long and classes constantly wage a war of attrition against your motivation levels. These strategies will help you weather the storm.

Don’t Overload The System I had a professor in my MIS program who was quite the character. In addition to praising “the Google” at least twice a week and sending students on extra-credit missions that involved photographing Cabbage Patch kids in weird locations – like Intel’s chip manufacturing facility – he’d also end every class by saying,

“Don’t overload the system!” The system he was referring to is your brain, but I’m going to take it a step further and define the system as your body.

This isn’t a huge stretch, actually; Elliot Hulse, a strongman/fitness personality with over 1 million subscribers on YouTube, has a key philosophy that your body is your mind.

Your mind does all the work involved in earning awesome grades, and the performance of that mind is dependent on the state of your body. As Elliot’s YouTube intro video eloquently puts it:

“The most important part of the game is your game piece!”

10 Steps to Earning Awesome Grades (While Studying Less)


I go to the bookstore and look at the college prep section a lot (it’s an upgraded version of a motivational technique called visualization) since I want to see my work there some day. Almost every college success book I thumb through mentions health somewhere…

…but it still bears repeating. Why?

The truth is that most of us are like the kid who goes to karate class and wants to learn flying tornado kicks before mastering proper balance. We want little tricks, hacks, and tactics that promise to make our lives better.

However, all the little mind hacks and study tricks in the world won’t help you if you’re constantly suffering from bad health due to poor nutrition, lack of sleep, and inadequate exercise.

Picture two ninjas: One keeps his body in top form and practices every day, but his master’s a hard-ass and only lets him fight with his bare hands.

The other actually isn’t a ninja at all – he’s just an unhealthy anime addict yelling quotes from Naruto and holding a $5,000 katana bought for him by his rich dad.

Who’s going to win that fight?

All this is an elaborate way of trying to convince you to make your health priority #1. Be deliberate about:

1. Eating healthy 90% of the time 2. Working out regularly – this can be fun exercise; join an intramural sport

or get addicted to DDR like me! 3. Getting enough sleep – at least 6 hours a night

If you want to learn how to do these things properly, check out my friend Steve Kamb’s site Nerd Fitness. There’s an article there called A College Guide to Eating Healthy that might be a good place to start.

Sit Up Front and Be Present Tap. Tap tap tap.

I woke up from my pleasant nap at the back of the huge lecture hall to find a really attractive girl tapping on my shoulder. “Maybe she’ll be down to play Crash Team Racing with me, ” says my brain.

10 Steps to Earning Awesome Grades (While Studying Less)


Then she hands me a Red Bull.

I guess she was paid to hand out energy drinks to sleepy students in class – either way, I didn’t make a Crash Racing friend that day. I also didn’t learn anything in that Econ 101 class.

Fast forward a semester, and I’m in my Stat 226 class. I am in the front row, about 6 feet away from the professor’s purse. I think I can see a Power Bar sticking out of it. I kind of want it.

No matter, though – my mind is focused only on what’s being presented (mainly because I know I’m screwed if I don’t catch it. Stat is hard.) The only things on my desk are my notebook, calculator, and elbow. When class ends, I’ve filled five pages in my notebook with new statistics concepts that I actually understand. Also, I have not fallen asleep once, even though this is an 8 A.M. class.

See the difference? Stat is better than Econ because it doesn’t give you false hope for making new Crash Racing friends.

I kid, I kid. The real difference is that sitting up front and making a deliberate effort to be present actually does help your focus, attention, and energy levels. And it all starts with choosing that row the moment you walk into the classroom.

Come Prepared Every teacher you have ever had has told you to come prepared to class. I’m not going to pretend that I’m giving you some new piece of advice just by telling you to do it.

What I do want to mention here is that you can become better at doing this, because none of us is perfect at it. We all forget things – and when we forget things, we create friction that impedes our willpower to remain fully engaged in class.

So, to make sure you’re prepared in class as much as possible, create a mindfulness habit. To me, being mindful means regularly considering the things that your life, and your goals, depend on – especially those that lie outside the current moment.

For instance, a non-mindful student would only think to start looking for an apartment one, maybe two months before he’s supposed to move. A mindful student, on the other hand, would have asked landlords a year in advance what the best time to start looking is, learned it was 7–8 months beforehand, and then started his search at that time.

10 Steps to Earning Awesome Grades (While Studying Less)


Likewise, a mindful student plans for the next day each night, and thinks about what needs to be in her bag for that day. She makes sure her laptop is charged if it needs to be, and checks to see that the right notebooks are in her bag. She makes sure any files she needs are in Dropbox instead of sitting on her desktop, unable to be accessed.

If you find that you’re not as mindful as you’d like to be, an easy solution is to create a reminder, such as:

• A note by your door or on your desk • A recurring daily task in your to-do app • An alarm on your phone

Anything that can trigger your mindfulness habit will work; eventually, you’ll start anticipating it, and later you won’t even need it.

Get Help from Your Professor (The Right Way) Your professors want (in most cases) to help you, so you should definitely take advantage of their office hours if you ever have problems understanding the material in a class.

Not only will you get the help you need, but you’ll also start building a relationship with that professor. This can be incredibly useful down the line, in addition to just being a generally cool thing to do.

When it comes to getting academic help, however, you should use the Corson Technique. Dale Corson, the 8th dean of Cornell University (the birthplace of the famous Cornell note-taking system), once remarked that students in engineering and science programs often have to work through a complex idea one sentence at a time in order to “crack” it.

If comprehension doesn’t come even at this granular level of study, it’s time to ask the professor for help. However, Corson advises,

“Before you do, ask yourself this question: What is it that I don’t understand?”

What he means is that you should never go to your professor, open the book and, with a “general sweep of the hand” say that you don’t understand what you’re reading.

10 Steps to Earning Awesome Grades (While Studying Less)


Rather, when you go for help, you should be able to show the professor all that you do understand up to an exact point – and even show what you understand afterwards.

By doing this, you show the professor that you’ve really wrestled with the problem. Doing this has several benefits:

• You save the professor’s time and help them understand the exact context of your problem

• The professor knows that you actually give a damn and will have a much better impression of you

• By really going to intellectual combat on the problem, you very well might solve it yourself before you need to ask

A programmer named Matt Ringel wrote a blog post a while back about an unwritten law at his company called the “15 Minute Rule.” This is very similar to the Corson Technique, and gives some more specific guidance on how to act when you’re stuck on a tough problem:

1. When you get stuck, push yourself to solve the problem for 15 more minutes.

2. During that 15 minutes, document everything you do, keeping in mind that someone else will need those details if they’re going to help you.

3. After that time, if you’re still stuck, you must ask for help.

This rule is summed up in the mantra:

“First you must try; then you must ask.” If you dig into some of articles on College Info Geek (my website), you’ll notice that I often talk about the importance of becoming a Solution Finder. To me, this is someone who knows how and where to search for answers to tough problems – and, more importantly, is willing to do it.

Becoming a Solution Finder will help you immensely in your college career; it’ll build habits that’ll enable you to find answers and solve problems that other people can’t. However, there’s a balance to be struck; eventually, you should be willing to seek the help of your professors when you’ve exhausted your other options.

Keep Those Hands Moving This last tip stems from an observation I made early on in college: Being an active participant is almost always better than being a passive observer.

10 Steps to Earning Awesome Grades (While Studying Less)


We’re more easily able to remember things that we actively participated in than things we were merely exposed to. When it comes to lecture-style classes, the best ways to be active are to speak up in class discussions and to take lots of notes.

Going back to my Statistics class – because I was constantly taking notes, my attention was almost always focused on the professor and the material. In other classes, my commitment to taking notes wasn’t as strong, and as a result, I’d often find my attention directed to less useful things like reading old BOFH stories.

Forcing yourself to take notes can be hard, though – so you’ve got to turn it into a habit. To do that, you could:

• Form a study group and compare notes on a regular basis • Use a habit-tracking tool like Habitica or Lift (more about Habitica – my

tool of choice – later in the book) • Elevate the importance of your notes…

…which I did in my first Management Information Systems class. How? I made them public.

That first MIS class was all about learning tons of facts and details about information systems, so I took all my notes in Evernote using the Outline Method. Evernote has a feature that lets you share a public link to a notebook, so that’s what I did – and I posted the link in the Blackboard chatroom for the class.

I’m not sure how many people actually used my notes, but it didn’t matter – in my mind, I had elevated my importance in the class beyond that of an isolated student, and as a result I placed added importance on the quality of my notes.

You don’t have to go that far, but you should still find a way to build a habit that keeps those hands moving when you’re in class.

So now that you’ve committed to taking notes in every class (even if you don’t feel like it), the next step will teach you how to take those notes.


Step 2 – Take More Effective Notes

Your notes are your method of taking the information that you’re exposed to and recording it in a form that makes sense to you. When you do this, you learn more effectively. Also, you keep margins nearby for spontaneous drawings of those weird “S” things – or elaborately drawn out Mario levels if you’re me.

In this step, I’ll teach you what I know about taking better notes – notes that focus on learning rather than simply recording, that cut down on the processing you have to do after class, and that enable you to study more efficiently.

Five Excellent Note-Taking Methods There are many ways of taking notes, one of which is dipping your entire head in ink and slamming it on your notebook, then making mental associations between what you’re learning in class and specific features of the resulting picture, which probably looks like a rejected Rorschach test card at this point.

Unfortunately, the subsequent amnesia makes this a less-than-stellar method. I know you’re dying to test it for yourself, but trust me – use one of these five systems instead.

Note: Ebooks aren’t a good format for images, but you can find visual examples of all of these in my video on note-taking systems.

The Outline Method

Aside from just mindlessly writing your notes out in paragraph form, the Outline Method is probably the simplest note-taking method that you could use. To use it, you just create bullet lists out of the lecture material or book you’re reading.

• Main ideas are at the top level ◦ Supporting details become nested ◦ Eventually you build an organized, hierarchical outline of the

material • This is pretty meta

I have a habit of reading a book for at least 15 minutes a day, and whenever I finish a chapter, I immediately go over to Evernote and type out some notes on

10 Steps to Earning Awesome Grades (While Studying Less)


what I read. When I do this the Outline Method is my system of choice.

While some of the other methods I’ll be going over offer certain benefits for learning, I find that this method is perfect for recording a concise picture of the entire book without losing any important details. Also, if you prefer to take your notes on a computer, the Outline Method is one of the easiest to use.

The only problem with the Outline Method lies in how easily it lends itself to mindless note-taking – that is, simply recording the lecture material without really thinking about it or trying to put it in your own words. I’ve definitely been guilty in the past of sitting in certain classes and trying to note down every detail the professor says without really putting in the mental effort to learn.

The Cornell Method

I’d be surprised if you’ve never heard of this system before, though you may not know exactly how to use it. The Cornell Method was invented by Walter Pauk – the man who wrote the excellent textbook How to Study in College – and is designed to cut down on the amount of time you need to spend processing your notes after class before you can properly study them.

To take notes in the Cornell style, you divide your paper into three sections:

1. The Cue column 2. The Note-taking column 3. The Summary column

The Note-taking column will be the most familiar to you, as it just contains the notes you take during class. You can use any style you want, though in most cases people will use the Outline Method.

As you take your notes, you’ll use the Cue column to formulate questions based on main ideas and important details from the Note-taking column. Once class is over, you should immediately write a small summary of what was presented in the Summary column.

By doing this, you’re processing your notes for efficient study while you’re still in class. When it comes time to actually study them, you’ll find that you’re already halfway to creating a great study guide, as you’ve already written down questions. You should also have a clearer understanding of the material already, since you took the time to summarize it.

The Mind Map Method

Mind mapping is a fantastic method for creating a tree of connected ideas, and I find that creating mind maps helps me to better flesh out ideas I want to write

10 Steps to Earning Awesome Grades (While Studying Less)


about. They’re a great way to visualize a lot of information.

To create a mind map, start with a single “umbrella” term in the middle of your page. Then, start branching out from it by drawing lines and writing down words that flesh out that main idea.

Mind maps are very visual, so you should experiment with using different colors, drawing pictures next to your terms, and doing other things that help you understand and remember the information more clearly.

You don’t have to use paper for your mind maps, either. While I prefer doing it that way, there are plenty of apps that let you make mind maps on your computer; my favorite is Coggle, which is a free web app that has a lot of convenient keyboard shortcuts for creating your maps.

For me, mind maps are best used when I’m trying to get a clear picture of all the details underneath a certain topic. I’m not so fond of using them when taking notes during classes, since I often like to create diagrams, write down more detailed blocks that don’t always fit nicely into map nodes, etc.

But what if you want to integrate small mind maps into your notes? Can you create a hybrid system? Yes you can, and it’s…

The Flow Method

Your brain stores information in a messy web of tangled facts, ideas, memories, and references. The structured hierarchy of Outline-style or Mind Mapped notes doesn’t exactly represent how that content lives in your head.

Enter the Flow Method of taking notes. This method was created by Scott Young, a writer who is best known for going through a self-directed version of MIT’s entire computer science curriculum in just one year. Scott takes in information using a technique he called holistic learning. This technique emphasizes learning in a style that mirrors your brain – creating interconnected webs of information (or “constructs”), visualizing things, and avoiding rote memorization.

The Flow Method is one of the cornerstones of holistic learning. Most other note-taking systems are based on hierarchy – as I illustrated in the section on the Outline Method, you put main terms at the top and nest related details directly under them. Mind maps are similar; the main term goes in the middle, and details branch out from there.

Conversely, Flow notes are meant to be an on-paper representation of your mental picture of a subject. When you take notes in this way, you’re transcribing them in a completely original way instead of simply copying down

10 Steps to Earning Awesome Grades (While Studying Less)


what’s presented in lecture. It’s very difficult to become a mindless copying zombie when you’re taking Flow notes, which is something that can’t be said for the Outline Method.

“Flow-based notetaking is a creative process, not a recording process. Instead of just writing down what the professor argues, you’re also going to come up with your own ideas, examples, and connections.” – Scott Young

The main goal of Flow-based note-taking is to help you learn the material once. By taking notes in this way, you should be able to actually integrate new facts into your existing body of knowledge the first time you process them, rather than having to go back later to study them a second time.

So, how do you actually take Flow-based notes? Here are the basics:

• Connect terms and ideas with arrows • Deliberately write things down in your own words • Create backlinks – links ideas back to related terms and details mentioned

earlier in the lecture

This style of note-taking is probably the hardest to perfect, as it’s very personal and requires you to think about your notes in a very different way than you’re probably used to. If it’s a style you want to pick up, give it a good few tries before writing it off.

Also, recognize that Flow-based note-taking isn’t perfect for every subject; as Scott Young emphasizes, it’s best for subjects where the ideas are easily connected to other ideas. For very detail-dense classes where the material doesn’t easily form a dense web of connections, a more hierarchical system will probably help you capture all the information you’ll need to study more effectively.

The “Write on the Slides” Method

If your professor is nice enough to provide the lecture slides to you before they’re actually shown in class, then printing them out and taking notes right on them can be an excellent method of note-taking.

I call this the “lazy man’s approach to note-taking,” but in reality it’s just efficient; if 80% of the information is already available for you to take home,

10 Steps to Earning Awesome Grades (While Studying Less)


then you can save a lot of time by simply adding personal notes and references on top of it instead of going through the effort of writing your notes from scratch.

One nice feature of this “system” is that it gives you something similar to a timeline of the lecture. Since the slides are usually presented in a linear fashion, you can use your slide-notes as a way to jog your memory about things that were said at a specific point in a past lecture. It’s quite similar to SoundCloud, which is a hosting service for audio files that lets you leave comments at specific points on a track.

There isn’t much more to say about this method; however, I will mention that it’s important to remain vigilant about truly learning the material and putting ideas in your own terms. The few times I’ve used the method in my classes, I found I was much lazier about creating a thorough picture of the material.

Paper Notebooks vs. Laptops Besides your note-taking system itself, another choice you have to make when taking notes is whether to use plain old paper or a computer. Each method has its benefits and drawbacks.

Taking notes on your computer will typically be much faster than writing them out by hand, and you won’t have to deal with hand cramps. Paper, however, is much better for drawing diagrams and pictures – and for math notes, it’s the clear winner.

However, what I want to really focus on in this section is the question of which method is better for learning. I came across some interesting research a while back that was published in a journal called Psychological Science. Here’s the relevant bit:

“In the research trial, students who took their notes longhand wrote on average of 173 words compared to computer note takers who wrote 310. Students who typed their notes were also more likely to take down notes word-for-word.”

A lot of students think that they’re better off if they record every word that’s said in the lecture, and at first this seems logical – if you write down everything, that means you captured it all right?

In reality, though, students who do this actually learn less – and here’s why.

10 Steps to Earning Awesome Grades (While Studying Less)


When you’re taking notes and a new idea is presented in class, it has to pass through your ears or eyes, and then go through your brain for processing before it ends up in your notes.

When that idea hits your brain, that grey goo up in your skull pays attention to two things:

1. Syntax – the auditory sounds or printed letters/symbols that make up the message

2. Meaning – the actual “meat” of the idea, and how it connects to other ideas

Say, for example, that your professor puts up on the board the sentence, “Megatron is a Decepticon.” She tells you this because she is awesome and for some reason you’re taking an entire class on Transformers.

When each of these words enters your brain, it’ll process the symbols that make them up, recognize that they represent certain concepts, and given enough time, connect those concepts to one another as the sentence suggests. Since your brain is a giant, interconnected web of ideas, it’ll also connect these concepts to other nodes in the web that were already there.

It’ll connect Megatron to the Transformer node, which itself is connected to nodes like “robot”, “TV show”, and “Shia Labeouf is a terrible actor.” (Ok, he wasn’t too bad in Eagle Eye…)

Decepticon will be connected to the Transformer node as well, but your brain will also connect it to nodes like “group,” which itself may be connected to nodes like “reductionism” and “Power Rangers”.

Here’s the thing: All of this happens when your brain processes the meaning. At the same time, part of your brain power is processing the syntax of the message so it can direct your hands to write or type it in your notes.

If you devote too much brainpower to processing syntax – that is, if you’re trying to record everything in the lecture word-for-word – then there’s no brainpower left over for processing meaning. You don’t make any of those connections. At this point, you have basically become an unpaid court stenographer.

Going back to the research I cited, the students who typed their notes were much more susceptible to falling into the pattern of copying down lecture material word for word – hence their negatively impacted learning ability.

The lesson here is to be deliberate about learning – especially if you choose to take your notes on a computer. Since you can type much faster than you write, you have to exercise more vigilance and focus harder on actually learning the

10 Steps to Earning Awesome Grades (While Studying Less)


material – and leaving out extraneous details that only waste your time.


Step 3 – Get More Out of Your Textbooks

Reading books is probably one of my favorite things ever, but when reading is assigned… I’m less than enthusiastic about it. Maybe you’re the same. Still, a lot of the information you’ll need to earn great grades is locked inside required textbooks, so you’ll need to read them eventually.

Professors tend to assign too much reading, though; you usually don’t need to pay super-close attention to everything you’re assigned to learn the necessary information to ace your tests.

This chapter will show you how to figure out which reading assignments are actually worth doing, and it’ll also guide you through the best strategies for completing those readings quickly and retaining as much important information from them as possible.

Don’t Do All Your Assigned Reading Here’s the thing about assigned reading: you can’t do all of it. And you probably shouldn’t.

Most classes assign way too much reading, and for many classes the reading isn’t even useful to do for one of two reasons:

1. The professor will cover the same material in class, or… 2. You won’t ever be tested on it

While the material in those textbooks is objectively useful, remember the theme of this book – reducing your study time! Your time in college is extremely limited, especially if you’re making good use of it by working on projects, building relationships, staying involved in clubs, etc. Oh, and maybe a bit of time to actually relax as well.

Put simply, if your reading assignments aren’t absolutely necessary to do, you shouldn’t allow yourself the time to do all of them. That time can be better used elsewhere.

10 Steps to Earning Awesome Grades (While Studying Less)


But how do you figure out which assignments are necessary, and which ones aren’t? The first piece of advice I can give you is this: Readings can be separated into different categories:

1. Primary readings 2. Secondary readings

Primary readings generally include the required textbook for the class and possibly other readings based on what you’re learning. In general, you should make your best effort to do these readings.

Secondary readings are things like smaller books, articles the professor wants you to read, case studies, etc. In my experience, large portions of my grade never hinged on these types of readings, so they were prime candidates for either quick scanning or skipping altogether.

The other thing I’ll say is to constantly gauge your classes. Be mindful of how much overlap there is between what’s presented in class and what’s in the textbook. Pay attention to how much of your exams actually focus on things you could only get from the reading.

By doing this, you’ll be able to intelligently adjust your workload to fit your grade goal as the semester goes on without wasting too much time on reading.

Know How You’ll Be Assessed Gauging your classes isn’t just useful for figuring out which reading assignments you can skip; it also helps you figure out how you should tackle individual reading assignments.

You can gain this insight by focusing on how you’ll be assessed in a specific class. Different classes will have different types of assessments, including:

• Multiple choice tests • Essays and written questions • Data analysis in labs • Reports and class presentations

The type of assessment you’ll be facing should help you define the specific information you need to pull out of your readings. You can’t remember it all, so the most efficient strategy is to figure out precisely what you need to learn and focus on that.

For example, multiple choice tests require you to learn lots of facts and details

10 Steps to Earning Awesome Grades (While Studying Less)


from your textbook readings. To account for this, you should make sure you focus on bolded terms, definitions, and any specific details that stick out when you’re reading. Your reading notes should reflect this as well, and you should later convert them into rapid-fire questions that you can use to quiz yourself.

On the other hand, essays require you to have a firm grasp of the main idea of a reading, and you need to be able to summarize it and build off of it in your own words. To prepare for this, it’s better to practice honing in on the most salient points of a reading and try to summarize them once you’ve finished reading.

Don’t Read Textbooks Like Newspapers People generally read newspapers passively, and they do it just to get the gist of the day’s events. If you were to ask someone about specific details they’d read in a newspaper the day after they’d read it, you probably wouldn’t get good answers in response.

When you read your textbooks, you’re reading to learn and apply the information. You’re not just trying to get the gist.

That’s why you should do your best to not read your textbook like you’d read a newspaper. I call students who do this textbook zombies – they’re single- mindedly concerned with running their eyes over the assigned pages and then shuffling off to their next planned activity (possibly eating brains?).

Think of your textbook like an art museum. When I went to New York City last summer, I visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art and walked through almost every exhibit.

While I do remember that the Met is the most amazing art museum I’ve ever been to, I don’t really remember the details of the pieces I looked at. That’s because I just casually strolled through the halls and looked at the art – I didn’t take much time to note down the names of the paintings or who painted them.

Just like passively walking through a museum won’t give you a detailed knowledge of the art in it, passively running your eyes over the words in a textbook won’t help you really learn the material. And trying to re-read it multiple times won’t yield much of an improvement either.

“How often you read something is immaterial; how you read it is crucial.” – Virginia Voeks

Instead of reading passively, read as if you were having a conversation with an intelligent friend. When she talks, you listen intently. When she pauses, you

10 Steps to Earning Awesome Grades (While Studying Less)


contribute your own ideas and, together, you create new information. You come away feeling energized, not drained.

This type of reading is called active reading, and it’s the key to dealing with your textbooks in the most effective way.

5 Active Reading Strategies For decades, professors who all belong to the ultra-secret society of Acronym Lords (now that I’ve told you about it, they’re coming for you) have been trying to push active reading systems that can be neatly packaged into – you guessed it – tidy little acronyms.

These systems, like SQ3R (Survey, Question, Read, Recite, Review), SQ4R (add Reflect), and others contain some useful techniques – but I think trying to rigidly follow one every time you read is far too time-consuming. I’m not the only one who thinks this; Cal Newport, the founder of the excellent Study Hacks blog, wrote:

“I’ve never met a high-scoring student who used a system like SQ4R. The reason: they’re too time- consuming! What these students do instead is discover simple, streamlined and devastatingly effective heuristics that can be easily adapted to specific classes.”

The only acronym-based reading system I recommend is SCAR:

• Stop • Complaining • And • Read

So, instead of appeasing the secret acronym society members and recommending a cumbersome system, I’m just going to give you 5 active reading strategies you can adopt as you wish.

Note: Again, including images of each technique would mess up the formatting of the book – but you can see examples in my Active Reading video.

Use the Pseudo-Skimming Technique

10 Steps to Earning Awesome Grades (While Studying Less)


The longer a reading assignments is, the more likely a large portion of its paragraphs will be filler – stuff you don’t really need to read. According to Cal Newport, filler paragraphs can include:

• Background story • Asides • Exceptions (because professional scholars want to be thorough) • Extra details

In many cases, information of these types won’t make up the bulk of what you’ll be tested over later – so paragraphs containing those types on information should be quickly scanned.

However, a good number of paragraphs in any reading will contain important material that you should learn. These paragraphs should be read intently.

Enter Cal’s pseudo-skimming method; essentially, you’re going through your readings at a staggered pace. One moment you’ll be quickly scanning through paragraphs, the next you’ll notice an important paragraph and slow down to take it in fully.

Deliberately attempting to read using the pseudo-skimming method will prevent your brain from automatically giving equal preference to every paragraph in a reading (which, in my case, meant diligently reading each one for the first 10 minutes while my willpower was high, then eventually scanning/skipping as I got further into the chapter and became bored).

Read the Chapter Backwards

Here’s the thing about textbook readings… they’re usually not suspenseful. They don’t have a narrative, and rarely will you spoil yourself by going to the end first.

You can take advantage of this by reading backwards. Before you dive into a chapter, flip to the back of it and see what’s there. Usually, you’ll see a list of key vocab terms, review questions, and other helpful stuff.

Use what you find here to prime your brain for the actual reading. Once you’ve loaded what you can from the review section into the front of your consciousness, you’ll be able to pick out those bits more easily when you read them in the actual text.

Create Questions While You Read

One of the concepts I’ll be diving deeper into later on in the book is Active

10 Steps to Earning Awesome Grades (While Studying Less)


Recall – the practice of forcing your brain to actually retrieve information instead of just passively exposing yourself to it. Doing this helps you learn much more efficiently.

An easy way to prep for Active Recall-based study sessions is to create questions while you do your reading assignments. You should definitely take notes when you read – either during or immediately afterward – and a great way to process these notes for easy studying is to pull details from them and rework them into questions you can quiz yourself on later.

In addition to the details from your notes, another great source of questions is the section headings of your actual readings. These generally pull out the main idea of a section, so using them as a basis for a question is a good way to jog your memory of that section’s most salient points.

Pay Attention to Formatting

Text in your reading assignments that’s bolded, italicized, or

• sitting nicely • in lists

…should be given special attention. If text has special formatting, it’s a good sign that it represents a main idea, vocab term, or important process that you should learn.

When I took my marketing class, I actually got to the point where I’d just scan through each textbook chapter looking for bolded vocab terms and write them down in my notes. I had figured out that the tests were largely based on these vocab terms along with a few case studies, so I had no need to waste time on all the other details in each chapter of the book.

Mark Up Your Book and Take Notes

Lastly, find a way to make reading a more interactive process by either marking up your books or taking notes on what you’re reading. Both of these techniques emphasize active reading over simple, passive exposure, and both will make your later study sessions easier.

If you’re renting your textbooks, plan to sell them, or otherwise can’t permanently mark them up, you can use sticky flags instead to mark important points in your assignments. These can stick out of your book slightly and give you easy access to places you’ve marked, even when your book is closed.

If you can mark up your books, then you can either use a highlighter or a pencil to make permanent markings. I’m generally not a fan of highlighting; as a sort-of

10 Steps to Earning Awesome Grades (While Studying Less)


OCD person, I always found myself spending too much time trying to make my highlighted lines nice and straight. For me, using a pencil works so much better.

Not only can you easily underline and bracket important terms, but you can also write short notes in the margins of your book. Remember why Harry Potter’s Potions book was so useful in The Half-Blood Prince? Margin-notes can really help jog your memory later because they help you connect the reading material to things you already know, making it easier for your brain to solidify your understanding of the topic.

Speaking of notes, one last way to get more interactive with your readings is to take actual notes on them – in a separate notebook or on your computer. This is where creating questions can come in handy; you can turn your section headings into questions in your notes, then jot down details from those sections with a goal of answering those questions.

For most books, my preferred method of taking notes is to worry about them after I’ve finished a reading section. I’ll typically read a chapter of a book I’m going through once, then open Evernote and create outline-style notes of all the details I remember (I’m trying to use Active Recall during this part to maximize my learning). This is what I’m currently doing as I go through The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg.

Once those details are down, I’ll scan through the chapter once more and add anything else I deem important to the notes.

However, when I’m digging through textbooks while trying to find specific information – for example, when I’m researching a topic for a new video – I’ll have a notebook open while I’m reading and will be jotting down flow-style notes as I go through the book.

Summarize What You Read I want to put special emphasis on summarizing, as it’s about the most useful implementation of an Active Recall strategy you can apply to your reading assignments. When you attempt to summarize what you’ve read, you’re digging into your brain and pulling out the information for, essentially, the task of teaching what you read.

You may have heard of the Learning Pyramid before:

10 Steps to Earning Awesome Grades (While Studying Less)


Now, many experts disagree about the accuracy and validity of the learning pyramid, and I wouldn’t venture to claim that the percentages listed on it are completely accurate. There are a ton of factors that go into how well you can retain information, not least of which is the actual nature of the information itself – our brains are weird and built upon millions of years of odd, non-logical evolution, so the way they remember facts about math won’t be the same they remember facts about the ninja creeping up behind you.

Still, both sense and my own experience tell me that the bottom of the pyramid is more or less right – teaching something results in higher retention in your own brain. This is because you’re intensely processing the information with a goal of being able to communicate it in a form that will be understandable to someone less knowledgeable than you.

Summarizing does this really well, so it’s a perfect strategy for efficiently learning the most important material from your readings. As I noted above, I tried to summarize what I learned from each chapter in The Power of Habit by trying to type out bulleted notes from memory before going back through the chapter and fleshing them out.

You can do this as well, though if the reading you’re doing is for a class that’ll be assessing you with essays, it might be better to try typing out your notes in paragraph form – at least for sections and assignments you deem to be especially important (which means you should definitely be paying close attention to your syllabus and what your professor says).

  • Introduction
  • Step 1 – Pay Better Attention in Class
  • Step 2 – Take More Effective Notes
  • Step 3 – Get More Out of Your Textbooks
  • Step 4 – Plan Like a General
  • Step 5 – Build Your Optimal Study Environment
  • Step 6 – Fight Entropy and Stay Organized
  • Step 7 – Defeat Procrastination
  • Step 8 – Study Smarter
  • Step 9 – Write Better Papers
  • Step 10 – Make Group Projects Suck Less
  • Fin – Where to Go From Here
  • Who Am I?
  • Want a Paperback Copy of This Book?

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