Review: Cal Newport – How to become a straight-A student

A while ago i stumbled across this interesting little book by accident (or rather, by the smart design of the amazon AI recommendation engine). The book is small, cheap, and has a ton of good reviews – a no brainer. What ambitious student doesn’t want to become a straight A?

how-to-become-a-straight-a-student-cover

The book takes a look at studying techniques for non-technical as well as technical courses and brakes down the methods into steps that are easy to understand and implement. Rather than based on research about studying, the book draws it’s advice from in-depth interviews with several hundred straight A students from prestigious colleges and the patterns of success that appear time and time again from questioning them about their study habits and success. This is a fact that Cal Newport isn’t afraid to point out many times through the book, and it makes sense. It’s real world methods and advice from actual students who use it, instead of based on some theory by a mossy professor who hasn’t studied himself for 20 years.

Newport also compares the book to the other current “experts” in the field, which is a hilarious chapter. The most funny part is when Newport compares his guide to the best selling “What smart students know“, by Princeton review co-founder Adam Robinson. Here is a citation:

“Robinson suggests that students approach reading assignments as a twelve step processThat’s right, twelve separate steps. Before you even crack the actual assignment, Robinson suggest that you jot down questions about the importance of the reading, then take notes about what you know about the topic, what it reminds you of, and what you want to learn. He then asks you to, among other things, read the assignment a total of three separate times, write and then re-write your notes, represent the information in picture form, construct “question charts”, and devise mnemonics to help you memorize the concepts. Needless to say, this approach to a simple reading assignment is humorously unrealistic. I even did a little math. For a typical college level liberal arts course, a student might be assigned 200 pages to read each week. In his book, Robinson provides a one-page sample reading and describes twenty-three different questions that students might ask about it. At a rate of twenty-three questions per page, spending thirty seconds on each query, it would take 40 hours (a full time working week) to simply complete one step of the twelve steps on the reading assignment for just one class. Sounds like a great plan!”.

I was laughing so hard I almost cried when I read this, and Newport is dead on accurate that this is an absurdly unrealistic approach. It turns out that his simple method is highly effective and much better.

The book goes through all parts of studying and actually a bit beyond. Planning your day, mistakes to avoid, how to prepare and even write optimal exams, how to handle essays and papers, and of course technical engineering courses. I’ve personally had a very good school year behind me, scoring the highest grade in almost all my courses. I did change my study methods a bit, and I found out through reading Newport’s book that I actually was implementing a few of his advice in some way without even knowing it. Now I have an easy guideline on how to do it even better! I look forward to trying out his method in a structured and planned way.

So, what doesn’t the book cover? Computer science courses. This is a tricky area, because I’ve found the studying techniques to be different from technical engineering courses and non-technical courses. When coding, you can’t really take any shortcuts to get good. You seem to need that screen time to just pound away. I find that many computer science courses aren’t necessarily hard, but the actual assignments take a long time to complete. As it happens, Newport himself is a computer science major with a Ph.D from MIT so I was a bit surprised to not find any material about that in his book. I’ll send him an email and check out his blogg Study Hacks, which is the most popular student advice blogg on the internet.

The book? Highly recommended!

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