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How to Study: A Brief Guide (buffalo.edu)
337 points by chaitanyav on Jan 22, 2018 | hide | past | favorite | 58 comments

I think that this kind of advice can be detrimental to people like me. It basically says force yourself to study 5 hours a day no exceptions. If you get a job or other extracurricular activities don't count it as work time.

Well, I lived that lifestyle in high school. I studied 4 hours a day, limited every extracurricular activities to not interfer with my study time. At the end I believe I have missed a great portion of my life and it was not worth it.

Studying everyday is a great goal to aspire for, but no way you need to study that much every day. Go to classes with the textbook, mark the areas the teacher lectures about. Take notes during class. Once in a while review the book and your notes. In the meantime make thought experiments, try to apply the information you learned on imagined cases you made up for fun.

There is only so much willpower you can tap into. Once that is over you basically drift not being able to do anything. It is much better to live a balanced life and never put yourself into impossible workloads for a prolonged time.

Another point is that these kind of study hacks work for people who can already study. If you are a procrastinator in soul (a deep procrastinator in Newport's terms), this advice won't help you. If you're procrastinating heavily your mind is trying to tell you that what you're doing is pointless.

One powerful weapon to fight it is to keep an agenda. Plan your day before (for example using org mode or a simple paper agenda). Set very small goals and always reschedule if you need to. For example 22 Jan Monday: place the notes taken during X class in a file. 23 Jan Monday: Buy the book required for Y class etc.

If you can keep your study material somewhat organized, you will find it much easier to begin studying. It is all about tooling like programming.

One last note: studying in a silent place does not always work. Especially when I'm bored, can't start studying or mentally overwhelmed, it helps a lot to put on headphones and blast some talkshow in the background. The change in the tone and volume of the host and occasional jokes and laughter feed my stimuli seeking brain. After 30-40 minutes I can continue without listening anything.

These reflect my hard-earned experience and intensive soul-searching :) YMMV

I think the point is you need to have time set aside as part of your normal process to study if you are serious about your education. It's time that you should be focused on your academic pursuits, not drinking, working, gaming, girls, etc.

I didn't follow this sort of advice, and paid the price. I sailed through most classes on my wits, but hit a wall when more advanced classes had time demands that I couldn't meet due to work or other obligations. When I tutored high school and undergraduates in math, I saw smart/lazy kids making the same mistake... they would pick up the material in class and never learn how to read a math textbook. Life was good until it wasn't, usually when they hit Calc 2 or 3. It was hard to watch.

Same, regret it to this day.

cough Calc 3 cough

It was all so easy until it wasn't!

Me too. Trying to help others avoid this mistake.

I agree strongly with your first point, for the simple reason of “unknown unknowns.” Maximizing the optimization of your current situation, so to speak, can often result in missing out on opportunities which would bring you to a higher, better level than the one you are on currently.

Extreme focus and hours can be effective in short bursts, but need to be balanced with some time for randomness, wandering, and other non-planned activities. One should always be trying to expand their current intellectual domain, but it’s nigh impossible to do so if you keep your head down 24/7.

Bear in mind that this guide was written by a professor. Someone who chose to make academia the focus of his life. Such a person may be likely to feel that academic achievement should be the highest priority in one's life, since it was for him.

I sense great pedantic joy in the text. One of my personal rules: When people are enjoying themselves I must figure out why I'm missing out. If I can just hold onto 1% of the joy I can usually expand it later on my own.

Its not that I have to make my own candles and my own candle holders then burn them for specific purposes - but I do know how some manage to enjoy that process.

> There is only so much willpower you can tap into. Once that is over you basically drift not being able to do anything. It is much better to live a balanced life and never put yourself into impossible workloads for a prolonged time.

I am a victim of this, Because of the competitive nature of things in my part of the world, I had to skip the extra curricular activities and dedicate all my free time (4-5 hrs a day) for studies and I am completely out of balance now. It's very difficult for me to find a balance or enjoy the activities now.

As a person whose been there, I can say that it is temporary. Drift for a couple of months, even a couple of years if you can afford to. You will eventually find balance in your life and be much more prepared for the future.

I always thought to myself when I felt bad that it was actually fortunate for me to have lived this kind of extreme burnout earlier in life where I didn't have serious obligations and had time to overcome it.

Now when I think back at the times when I worked crazy hard, I think the root of that problem was my insecurity. I thought if I had good grades, it would lead me to a good university. A good university would lead me to a good job. And a good job would lead me to a good life. It was a pretty hard blow when I realized that the cycle of work never stops. There is always something to do and what I got left with after high school was poor social skills and a massive burnout.

At Uni I stayed away from ambitious people, hanged around with slackers and misfits. I joined a band, became the go-to guy for making party posters/concert posters by leveraging my computer skills. At the same time my grades didn't suffer that much considering I studied considerably less.

I can't buy the tales of self-discipline anymore. If my body is actively fighting me on the work I think I'm supposed to do, I don't do it. I try to organize my work so that I don't lose track of the essentials. If I can't get myself to work more at least I get these covered. Most of the times, the work that I think that needs to be done turns out to be unnecessary.

Unfortunately ambition is a two edged sword: on one side you work yourself to the bone for a period of time exceeding all expectations, but on the other side once you depleted your energy, you can't get yourself to work at all.

That's why after many years of trial and error, I now manage the essential work in my life in org-files. I schedule a maximum of 6-7 essential items for my week. These tasks also include life-obligations such as getting a haircut, sending out job applications, going to the doctor etc. I usually try to do these tasks to avoid drastic outcomes in the future. My org-agenda works like a security rope for me. I cannot foresee my mental state or outside factors affecting my life, but at least I always know the few tasks that absolutely need to be done beforehand to sustain my living.

I can strangely relate to this comment, to a higher level than I can usually 'relate' to other comments about workflow or thought processes.

Regarding procrastination, the advice on tying small tasks together is bang on. One task leading to another usually results in a more productive day, I've found. The pessimist in me wants me to credit/blame this to the games I've played as kid, where the level up/task done dopamine boost is enough to get through the next level/task.


Fight procrastination by starting the habit of studying one hour daily, or even half an hour. At first it's more about the habit than about the progress. Find a buddy to support you in your quest. When the habit sets in, which could take months, start to set other goals or habits.

Your last point is very valid for me. I've exclusively kept Malcolm Gladwell's Spaghetti Sauce ted talk for that purpose. Every time I need to work in a problem without distraction, I just start this and go deep.

This focuses on how to study when you're in school and taking classes. But that likely only represents a small number of years in your life, while the rest will be spent outside of school! IMO, learning how to study when you're outside of school is just as important.

Here's two comments I wish I'd been told earlier:

1. In the context of Computer Science, many books and research papers between the 70s and 90s cover a huge amount of fundamental topics. Newer doesn't always mean better! People were just as smart 30 years years ago as they are today. Even if the context has changed, many aspects likely remain applicable.

2. Many companies publish "white papers" [0] on their technology. These are (sometimes) similar to research papers, expect that they haven't been peer reviewed. They can be a good way to acquire certain kinds of industry knowledge, but be wary of snake oil salesmen. I generally read white papers with the assumption that the source is heavily biased towards whatever perspective is most favorable to them.

[0] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/White_paper

To your point 1- You are also likely to come across texts that don't do a very good job explaining some fundamental/foundational ideas, perhaps because they were explained so well in the original papers- the ones that your textbook author read- that your textbook author didn't think it was worth spending too much time on it. The original source can be a goldmine in these cases.

This also happens between editions of textbooks by the same author. On an update they leave out stuff to save space or something.

> be wary of snake oil salesmen

Indeed, and maybe it's just the ones I've read, but it seems to me that most "white papers" are written in the marketing department.

Yup, that's been my experience as well. When I first started noticing their existence I thought they were always marketing propaganda. But you can occasionally find good technical white papers, so it's worth at least being aware of their existence.

My Comp Sci lecturer always said you could get a lot by coming to class 10 minutes early and reading the relevant material and leaving 5 minutes late to read it again. I tried this method for a third-year compilers course and it was a very efficient way of getting a high frequency of "Gotcha" moments of understanding.

As an aside, I really love how responsive and friendly web pages in this plain HTML style are. It's a pity they're only used by older academics now.

Obviously you've all seen[0], but just in case...

[0] http://motherfuckingwebsite.com/

> It's a pity they're only used by older academics now.

For about a year or so I've gone with the (nearly) plain HTML style. It sometimes feels weird to avoid styling, but it's hard to do better for anyone using a mobile device/poor internet connection. It really changed my perspective when I was using a 2G connection and couldn't even check the score of a football game.

I really appreciate the plain HTML too, but it can be a bit ugly, and too wide on my monitor. I use a bookmarklet with sakura[0] to make these pages look nicer.

  javascript:var head = document.head, link = document.createElement("link");link.type = "text/css";link.rel = "stylesheet";link.href = "https://unpkg.com/sakura.css/css/sakura.css";head.appendChild(link)

Yeah, I go more the approach of http://bettermotherfuckingwebsite.com/

You can still make an unfriendly website with plain HTML. For example, see http://stallman.org.

text.npr.org is a good example.

On similar lines: http://lite.cnn.com/en

This is beautiful, thank you for sharing.

How do you do this when the lecture hall is occupied by the previous class or you have back to back lectures?

I think the main idea is that you can do little quick easy things that can have a big impact in the long run.

On the way to your next class think about the lesson is there anything you've learned that you didn't know? In what ways can you restate the lesson, what are the main ideas. What possible questions could be asked.

During lunch read the summary section and see if you can connect any dots.

Looking at the homework early (without even solving them) will give you ideas to ponder and questions to ask during lecture.

A key insight, that I got from Barbara Oakley's "A Mind for Numbers", was a way to avoid procrastination. The secret was to trick your mind. Don't think, "I have to do two hours of study." Just say to yourself, "I will study for 10 minutes." The mind says, "That's easy, I can do that." Once you are started, you can then keep going.

With this trick, study becomes a habit, something you really miss if you don't do it every day.

Barbara Oakley's great. I wish her "learning how to learn" course had existed when I was in middle/high school!

Yes, I wish I knew those techniques way back. But her methods have been great and I have been able to do a number of coursera and other MOOC classes

I've found that this trick works really well for reading in general, as well. If I tell myself to just read a short chapter, I often end up reading 3.

I went through university not knowing how to study, and as a result, I now have a "worthless" degree. One thing is, that the university and the degrees I took was a joke. 3-6 hours of "class" (100+ people crammed into an auditorium), no graded homework or feedback during semesters, and examns was just handing in 12-15 pages of analysis, and then getting a grade on my report sheet. No contact with educators, no counselling, guidance or otherwise interaction with lecturers, educators or other staff at the university. I could sit a home 30 hours a week and still get my "degree". Basically no feedback from the university on how I did, where I was heading etc.

For me, this means I made a lot of stupid choices. For one, I never understood the degree I took, but relentlessly kept on "fighting", as I thought that it _had_ to make sense to me someday. It never did. Swapped studies during my masters, but got into a "soft" IT-programme that didn't resonate with me either. As a result, I never learned to study, because I would get stressed out that the material never really made sense to me. I couldn't connect it to anything in the real world (and perhaps more important to me - no job postings ever seemed to ask for the skills I was acquiring).

Today, two years after i finished with an A+ (I wonder how...), and average grades in general, I have a galloping depression, and just wish that I could do it all over. No doubt I was perhaps immature or used to be a "natural talent" through high school, and therefore thought University was just passing examns. That hurts me a lot, and I have a hard time letting that thought go. I don't think anyone will ever be able to convince me, that the university or classes I went to was working as intended however. In my mind, education cannot solely be based on people reading and writing for themselves.

I wish someone would have shown me a guide like that when I started, and helped me manage my ambitions and performance a bit more throughout university. I'm now a worthless member of society, even though I have a degree. I don't think anyone is happy with the outcome, but I'm pretty sure I'm the only one to blame. At least thats what I keep telling myself.

No one has all the answers as they are starting out.

Your degree probably isn't too bad if you add some practical skills. In IT people are in demand, you are in demand. Add Programming, QA, or some kind of analyst, product owner skills and your soft IT degree will be the frame around the picture.

I'm just stuck with this thought: I spent 6 years "accomplishing" very little. Others (programmers eg) will have 5 years advantage on me, or even more, as a lot of people will have been programming from an earlier age.

I realize I've spent too much time playing video games, hanging out with friends and so on, to realistically be able to compete with someone who has been on a track and dedicated for 5+ years.

So the thought of "You only just have to start _now_", after I've been through 20 years of education completely paralyzes me. I wouldn't want to hire me. And I can't concentrate or focus enough to actually learn programming (been trying for 4 years now), since the negative thoughts just keep returning, and I have a hard time convincing myself that I'm wrong.

It feels like I'm just waiting for things to get worse, and what scares me is, that this thought doesn't even bother me anymore, because I feel that my situation is justified.

Very few people have been "on track" their whole life and workplaces are full of "average" people (by definition), nothing to worry about. Self study can be daunting, I know from experience. Maybe seek some counseling for your psyche (you alread know your own thoughts about yourself are kinda off right now, right?) , join a coding bootcamp. IT needs lots of people to solve lots of problems, the vast majority doable by ordinary people. Hope that helps :-)

Excellent resource with many study tips. As a high school student, it's hard to balance school, leisure, and code, and any sort of advice is appreciated.

In addition, I've found Cal Newport's blog both inspiring and also interesting, as he focuses on "hacks" to get higher quality studying for your time ("more bang for your buck")

Edit: Cal Newport's blog: http://calnewport.com/blog/

Edit 2: Another one of my sources of study inspiration is the MIT Challenge[1] by Scott H. Young. Not only does he finish an entire MIT CS undergrad curriculum, but does so in 1/4 the time, something that I wish to emulate once life permits.

[1]: https://www.scotthyoung.com/blog/myprojects/mit-challenge-2/

I wasted tons of time while I was in high school, so kudos to you for aspiring for more and trying to be productive. Respect.

On the other hand, don't forget to have fun! You have your whole life to be "grown up", but only a few years to be young and reckless, don't squander em. I feel old for writing that, but whatever.

Don't overwork yourself, and don't let others take advantage of your enthusiasm. Burnout is real, so make sure none of your habits put you on the path towards self-destruction. Avoid the temptation of staying up 1 or n-more hours just to finish some thing; it'll always be there for you the next day, so it's usually better for you to get a full night of rest instead.

In my experience, some aspects of school are overrated. It's easy to get fixated on grades, but they're not always representative of someone's true skills. Of course, you shouldn't lie to yourself either, so strive to actually understand whatever subject you're focused on.

Meh, you can be plenty reckless when you're old as well. There's always parties. I wish I had realized this when I was younger. It would have made me feel a lot less angsty about "wasting the best years on my life" on coding (which I really enjoyed) instead of spending my youth on parties.

Also; saying "don't overwork yourself" doesn't really work. It's better to let a person overwork themselves and learn the lesson the hard way. People told me that over and over but I never actually took it to heart until I actually did it.

Yeah but unless you're just a person who never grows up, or you leave all household responsibilities to your partner, once you have a spouse, family, and a "real job" the parties are a lot fewer.

Sure, but at least that's a choice. When I was a kid and heard "enjoy it while it lasts" I imagined being an adult as being chained under some big rock called "responsibility". But it really isn't. If you're an adult, and you want to party, and you understand and accept the tradeoffs that is associated to, usually you can make it happen.

Thanks for the advice! I have noticed burnout firsthand: as a teen in SV, there’s an extreme push from parents and people around us in general. We are expected to start charities or found startups and take as many advanced courses as possible. There are very few that can handle a schedule like this, and some teens have even taken their lives. Luckily, a lot of us have writing code as an outlet for this stress.

I agree with you, it’s best to focus on subjects you care about and just take regular classes for the rest. The goal of HS should not be to pad your college app or increase your GPA, it’s to challenge yourself in subjects you’re interested in and show colleges and universities that you’re ready for a higher level of work. Sadly, today this isn’t the case, and that leads to depression and anxiety. A 2015 study of teens at a nearby Bay Area high school[1] found that 80 percent of the student sample suffered from anxiety and 54 symptoms of depression (and this doesn’t include students taking AP tests on the day the questionnaire was given out).

Everybody needs to calm down.

[1]: https://mobile.nytimes.com/2016/01/03/opinion/sunday/is-the-...

Edit: added citation

Cal Newport's advice contradicts his in some places (especially regarding note taking in class).

If you are an emacs user, please take a look at org-mode. Most of the advice had been implemented in org-mode. I hope someone will find it worthwhile because org-mode helps me manage everything in just a text file. And, if you like it, here's an example set-up that I used:


Please don't be discouraged on the complexity of the tool. Just learn one at a time and soon you'll be used to it.

Or just write notes/lists in your favorite text editor, no need to learn emacs or org-mode to start being efficient :)

I've been using org-mode with Deft for a few months now and love it. I'm slowly building a personal Wiki filled with knowledge that is rapidly searchable and has no risk of becoming obsolete (unlike say Evernote where you are at the mercy of the service).

Second this. I am not a dev - Learned about emacs from an article that was posted on HN. Took me about a week to know the most basic things, I still don't know enough to use emacs regularly, but it's a great, distraction-free environment to work in.

This is the article that got my started: https://blog.fugue.co/2015-11-11-guide-to-emacs.html

Taking notes is the worst advice you can give to someone. I've had this argument here on HN before, but taking notes distract you from the actual class. The best people I've been studying with were never taking notes, they were listening. If you need to know something after class, you can just google it or look in a book for it.

I have been both: the non note taker and the excessively detailed note taker.

I would say note taking a skill, and one that's honed through years. It's not something you only learn when you start college and there is an art to it.

What a lot of people do is similar to what the page tells you not to do - people would highlight everything, or write everything. This is very bad, because the best place to learn is in class, and by doing this, you reduce the class to a textbook.

I think the best thing to do is write a glossary or write down definitions. You'll notice the class repeating a few concepts several times. This is when it should be noted, or when a concept is too big or contains too much jargon to understand.

I've seen recommendations for not taking notes in class as well.

But your position suggests that taking notes is indeed the worst thing to do in class. How can that be? No qualifications or downplays like "for most people" or "bad"?

What I mean is that unless you have the results of Cal Newport or Jordan Peterson your extreme position does not carry the same weight as theirs.

> What I mean is that unless you have the results of Cal Newport or Jordan Peterson your extreme position does not carry the same weight as theirs.

That point of authority doesn't dismiss the fact that spending time taking notes takes from your actual attention and interactivity with the class.

I'm in for writing down a few words here and there, but people tend to write way more and it's actually detrimental to them. We end up in a situation where "taking note" becomes a bad advice and in most cases is not helping.

My story is just anecdotal, but from what I've seen: the more notes students took, the more they failed; the less notes students took, the more they were succeeded. I go to conferences all the time now, and I don't see people taking notes anymore (and the few who do, do not do it as intensively as I've seen it being done in university). Isn't that a sign that people who actually succeeded in becoming PHD students, or postgrads, or professors, or good people in the industry, ... are all people who do not take notes in conferences? (which are extremly similar to classes to some extent)

I think it depends on the person. If I don't take notes I naturally end up daydreaming and have missed an important concept by the time I snap back to reality. Taking notes forces my mind to pay attention to what is being said.

I'd say it's mostly a bad advice, seeing how people abuse it, but if you can restrain yourself to just a few words here and there it's actually good.

I'll add a crazy one:

Don't go to an undergrad program where they inundate you with lots and lots of homework.

I went to an "average" university for my undergrad and a top one for my grad. Once I got to the top one, I was shocked at how much the workload was for undergrads (but not for grad students). The undergrad homeworks and exams were mostly grunt work - not the type of homework that makes you think deeply about the material (fortunately, the grad courses gave you that type of HW).

As such, students spent most of their free time solving problems that did not give them much insight.

My average undergrad didn't give insightful homework either, but the HW wasn't that demanding so it freed up the time to ponder over the material, etc.

A lot of this is absolutely great advice. I struggled a lot in my first couple years of university having to get adjusted to a much more difficult learning environment that expects much more of you than what HS required.

The biggest change for me was when I started to take notes by hand, and re-take them, as a form of studying. Also focusing on understanding the fundamentals of a class vs trying to ace practice material. I went from a mid 70s GPA to 90s.

But I think a lot of where students struggle is just the acquired discipline necessary to succeed. Studying isn't very fun or enjoyable - at most it can be nice to focus and have goals, but most people have tons of anxiety leading into it and procrastinate a bunch. At the end of the day, there aren't any study hacks or anything, it's just that you have to put the time into it, and you have to essentially "learn how to learn".

This was very apparent in my upper year CS classes where I saw a lot of students struggle to do well in exams for what wasn't terribly difficult material. I realized a lot of students just weren't willing to sit down and study the necessary amount of time. I thank my time in microbiology courses where I had to learn to study every night to memorize tons of different concepts and be able to apply them all to each other. I think students in life sciences tend to know how to study more simply because their courses have a lot more concepts and fundamentals than most CS courses.

If you are in college/university and reading this you have to realize you just have to put the time in. That amount of time differs from person to person. I did really well in my CS program, but I put tons of time into it.

There is more to it than just time..

As a History major all I ever needed to do was read all the material. I dedicated enough time to do that and was fine in all my history classes. 90% reading 10% note review.

For CS and Biology, I read the material but that didn't mean I understood it well enough to map it onto the material that came afterward. I never really knew when I understood something well enough, or how to know be confident I knew something well enough to move forward.

Programming eventually came to me through websites like CodeWars, where I could repeat the easy concepts Over and Over again as simple games. After months of playing around, I understood them in a more subconscious way. Although I still don't know how to make this progress efficiently.

Here's some of my personal experience how I have learned to study better in university:

While reading through your material, take notes. Moreover take notes that make sense to you. Don't copy something for the sake of it if you don't understand it, try write it down in a way that reflects your current knowledge of it and how it makes sense to you.

Also I wouldn't probably take everything in that article word for word. I mean:

Do not listen to music or TV: It is virtually impossible to do two things at once if one of them is studying.

sound just silly, okey I listen to calmer music when I study but should you always advocate for total ruthless silence? I think there's other aspect overlooked by the writer(s) that you should try to make studying enjoyable or at least tolerable.

Of course in a way it is similar to straining yourself in physical exercise and more you do it the better you get at it but at times studying hard leaves you only depleted and uninspired about the work you do. I used to do studying in a group which while entertaining didn't really at times help me to internalize the material. Now when I do mostly self-studying I can internalize really well but the solitude is kinda boring at times. Until you get into the flow and really start digging what you are doing at least.

But my advice to anyone who wants to study better is to take it seriously. Take notes from your material. Write down mind-maps or whatever from the concepts to help you visualize them. Use Youtube to find lessons if you feel the material is too abstract. Ask questions from people smarter than you (if there is anyone around). Implement your own solutions about problems you care about (if applicable). The mental border I see when people study is that some just want to pass the course and get perhaps a good grade. How I have started to study is I want internalize the key-concepts so well that I can use them. That means that I might spend ridiculous amounts of hours on some basic concept until it makes sense to me. At times that might cause me to miss on couple other concepts but that's the trade-off I'm willing to make.

After you have studied the subject comes the hard part that is actually maintaining that knowledge. This is where I think having learnt key-concepts well really helps as you have those couple key-points to which you can return to quite easily. On the other hand if I didn't try to apply the concepts to something concrete I'll probably forget how those abstract ideas were ever linked to "reality".

EDIT: Downvoted for no reason? Must have been a sore day for someone to have my comment cause him/her to channel their negative energy into disapproving my personal opinion on a subjective matter. But I guess this is nothing out of ordinary in HN. (Was it too long? You didn't agree with me on something? Please let me know)

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