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Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Review: How to Become a Straight-A Student

Despite not liking his previous book, I checked out How to Become a Straight-A Student. Obviously, it's too late for me to become a Straight-A student (not that my GPA ever limited my life choices, for which I'm going to consider myself lucky), but maybe as my kids grow up I can find easy short cuts that will enable my children to skip a lot of blind alleys.

Prof. Newport claims that he wrote this book based on interviewing lots of other college students who were similar to him. In other words, he was one of those folks who could manage a social life while still having good grades. (Pengtoh, for instance, was famous for playing pool the night before exams, and got me to join him a few times) The techniques he stumbled upon turn out to have good basis in academic literature, but he doesn't seem aware of that.

The most important takeaway from this book is that one should be organized. Basically, pulling an all-nighter studying before a test or exam  isn't going to improve your grades, and the sleep deprivation might actually hurt you. So the goal of all his advice comes down to breaking down assignments and exams at least a couple of weeks ahead of time and then splitting up the studying into manageable chunks so you don't get overwhelmed.

This is, of course, an excellently organized approach. Pengtoh, for instance, gave me great advice once by telling me to do the assignment for CS162 (Berkeley's Operating Systems class) the night it was handed out. In those days, project assignments were performed on a time-shared VAX-11, and students being the procrastinators that they were, if you waited till the last minute everyone would logon and try to use the machine at the same time which would make it excruciatingly slow. So I would get my stuff done and then be working on other stuff when the machine became excruciatingly slow and my fellow classmates complained that the assignment was too difficult!

So if you grew up in Singapore or other similarly scholastically challenging places, you'll find all this advice stuff you already knew. For instance, the test taking techniques are something that every Singaporean is exposed to since the PSLE: do all the easy questions first, then the harder questions that you know how to do, and save all the "I'm not sure I can do this" questions at the end if you have the time budget for this. I have no idea how any American getting into an academically challenging institution wouldn't know how to do this, except that Steve Hsu points out that as much as 33% of Harvard's incoming classes are legacy admits and athletes.

The advice in the book that's of great use to most students from Asia is the stuff pertaining to writing a research paper. (By this, Newport means research papers in the non-technical courses --- history, etc)  This is organized into research, bouncing ideas off the professor, more research, organization, outlining, writing and revision. Newport provides a detailed timeline for how to do this, including when you should hit the professor during office hours, and how to make use of the library for research. I somehow escaped having to do this during my time at Cal, so it was all new to me.

The advice on how to truly master and learn the material is great. Basically, skip re-reading the textbook (research shows that re-reading and highlighting is a waste of your time), and build your study materials out of "Question/Evidence/Conclusion" tuples. When you organize the material like this, make sure you can answer every question without referring to your notes. If you can't, go over the questions that you couldn't, and repeat until you can. This is academically proven to be effective (though Newport doesn't seem to know that --- he doesn't provide a clear directive on how to schedule your study periods for maximum retention, for instance). For technical courses, he provides a different approach, which is problem-set based. Again, that's sound, but of course, if you grew up in a scholastically challenging academic environment (i..e, anywhere in East Asia), you already knew this.

In any case, this book is well worth your time reading if you're a middle school or high school student who would like to make better use of your time. The information provided is such that parents should read this and pass it on to their kids at the appropriate time. Recommended.

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