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March 1, 2019

Cal Newport’s “How to Become a Straight A Student”

If you are in middle school or high school and underperformed in class, it is time to learn what many top students already know. Why? Because knowledge in power, and power plus logic leads to better decisions and ultimately better grades. With better grades, school is more fun and your options after graduation increase “exponentially.” Read on and you’ll glean several “pearls of wisdom” from Cal Newport for how to succeed academically.


First Big Idea

“The most important thing for you to do is not fool yourself; and you are the easiest person to fool.”

Richard Feynman

Cal Newport describes the concept of ‘pseudo work.’ It is the misconception that you actually study productively. He states the formula as, “Work = Time Spent x Intensity. The key take home message is that 10 hours of low intensity focus is unproductive. It is much more efficient and worthwhile to study 3 hours at a ‘10’ intensity. You are basically three times more effective. Newport further describes this process as ‘deep work’ and that to maximize it, you must commit your resolve, focus in an undistracted location, at regular intervals.

Second Big Idea

You must conquer Procrastination.

Three essential requirements for lessening procrastination are to sleep optimally, get started studying early to lessen fatigue, and be well nourished. An additional key component is to write tomorrow’s ‘to do’ list the night before (or the morning of), and to write in your journal each evening any failed ‘to do’s’ and the reason why.

Lastly, it is imperative to define precisely what you need to learn, for example not ‘physics,’ but ‘the Big Bang.’

Third Big Idea

Ask the right questions!

    1. When should you study?
        1. Early in the day
    2. Where should you study?
        1. In Isolation, perhaps the library, a coffee shop with noise cancelling head phones.
    3. How Long do you Study?
      1. No more than 50 minutes at a time, then take a short break.
      2. Consider the Pomodoro Method and study for 25 minutes, take a five minute break, and repeat this cycle three times, then take a 30 – minute break.

Fourth Big Idea

Avoid Illusions of Competence!

This is when you study your notes or something familiar and get fooled to think that you are actually comprehending the material. The solution is to Quiz yourself and Recite the key concepts, for example, using the Feynman Technique.

Never passively read your highlighted notes or the chapter.

    1. Never highlight randomly or haphazardly. It is only a ‘feel good’ maneuver.
    2. Don’t simply re-copy your notes. Re-write your notes while you analyze, making them more concise, perhaps using the Cornell Notes System.

Fifth Big Idea

Spaced Repetition

This technique utilizes increasing time intervals as you learn information and concepts, but shortening the intervals for material not yet mastered. It avoids cramming, facilitating long-term memory. Flash cards are one way to accomplish this. Anki is a digital equivalent.

Accompany these five big ideas with my recent blog entitled Barbara Oakley’s “Improve Your Study Skills: How to Excel at Math and Science: Even if you Flunked Algebra” to truly improve your performance in school.