Notes on Studying and my Study Plan

Some folks have asked me about how I study.

Most of the good studying habits I have developed have matured out of an extremely fortunate post-16 school experience, and a summer-long sprint through a semester's worth of MIT OpenCourseWare material.

Remember that this is my study plan - another cannot so easily acquire a right to it. The whole point of learning is figuring out good long-term strategies for becoming more skillful and capable, which is something you only do by doing it. Until you have experimented empirically, you do not know how to study.

The structure of the plan is given by a great guide for undergraduate math courses available here. This is generalised and extended mostly with the book 'A Mind for Numbers' by Barbara Oakley, which is the single best informational resource on metalearning, nevermind the maths the title pigeonholes it into.

This post does not discuss the actual most important element of good, consistent study and work, which is mental and physical wellness; the ability to 'preserve oneself'. In my opinion, the real personal value of formal education such as university is not that you learn things, but that you have a sandbox to apply and evaluate different ideas over several years. Talk to the interesting people around you, experiment with different approaches to doing things, and trust the response you get from reality. I cannot tell you how to stay well because I am not you, but I don't think it's as complex and opaque as it is made out to be.

I'll give you some knowledge that has helped me - obesity and mental health problems are on the rise at a societal scale. There are things everyone takes for granted that are extremely damaging to the body and the mind that inhabits it - there is no need to inherit this. Drink water, eat well, be outside, exercise regularly, and get rest. These 5 things literally transformed the way that I think, and they're the most stupid, simple, obvious place to start. Just living well and paying attention can provide a lot of meaning all on its own.

"To live is to be born slowly. It would be a little too easy to borrow ready-made souls!" - Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Key Concepts

Some of you will look at the plan below and think, "that is overkill". Depending on the course, you're absolutely correct. After returning to my actual university course after a stint doing an MIT workload, the amount of effort required was as much as an order of magnitude less than what is described below. That said, it was only just enough to keep up over a few MIT classes, so it is a system I am glad to have in full.

Since in the general case this plan is indeed overkill, I've put what I believe are the most important ideas here.

Identify Important Information

This may seem obvious and vague, but is seriously lacking among many students, in part because of the presentation of material in lectures and coursebooks. Become briefly familiar with a few fundamental ideas before a lecture - glance through your textbook for 5 to 10 minutes and get a grasp on ideas in subheadings and bold text. In all likelihood a majority of your capability in the subject is tied up in being able to apply the concepts that pop out at you from this process, so give yourself the headstart of knowing what these things are.

Additionally, you will be taught things that are next to useless. Things that you may even be graded on, but are boring and stupid. Remember them, and don't spend a moment more of your energy than you have to in order to learn them. Becoming capable at identifying their importance upfront frees up a lot of energy over time.

Actively Engage

There is no such thing as passive learning. There is no such thing as passive learning. There is no such thing as passive learning. Do not be the person who knows everything about kung fu and cannot throw a punch. You will get beaten up, and it will be deserved. When faculty talks about this it is usually in the context of "asking questions" etc. It is true that you should be talking with interesting people about interesting ideas a lot. Even more important is to garner actual hands-on practical experience with your trade. This is the difference between knowledge and skill. Unless your job is walking encyclopedia, domain-specific knowledge is only useful as a supplement to the ability to act.

Be Habitual

90% of the pain students undergo comes from inefficient balancing of workload. All of the complaining about difficult assignments begins the week before it is due. The most disappointed students after an exam were the ones that should have aced it with minimal effort, but never did short yet regular study. When you really get into the groove of work it doesn't really have any mental overhead, but cramming is literally self-torture for a tenth of the gain. Have fun and experiment with how you do things, find what works well and especially what doesn't in the long term, do what makes sense moment by moment, and you will be unstoppable within maybe just a year or two.

Study Plan

BEFORE a lecture - skim relevant section in text book (~10 mins).

This orients your perspective even if your understanding is cursory, as you begin to identify the things that are most important to understand. Look for phrases in headings, images, bold text, and words and notation that keeps popping up. Recommended to do before a lecture such that you have enough time to look up anything that looks like the textbook takes for granted. This seriously reduces the number of lectures that are too fast or totally baffling, as well as the number of lectures that are boring and over-long.

DURING a lecture - take notes as if for a friend, and ask questions.

Notes aren't written for yourself, but for your future self, who may not know as much as you do! When you write as though a friend who didn't take the lecture should be able to know what the core ideas were, you structure better and consider what needs to be included for a more complete understanding. By the way, don't underestimate the power of a well structured first draft - part of the remembering process is not just of what was written, but where and how it was written, literally how it is laid out on the page is tied to your memory of the concept. This is a hook to improve your knowledge.

"Asking questions" I'm not going to spend much time on, but if you know what you need to ask then ask it as soon as you can, you only get so much in person contact time. The fact that you can ask academics questions and expect replies is what almost all of a degree's expenses are going towards, and is the most valuable asset you can leverage.

JUST AFTER a lecture - review notes and compare (~10 mins).

Skim your notes shortly to consider how the ideas in the lecture relate to one another - do ideas from the end of the lecture give context to ideas from the start of the lecture? Here you are knitting together the whole thing to get a better idea of the big picture. Then discuss the ideas with other students and consider their notes - this fills in gaps you may not have realised existed.

SAME DAY AS lecture - edit and summarise notes (~20 mins).

Think of this as the draft copy of the text vs. the edited copy. Your goal should be to try and fit all the major concepts of the lecture into no more than 1/2 a page of A4 paper, through any means you can think of. At this time you also would like to relate them to other ideas you have learnt so far, so this exercise seriously forces you to engage with the absolutely most essential elements. Something I often hear during written assignments with word limits is that students just "can't make it any shorter". Invariably this has been false, but it does show that this is a skill that requires practice.

BEFORE NEXT lecture - do practical hands on learning (at least 1 hour).

This is the part that actually matters. Repeat after me - there is no such thing as passive learning. And there is also no point to simply "knowing things". If you are not using ideas to make cool things and solve cool problems, they are probably not particularly useful ideas, or you do not know them well enough.

SAME WEEK AS lecture - turn notes into flashcards.

Classical flashcards are boring, but they are a vast improvement over other traditional forms of rote memorisation, because they're not that boring. This section is almost misnomered, as the real value they represent is not in the act of writing and going through flashcards, but in spaced repetition, which is the best method to make sure you will definitely know the things you repeat. Don't flashcard everything though - we want to spend most of our time outside of class actually doing interesting things. Focus instead on "things you just have to know", and hard problems that you really want to go through several times. This latter category is incredibly powerful with spaced repetition, because you're not just learning the tools required to solve such problems, but how they are used together.


Many thanks to Olivier and Charles for all they have done over the past few years. Time spent with them has been incalculably valuable and made everything possible.