Scott Young’s Graduation Gift to Study Hacks




This is a post from another blog that I found recently and thought it was really good. It’s an article about and by Scott Young and how he studied:

Scott Young’s Graduation Gift to Study Hacks
I have to give credit to Scott Young: it was talking blogs with him back in 2007 that helped convince me to start Study Hacks. The fact that I link to Scott’s material again and again and again and again should tell you that we think in similar patterns.
The reason I’m bringing up Scott today is that he’s about to graduate from university. One of the things that intrigued when I first met him four years ago is that, like many students I profiled in the red book, he had the ability to score top grades without needing to study much.
It turns out that he kept this up: He will graduate this month with a GPA that hovers between an A and an A+, even though he almost never studied for more than a handful of hours.
In honor of Scott’s graduation, I asked him if he would share his secrets. I don’t want vague philosophies, I told him. Study Hacks readers are more interested in a blow-by-blow case study of exactly how he studied for a specific test, including screenshots of his notes and a careful accounting of his time.
Fortunately for us, Scott agreed. Below you’ll find the details of how he scored an A+ on a corporate finance exam that had a 50% failure rate at his university. His total time studying: 3.5 hours.
Take it away Scott…
The Student Secrets of Scott Young
“Looks like you have a test to write.” It’s noon and an unexpected test isn’t how I like to spend my lunch hour.
The subject is chemistry. Mostly multiple choice, a few essay questions. It’s one of those regional contests, which explains why I’m the only one being forced to write it. I haven’t even taken the class being tested.
Three weeks go by. “Congratulations, looks like first place–and a check for $400.”
Undeserved Talent?
That was my senior year in high-school. One university degree later, and not much has changed. My average stayed between an A and an A+ throughout college, and I still rarely study more than 2-3 hours before an exam.
For most students, these results are profoundly unfair. I didn’t study harder; I studied less. I wasn’t taught more; in the first example, I hadn’t even taken the class in question.
But it wasn’t just me—I’ve met dozens of learners who make my accomplishments seem banal. Polyglots that speak dozens of languages. Students who coast through triple course loads. Savants that can memorize sequences of ten thousand numbers.
This bothered me. Scientists have known that differences in IQ are both genetic and environmental. This suggests that innate talent can’t explain everything, that there might be a difference in strategy which allows people to learn more with less studying.
The Strategy of Rapid Learners
The biggest difference I noticed between people who learned easily and those who struggled wasn’t being organized, study location or any of the common advice given to struggling students. It was how they learned the material.
Slow learners memorized, while rapid learners made connections between ideas.
When I first wrote about this idea four years ago, it generated a huge discussion. Many people came out that fit the generalization, heavy studiers tended to memorize, while effortless students made connections between ideas.
Even more, I believe these methods of faster learning are trainable. I’ve coached over 800 students since I first started on this idea, and I’ve had many that cut down on their studying by as much as 75%, while getting better grades.
In this article I’m going to walk you through exactly how you can apply these ideas to your studies. First, by going through one course I recently used the methods on, and second, by generalizing the ideas so you can apply it to any subject you’re taking.
Anatomy of an A+ (With Under 4 Hours Study Time)
Corporate Finance has around a 50% failure rate at my university, and I’ve known people who have taken it over 4 times before passing. Despite this, I was able to score an A+ with a total of 3.5 hours of studying total for the final exam. Let me walk you through how I did it.
Summary Version
The quick version of what I did isn’t terribly revealing. My 3.5 hours were divided between only two tasks:
Ninety minutes creating a notes compression for the core concepts. (This involves cramming all the key facts and concepts onto a 2-sided paper)
Two hours completing and correcting one practice exam.
Here’s a scanned copy of one side of a notes compression I did for another class:

The purpose of the notes compression is to give a good once-over of all the material. It functions as a double-check, making sure there aren’t any conceptual holes or forgotten details. Second, it lets you see the course as a whole to get broader connections between ideas spaced apart in the lectures.

Similarly, the practice exam also works as a safety check. I scored a 90%, so I noted my few errors and finished my studying. Had I scored lower, I would have repeated the exercise with a few studying tactics until I got the grade I wanted. In this case, I was able to avoid problems the first round.
Now this version of events isn’t particularly enlightening. If you take a typical 10-20 hour studying session and replace it with ninety minutes of cursory review and a practice exam, and most students would fail.
The power of the method doesn’t rely on the last minute checks, it’s about how knowledge was engineered from the beginning. Let’s go into more detail to see how this could be achieved over an entire course.
Detailed Version—How to Ace Finals Without Studying
There are a few principles to successfully executing a near-zero studying time A+. I’ll list them here, and keep them in mind when I walk through the specific examples:
Principle #1: Learn It Once
This principle asserts that the correct time to learn something is when you first approach it, either in your readings or lectures. Waiting until the end to study results in a lot of wasted effort and poor grades.
Whenever I uncover a concept that doesn’t immediately click into place, I invest time right away to figure it out. This results in a focused effort to repair any holes in knowledge before they tear at the foundation.
Principle #2: Knowing is Being Able to Teach
If you can’t explain something simply, it means you don’t fully understand it. In keeping with the learn-it-once philosophy, the way you can tell you haven’t learned something is if you can’t teach it.
This is the litmus test to assure that Principle #1 is upheld. If you can’t, out loud or on paper, explain the idea without confusion or contradiction, stop and figure it out right there.
Principle #3: Memorization is a Last Resort
The final principle is that memorizing is a vice to be used only when absolutely necessary. Too many students use memorization as their first weapon of choice and therefore miss out on all the hard, but ultimately time-saving, insights they could have created through connections.
Some knowledge is better memorized than deeply understood. But after taking classes in math, law, psychology, business, economics, computer science and many other areas, I would say that these are in the minority. Medical students and legal scholars need more memorization than mathematicians or physicists, but the principle remains true.
Part One – Learn Concepts by Analogy
So keeping these three principles in mind, learn it once, teach-to-know and memorization as a last resort, I progressed through the class and applied it to each concept or fact, as they were covered.
A good way to do this with concepts is through analogy. If you create metaphors or analogies, that allows you to create connections between the idea and understand it on a deeper level. This is generally my first point of attack against any idea that initially seems hard to remember.
I’ll take an easy example from early in the course and walk through it: present-value of money calculation.

The goal is to learn this formula and concept deeply so that (a) you don’t ever need to relearn it, and (b) it becomes a solid foundation for all future ideas that are based off of it.
It can be tricky to create strong analogies if you’re used to memorizing everything. Here’s one approach I’ve used that helps lock in the ideas:
Break down the formula, idea or concept into smaller pieces.
Ask, “Why?” to probe for patterns in the structure.
Suggest some possible metaphors that fit the pattern.
Use the metaphor to explain the idea.
Strengthen the metaphor and repeat the process.
This process looks laborious, but with practice the entire series of 5 steps can be done in less than sixty seconds. I’ve simply broken it down to atomic components so you can follow through if you get stuck.
With the present-value formula, my first step would be to break it into rough parts. A casual observation shows me that there are several lumps of money, occurring at different times. These are then being divided by an interest rate, which also has an exponent on it. These are then all added together to give one dollar value.
The next step is to use the question “why?” to probe the ideas. Why are we adding the values together? A: Because we want to know what several cash payments spread out over time would be worth as one payment today. Why are we dividing by the interest rate? A: Because that’s how much extra money in interest we could make if we had the money today. Why are we compounding the interest rate? A: Because interest payments compound, and exponent represents how many years of interest would have accumulated, if we had the money today. This could go on and on, but you get the idea.
Now we can suggest some possible metaphors that fit this pattern. Off the top of my head, I think of perspective drawings, car leases, rocks falling to earth and trees growing. Some have vaguely similar properties (trees grow, money grows) others are identical (car lease payments versus lump-sum purchases).

The final step is to explain the idea to yourself in terms of the metaphor. If I used the perspective drawing analogy, I would say imagine that the lumps of money are drawn in cash bags, down a hallway. The interest rate is the angle of view, or how quickly far bags shrink. Finally the equation is as if you cut the amounts off the canvas and added them together in the same place.

This is a pretty involved example, but most of the time this process is quick and can even be done during class. I drew pictures for clarity, but you can walk through these five steps mentally to save time.
Look through the ideas and think of simple examples that can allow you to explain the concept to yourself. Only if you get stuck do you need to go through the above 5-step process I outlined to create an analogy.
Side note: You don’t need to remember every analogy you create. They serve as scaffolding for understanding the core concept. Once you build several metaphors, you should be able to remember the idea without referring to metaphors or analogies–you’ll just “get” it.
Part Two – Learn Facts Through Association
For a class like Corporate Finance, concepts are the majority of the work. If you can truly “get” the big ideas, then there isn’t a lot of need to know lists of facts. Still, as in all classes, there are facts that need to be memorized.
One such fact is that a bond’s yield-to-maturity is normally expressed as a quoted annual rate, compounded semi-annually (at least in Canada). Forgetting this fact would have cost marks, as this fact is assumed in a lot of the questions.
Continuing from the three principles, the best way to remember facts is through association. Similar to handling concepts, you want to create a few connections that will allow you to remember the idea. With this example, I made a couple of connections:
This quoted annual, compounded semi-annual was the same for mortgages.
In the case of mortgages, the result is that you end up paying more effective interest than you would guess, given only the quoted rate. (i.e. the banks trick you on the payments)
Bonds are normally paid out semi-annually, so it makes sense that they would compound, semiannually.
Unlike for concepts, it’s possible you may forget some of these connections and forget a key fact. That’s why, particularly for factually dense classes, some memorization might be necessary. Either through repetition in practice questions, mnemonics or flashcard-style review.
However, by starting out through associations, you create a mental hook that makes remembering the idea easier.
If you can follow these two parts—using analogies and imagery for concepts and associations to remember facts—then you can greatly cut down on the amount of review you need to learn the subject. If you spend a few minutes after every class practicing these methods, they can become automatic, so they happen automatically whenever you read a chapter or attend a lecture.
Acing Any Class Without Studying
I’ve walked through an example from one class, Corporate Finance. How can you apply this to whatever you’re learning?
Most of the process is the same, but I’ll give a few more notes for generalizing the methods:
#1 – Handling Factually Dense Courses (Anatomy, Medicine, Law, etc.)
The association method still works for these classes, but there are a few more techniques you may want to work on as well:
Group related facts together. My example only covered a solitary fact, but often facts in large classes have groupings that you can use to generate associations.
Translate facts into concepts. Sometimes you’ll only be required to learn a fact, but turning it into a concept (which you can use the metaphor method) can make it stick further.
Learn visual memory techniques such as linking, pegging and vocabulary association. These are outside the scope of this article, but they are powerful ways to cut down the amount of memorization necessary.
#2 – Managing Creative Problem Sets
Many classes require you to go beyond the ideas presented. Instead of just understanding the basics of an idea, you need to apply it to different situations, or solve logic puzzles that might otherwise be difficult.
There’s two ways you can handle this. The first is to do a lot of practice problems and build what Cal describes as hard focus. The second approach is to create more connections and metaphors to understand the idea from a wider range of perspectives. The best method is probably to do both.
These types of courses also brush up on the third type of knowledge you may need in a class, skills. In addition to facts and concepts, you need to build intuition through deliberate practice.
Learning More, By Studying Less
I’ll admit, a lot of these methods can seem overwhelming at first. To summarize, here’s the basics for doing well with less studying:
Learn by connections, not by memorization.
Learn things deeply the first time, don’t let confusion compound.
Handle concepts by creating metaphors and analogies.
Remember facts through association first, repetition second.
If you follow this approach, it makes sense that it’s possible to ace exams with relatively little studying. After all, if you’re able to lock in knowledge as it comes to you, there isn’t much need for dozens of hours in the library. Learning becomes easier, and even fun.

“To study the abnormal is the best way of understanding the normal.”

“William James”


First Notes


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I have prepared some notes based upon ‘Introductory Biology’. A free set of audio lectures given by professors at MIT University. This set was based of ‘lecture 3: Foundations, Biochemistry 1’ and also using Biology textbooks. The whole set can be found on iTunes and download and used on a ipod or computer under the iTunes U menu. Here are my notes:

lecture 3 notes 1-page-001

lecture 3 notes 2-page-001

lecture 3 notes 3-page-001

lecture 3 notes 4-page-001

lecture 3 notes 5-page-001

lecture 3 notes 6-page-001

lecture 3 notes 7-page-001

lecture 3 notes 8-page-001

lecture 3 notes 9-page-001

lecture 3 notes 10-page-001

lecture 3 notes 11-page-001

lecture 3 notes 12-page-001

If you find anything wrong in the notes, feel free to comment and sorry about the handwriting and spelling. I didn’t add a second Concept Check, because I think it would be better if you made your own concept checking questions. Think of it as if you teaching someone else, how would you phrase and answer them. If you have good questions it will reflect on your knowledge of the content and hopefully enable you to store it for longer.

“The true art of memory is the art of attention.”
— Samuel Johnson

Biology: An introduction


To get an idea of the basics of biology I think it would be a good idea to read the wiki page on it. Here is a copy of the introduction for convenience:

“Biology is a natural science concerned with the study of life and living organisms, including their structure, function, growth, evolution, distribution, and taxonomy. Biology has many subdisciplines unified by five so-called axioms of modern biology:

  1. Cells are the basic unit of life
  2. Genes are the basic unit of heredity
  3. New species and inherited traits are the product of evolution
  4. An organism regulates its internal environment to maintain a stable and constant condition
  5. Living organisms consume and transform energy

Sub-disciplines of biology are defined by the scale at which organisms are studied and the methods used to study them: biochemistry examines the rudimentary chemistry of life; molecular biology studies the complex interactions among biological molecules; cellular biology examines the basic building block of all life, the cell; physiology examines the physical and chemical functions of tissues, organs, and organ systems of an organism; evolutionary biology examines the processes that produced the diversity of life; and ecology examines how organisms interact in their environment.

A link to this page can be found here.

Apart from being very informative this wiki page also breaks down biology into 5 main interests or ‘axioms’. This is very useful as it allows me to study each axiom separately. If I tried to study biology without the axioms I would get easily overwhelmed, now at least there is a better chance I won’t.

“Develop a passion for learning. If you do, you will never cease to grow.”
— Anthony J. D’Angelo

Knowing how to know


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Happy new year and lets hope a little self-learning has occurred about hangovers. It is the new year and I think its about time I get onto learning about Biology.

So far I have zeroed in on the book I will use, its called ‘An introduction to biology skills for undergraduates’ by Mary Peat, Sue Franklin, and Charlotte Taylor.

One of the problems that has just dawned upon me is that I don’t actually know how to learn biology. This can be a major flaw to anyone trying to learn anything. Knowing how to know something is something you need to know. Luckily the internet is a perfect tool to find out how to learn biology. A simple Google search ‘how to learn biology’ was all it took and gave me more than enough websites to learn how to learn biology.

Here are some articles I found:

1.How to study for biology. A good wikiHow article covering important learning aspects for biology and also has a video of a student describing how he learnt biology. All the info you need to study bio.

So far I have only discussed how to learn biology, but knowing how to know is important for any practice you wish to learn. I found this good article on ‘how to learn almost anything’ on litemind. It talks about ‘the cone of learning’ and discusses its flaws and how to use it. The article also describes different ways in which to memorize information, with unsurprisingly one of the worst as receiving a lecture and interestingly the best as giving a lecture.

In my own opinion, I find that reading the content and then giving a lecture to myself is an  effective way of memorizing info. If this doesn’t work, actually doing what you are trying to learn is always good.

“Study hard what interests you the most in the most undisciplined, irreverent and original manner possible.”
― Richard P. Feynman 

Study Places: Park


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Fresh air, birds chirping, and sunshine. Sounds great while studying your chosen subject doesn’t it? However, like everything else, the local village green has its pros and cons. Here are a few:


1. Sunshine. It’s always good to get a bit of vitamin D.

2. Fresh air. Helps the mind and body.

3. Ambiance.


1. Wind. Neat notes become sails.

2. Noise. Unless you have your own park or you’re there at night, you can count on there being some noise around you.

3. Bugs. Where there is grass, there are bugs.

4. Sunburn. Don’t forget to wear sunscreen or sit in the shade.

“While I thought that I was learning how to live, I have been learning how to die.”
–Leonardo da Vinci

Study Places: Home


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I can think of no other place more comfortable and easier to study in than my own home. Everything I need is there, access to the internet, paper, pens, a desk, and quiet. Not to mention coffee, lots and lots of coffee. It gives me the opportunity to play music, wear what I like, and eat what I want. Home offers you the freedom to make your study as easy as possible.

Home also offers you a range of ‘seating’ options including all types of furniture. Here are a few options:

1. Bed. I do most of my study in bed. It’s like sitting on a big table. Some find it hard for it’s easy to lose pens and various other things in between the sheets, not to mention frustrating when this happens when trying to juggle new ideas around in your head. I solve this problem by simply making the bed and sitting on top, also a side table is good to just put everything on.

2. Desk: A desk is the first choice for most. It offers a large, hard writing surface and can be left just the same until next time. Although. I would invest in a good chair

3. Chair. Just a plain chair, a book, and a pen. Read a book. Depending on what you’re trying to learn, take both. With this you can create, destroy, and most importantly of all, learn.

“Study the past, if you would divine the future.”
— Confucius

Study Places: The Cafe


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What other place can be better to study in than a cafe, coffee close by, snacks to help fuel your brain, and your own table to spread all your notes everywhere. It’s a nice place to self-learn if you can ignore the sound of people talking and ‘cafe style’ music in the background.

As for me, I can’t stand studying in a cafe, and yet, I always see people studying away within these coffee domiciles. Maybe a good pair of noise canceling headphones might be a good piece of gear to get if you want to study there.

Here’s a list of popular cafes and how I found studying in them:

Starbucks: They are everywhere, sometimes across the road from each other. But in all honesty I find Starbucks a terrible place to study, not only does their coffee have one of the lowest percentages of caffeine and prices that are through the roof, they are usually to crowded to get a decent table. If you want to read more about the caffeine levels of Starbucks, a link can be found here

Esquires: Usually not too crowded and the coffee isn’t too bad either. Prices are OK and they do a coffee and slice of cake for $6.50. Definitely a good place to go self-learn.

McCafe (McDonalds Cafe): Not bad if you go there when the restaurant itself is not busy. The coffee isn’t really that good but it’s much cheaper than a dedicated cafe. All in all, it wouldn’t be my first choice of places to self-learn.

Mom and Pop Cafes: Vary in everything from quality of coffee to table size. If you find a good one you like, stick with it. Usually much less crowded and sometimes cheaper. Hunt around, you never know what you may find.

“I’d much rather hangout in a cafe. That’s where things are really happening.”

— Joe Sacco

Places to Self-Learn: The Internet


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If you ever wanted a vast unimaginably large source of information, then the internet is the place to find it, and with the advancement of technology, it is readily available for free in most parts of the world. But, it has its dangers, a lot of information on the web is not peer reviewed or creditable to any degree, that is why it is important to know where to look. Sites such as Wikipedia have gained notoriety as being large databases of dribble written by completely incompetent idiots, but this is just not true. Sure any man and his dog can edit a wiki page, but that page and any editing is checked by people who know exactly what is dribble and what is a golden rainbow sprouting from the depths of the greatest minds in history. In fact a paper I took at University did not have a text book at all as all the information for it was easily found on the web and better displayed than could be achieved in hardcover form.

For a majority of my learning for Biology I will be using the Internet. Who can blame me, I can sit in the comfort of my own home and access the largest source of information known to mankind, and do it all for a meager monthly fee.

Here is a list of good websites that I already know of that will assist in self-learning (not in any order of best to worst, just in order of my own memory):

Wikipedia: an obvious choice, has thousands upon thousands of articles on a huge array of topics, not to mention available in almost all known languages. A link to a wiki page about Wikipedia is available here

Khan Academy: Another great place to learn. I particulary like this site as instead of reading, you can watch and listen all for free. (a little controversy if this is considered self learning as Salman Khan is teaching you how to do things, but it still has to be self directed to learn about what he is trying to teach and the videos are extremely effective). A link to the Khan Academy site can be found here

Another great way to learn  is to search for things individually, here’s a link to a wikiHow page about how to study for biology.

Other websites like wikiHow include instructables, eHow, howstuffworks, and howcast.

There is another extremely useful resource that I have not listed above. Podcasts, are audio and video files that can be downloaded from a website or iTunes. They are especially good as most of them are free and if you miss a point or need to listen to it again, it’s easy as you can just rewind the audio file. A lot of universities offer free open courses that use podcasts as a major way to lecture the students. Usually these podcasts are just recordings of an actual lecture. I am current listening to ‘Introductory Biology’ as I am writing this, a series of podcasts from MIT (A total of 36 lectures). A favorite and inspiring podcast is on the future of biology, the lecturer discusses interesting projects and poses questions that should get everyone’s mind flowing.

Here is a link to a article on 12 dozen self-learning websites that cover almost every subject you could think of. The link is here

And if you ever get stuck and really cant find something, remember, there is always Google

“On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.”  

— Peter Steiner

Places to Self-learn: The Library


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The Library. A great place to have a coffee, meet friends, or stare at facebook for free. But what most people at my local library seem to forget is that the library is home to about 3.5 million books. They are there to entertain, inspire, open the mind, and teach.

Now, I am interested in the latter. There are books at the library that teach language, reading, dancing, and most things in between. But, it is a bit slim on more specialized topics (I found this when trying to study for my statistical modelling for analytics paper), generally topics that can be explained without much in depth detail. It would be like getting a discovery channel education, good for talking to friends at parties, not good in a real situation which needs an understanding of the subject.

That is why a University library is a far better place to use books. I say use, because if you aren’t a student, part of the faculty, or an associate member with borrowing privileges, you cannot get books out to take home. University libraries are different because they have textbooks, books written by people who have dedicated their lives to a subject. Textbooks are far better than dummies guide to something or teach yourself confusion. A textbook gives you the straight information, so if you use a textbook, brace yourself for actual learning and remember, it’s not a novel.

I said in my introduction that I would not use my University or any assistance given by AUT and I stand by that. Luckily for me, Auckland University is right across the road and I shall use their university library for access to textbooks. I believe all information should be free, that is why I shall ignore their rules that I am not allowed to use their books, But, if you are not so inclined to disregard these rules, try asking a librarian at the university library if you are able to use the books, most will allow visitors, if not, a bit of charm goes a long way.

“The very existence of libraries affords the best evidence that we may yet have hope for the future of man”
― T.S. Eliot



rayray and ben

Hi, my name is Ben Hart. I am a third year student at AUT University. I study Astronomy. I started this blog to explore and redefine what learning is. Kind of like a self-experiment to see how well I can self-learn.

I will compare how fast I learn at my university to how I learn without any assistance from AUT a subject that I know nothing about. I shall TRY to follow a schedule (firstly learn how to write a schedule that lets me do both university and self-learning) and briefly blog about it.

My self-learning subject will be Biology. I realize that Biology is a vast subject and no one man can know everything there is to know about it. That is why, as I travel along the hopefully not too winding a road to self learnt knowledge I will narrow down to a more digestible chunk.

Let the learning begin.

“Education is what remains after one has forgotten everything he learned in school,”
– Albert Einstein