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Bon Journal

How to study

I am no expert on how to study to ace your exams. I failed my geometry test to prove the Pythagorean Theorem. I failed my stochastic optimisation course because I was daydreaming. However, I did ace other math courses. My method for studying for mathematics and other quantitative subjects like engineering and physics was to practise solving as many equations as possible. After awhile, the equations become merely variations on a theme.

When it comes to non-quantitative subjects where there are no straightforward answers to questions, I am even less of an expert at advising how to study. At Oxford, I found it painful to write critical essays. What's the point, I thought. History happened. Just let it be. What's the point of criticising?

Over the years, I discovered that having the right attitude is key. The reason why I didn't ace my history course and the reason why I failed my stochastic optimisation course was because I didn't think there was a point to it. In fact, I even blamed the teacher for not making me learn!

To retain your knowledge over the long run, an incremental approach is better than cramming. I got so used to cramming for an engineering exam that I started believing that I had photographic memory. Literally, I would stare at a page full of formulae and press an invisible button to scan it all into my memory. When I took the test the next day, I would "see" the page in my mind. However, don't ask me today what electrical engineering is all about. I can't remember.

In the UK, university students are accustomed to reviewing exam notes from previous years. It's very likely that the lecturer will regurgitate at least one question from a previous exam and tweak the phrasing of another. I was very disappointed that the final exams I took at the London School of Economics weren't full of brand new questions.

Just like rehearsing for a performance, sometimes it helps to rehearse for an exam. For my oral exams (also called a viva) at London Business School, I got my housemates to pretend to be examiners. They randomly asked me questions from my thesis.

There's a lot of wisdom in the keep it simple, stupid principle. I took pride in my crib sheets but not in my handwritten notes. Only when you're able to reduce the complexity into something so simple that you can explain it to your mother, do you really know what you're talking about. I've often used this tactic to test if I really knew, that is, try explaining the subject to someone who is unfamiliar with it. This was probably the reason why my mother didn't want to extend her holiday in Montreal. I was summarising my notes from Computer Organisation class every other day.

It helps to be well-organised. Then you'll know where to look for the answers. To do well in an open-book exam, you have to be extremely organised, both physically and mentally. My cousin asked me how he could become more disciplined and more organised. Unless you're forced to become so, it's hard to do so, I said.

Memorising answers for tests is the way many students in Taiwan and China learn. While this may help them become Hollywood movie stars, it doesn't help them become better students of life. I only truly learned how to ask questions when I became a doctoral student. Earlier I learned how to find answers and how to study. But in this life, it's far more important to ask the right questions.

11 October 2002 Friday

A 2nd year mechanical engineering student, after many years in the work force, asked analyticalQ the question "how to study".
Interesting enough questions will be answered in the Bon Journal.
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