I’m currently reading Cal Newport’s latest book Deep Work, and I remembered why I used to spend hours pouring over his blog, Study Hacks, for life advice. Cal is someone who has mastered it all – he’s been an excellent student, an excellent employee, and an excellent author. I used to read the incredibly intense posts about “Four Weeks to a 4.0” and case studies about how students would earn perfect scores with only about 2 hours of studying, and I would tell myself that I could never become that person. I spent days studying for exams in college, and would end up with sub-par scores every time and hating myself for years afterward because I would see other students earning better grades than me. “How come I can’t be that top-scorer?” I would chide myself – “I’m too stupid for this major/class/exam/goal”. 

It wasn’t until a family tragedy that found me facing three advanced courses, the MCAT, and my research thesis until the tables turned. Suddenly, I found myself having to learn a wealth of knowledge for all of my classes on top of studying for the MCAT the first time around (I scored a 507 on the May 2015 exam). Once I found myself in that do-or-die, sink-or-swim situation, I started DOING. I started SWIMMING. Here’s how:

Remember my last post about flashcards? What I found myself doing last year was one of the most efficient ways of learning material without realizing it. I was studying ACTIVELY.

The most important thing to remember about active studying is that it is the only type of studying that matters. Reading notes passively while highlighting can help with recognition memory, but total recall is the only way to ensure that you know the material without cheating yourself of anything. By employing flashcards, practice exams, and the incredibly famous Cal Newport strategy of teaching the material to other people/pretending you’re lecturing to a classroom, you are forcing your brain to see exactly what it knows and exactly what it doesn’t know. This method is crucial, because when you sit down to take an exam, that’s the point of being tested on material!

I highly recommend watching the Cal Newport talk I posted in the link above. It’s around 40 minutes long, but Newport outlines his 3 step strategy to becoming a top student while maximizing your free time. He doesn’t believe in spending long hours in the library studying. He believes in solely studying actively by testing your brain before you actually have to take the real exam. I revisit this video from time to time to inspire myself. Cal’s point that learning is hard and uncomfortable actually makes me feel better about my own struggles! Everything is hard in the beginning before it is easy, and he really stresses this point that the uncomfortable nature is unavoidable in the learning process.

For me, this feeling of uncomfortable discomfort is coupled with hard-hitting FEAR. I’m always afraid that I won’t be able to learn the material in time, or that even though I’m going to study the material as hard as I can that I’m going to blank on the exam, or that the exam will be too difficult for me, or that I’m going to fail in the medical school application process again.

As usual, in times of panic, we turn to our favorite Jamie Foxx quote:

“What is on the other side of fear?


–Jamie Foxx

Now, I add the lessons from the Dr. Andrea Tooley video about tips and tricks for studying. She makes sure to mention that one of her mantras in studying is that she has the capacity to learn anything. Here it is below in quote form:

“I have the capacity to learn ANYTHING. There’s nothing that I can’t learn.”

–Dr. Andrea Tooley

She’s right – it might take you a day or two, or even a full week to learn something properly, but the human brain has an amazing capacity for new material. We are designed to be able to absorb and implement as much new information as possible! That’s how we help human evolution! Our big brains are geared for survival (Evolution is incidentally my least favorite part of Biology, but it’s coming into play here!) And, I was able to see where I went wrong earlier in my college career – I would keep telling myself that I was not smart enough for something.

What complete sh*t. 

I have the capacity to learn ANYTHING. I have the capacity to implement ANYTHING. In 3.5 years, I went from being your average 18 year-old to a qualified Bachelor’s of Science degree-holder. I have learned new languages from scratch. I have taught myself skills like knitting and bike-riding. I have learned how to read music and play an instrument. How did I master these domains? By starting at the beginning and getting over my feelings of being uncomfortable.

Cal Newport was right, again. Learning how to ride a bike was so hard in the beginning! I fell time and time again. It was so painful and uncomfortable! Likewise, I made so many mistakes when learning how to speak Spanish in high school. I embarrassed myself in front of classes of students during oral presentations! When I was learning to play my instrument, I would always embarrass myself in band in front of the other students by playing out of tune or playing in a rest (THE HORROR OF FIFTH GRADE BAND CLASS!).

But by learning actively, and testing myself by getting back on my bike without training wheels, speaking Spanish to others in a clinical setting, and practicing my music until I could play it from memory, I mastered the skill.

We can apply this to academia by testing ourselves.

  • Flashcards are quick and easy ways to pinpoint our weaknesses.
    • Cal Newport and Andrea Tooley share the same idea of creating a quick quiz-and-response sheet. The idea is to write all of your notes for a unit in question and answer form. Write the questions on one side of the page and then fold it in half so you can’t see the answers on the other side. You can quiz yourself anywhere, from walking to class to studying on the treadmill (true Andrea Tooley fashion).
    • When I do my daily Anki, I always try to write out as much information as possible, as if I’m testing myself with a “free recall” situation. They tend to look like this:

FullSizeRender (4)

  • Use practice exams to test yourself in a simulation setting. You can never go into an MCAT without taking a full length exam to see how you react to the 8 hour time conditions! Likewise, don’t go into a course midterm or final until you’ve utilized a practice exam completely.
    • Ideally this works the best if you have access to practice exams from your course and professor. However, making your own practice exam has incredible merits, and by predicting what material your professor is likely to test, you’re prioritizing your studying!
  • LECTURE. OUT LOUD. TO YOURSELF. I have started doing this in my own house, and although my family thinks I’m crazy, it is 100% the most effective study technique I have ever used. You can’t hide from your brain’s false sense of understanding of the material this way!
    • More on this topic in upcoming blog posts! I’m still getting the hang of it!

As a daily affirmation, tell yourself that you have the power to learn anything, and that you should be learning it ACTIVELY!





2 thoughts on “Active

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