Mind Hack XVIII: The Most Important Piece Of Study Advice You’ll Ever Hear…By Cal Newport

In my previous Mind Hack post “Mind Hack XVII: Decode Patterns Of Success With Cal Newport At Study Hacks“I mentioned to you readers about this amazing blog Study Hacks, Decoding Patterns of Success written by a former Ph.D candidate at M.I.T. (and current Georgetown University professor) Cal Newport.

Today I wanted to reveal to you the reader this most important pieces of study advice I think is the most helpful actionable advice that really does work. I was watching a YouTube video where Cal gives a presentation on the patterns of effective study habits one needs in school entitled “2012 Texas Regional Project, “Study 30 Minutes a Day, Get a 4.0 GPA!”. I have taken the liberty to imbedd the video to the post and the most important section begins at 18:25 until 22:35. So, a little over 4 minutes of insanely powerful, useful information and insight. There is some also good study until the 24:30 time point.

If you wanted a full summary of what I consider THE MOST USEFUL STUDY ADVICE I HAVE EVER HEARD then here is my own personal summary and interpretation of his talk.

There are many different ways to prepare for a test but only a few work well. This is just one of those ways that almost always will work well. This is a tactic, not a strategy. This tactic was at the core of all of Cal’s “A”s at Dartmouth and MIT. It works for any subject. When Cal did surveys on Phi Beta Kappa students from all across the country, while researching for his 2nd book, this tactic was the one that showed up the most often on those surveys.

Ready, get excited….

The Key, in what is probably the most effective study technique you can implement and use is….

  • Explaining a concept out loud in complete sentences, as if lecturing a classroom, without looking at any notes.
  • Cal calls this known process “Active Recall

This is in contrast to passive recall , which is just exposing yourself to information. (ie. rewriting your notes, reading silently your textbooks, highlighting things, this is all passive recall). This passive recall approach is a terrible, inefficient way to learn material.

When you are in a 40,000+ student university and have most of your classes in large lecture halls with 300-400 other students sitting 50 feet above and away from where the professor/lecturer is speaking lying in a lethargic/indifferent posture in a comfortable chair, you will not learn much at all.

My suggestion:

  1. Stop going to lecture – it is a HUGE waste of time to walk 10 minutes back and forth to classes just to sit and passively absorb information from a lecturer. replace the time you would spend in lecture with the time you meet your mastermind group.
  2. Form a 3-4 mastermind study group that meets in a very quiet study room only 2-3 times a week, consistently and with commitment. – The time you spend there is not to read the material and books but to be active, discuss, argue, and fill in the areas of lack of understanding you might have from only passively reading and trying to learn the material yourself.
  3. Time study interval: 120 minutes of real Active Recall studying for the group. If you meet 3 times a week, go with 90 minutes. If you meet twice a week, go with 120 minutes.
  4. Make 5-6 really tough questions on the material which you force other members to answer without textbooks or notes. If this is a science/mathematics/ problem sets type of course/curriculum, pick the hardest questions for them to solve.
  5. Pay another person who goes to lecture a small cash amount to inform the mastermind group of any important notices, messages, and notes the lecturer might decide to say during the lecture (ie. change in exam times, change in assignment due dates, stuff like that.)

Remember: Anthony Robbins in his talks reveal that when you only listen to a person talk, like him or a professor, you can recall maybe only 10% of what he said if you are asked about his talk 3 months after the event/lecture/speech if you are asked by another person about the specifics of the event.

However, if you write down the notes and ideas, your ability to remember and recall goes up to around 40% around the 3 month time if you are asked. However, if you can get your body into the program by jumping, getting excited, screaming at the top of your lungs, clapping, dancing, hugging your neighbors, the brain neurology creates new pathways of neuronal connection. The ability and likelihood that this experience will get imprinted and embedded into the deeper recesses of one’s memory increases dramatically.  This means that the learning from at least Anthony Robbins events like Unleash The Power Within results in the people go attend these seminars being able to at least remember better, but not necessarily learn and understand this principles he teaches better.

Active Recall, in contrast means that you are actively trying to understand, synthesize, and explain a concept without any help from any notes or any sort of textbook…

3 Main Points of Active Recall…

  • It is devastatingly effective – if you can successfully do an Active Recall on a concept, you will understand that concept, you will remember that concept, and you will still remember this concept many months later on a midterm or final exam on this concept and be able to answer that question.
  • It is incredibly time efficient – it takes much less time to do an active recall on a concept than it does to reread over that concept many times over hoping that it “sticks”
  • Active Recall is difficult. It is mentally uncomfortable. When you are doing it, you are straining. Your brain is also straining because it is trying to pull together these different things that it has learned before and try to put them all into a shape that it can understand. The brain is also trying to express the completely new shaped concept.

[Note: This is the “catch” about Active Recall. This uncomfortable feeling is absolutely unavoidable. This is the actual process of learning. This is the exact same analogue as lifting a weight at a gym. Remember what Arnold Schwarzenegger and Anthony Robbins say about gaining increased muscle mass and size. You have to go pain the normal limits, beyond your comfort zone to a region of pain. It is only at the last rep of a “pump” or even the one beyond the last rep where you will truly see the real results of your effort.]

Top students tend to break up their studying into 1-2 hour chunks of active recall spread up to a week or two before an exam actually starts.

  • Active Recall is the only study time that counts.

This seems to be the only or main tactic the best students in the country use to learn new ideas and concepts.

Strategy: Eliminate any study time that is not active recall or preparation for active recall. (Minimize the latter.) As Cal likes to say it, “Fear passive recall like the plague”

  • Main Take Away: If you are not actively explaining without looking at your notes, you are not really learning. 

Definition of a “Take Away”: If you take nothing away after reading this post, at least just remember and apply this 1 rule in your studying habits.

What the next Mind Hacks post in the series will be about: Mind Hack XIX: Procrastination

5 thoughts on “Mind Hack XVIII: The Most Important Piece Of Study Advice You’ll Ever Hear…By Cal Newport

  1. tim

    Interesting. But concretely…I have an exam from cell biology soon and basically barely understand anything, the study material consists of 5-6 PowerPoint presentations with 50-150 slides each. Should i stop at every line and try to explain it out loud?

    1. admin

      the smarter way is to go to a quiet room with a white board, get a classmate, and try to teach them the material through your understanding and memory by drawing pictures and diagrams on the white board. If you can succeed in teaching your classmate the concepts and names, you have succeeded. It is critical that if you are wrong in your teaching, your classmate can stop you, and correct you on where you are wrong. That is the essence of active recall.

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