After last weeks article, I wanted to try to lay out how I go about studying. I'm a HD student, most of the time, so even if my method isn't perfect, I'm sure that it might be useful to students that have trouble getting anywhere near that.

Breaking down a course

Generally, most subjects try to teach you a new skill or ability - Medicine subjects might want you to be able to recognise and treat diseases, Maths, how to analyse things in certain ways, Engineering, to build something new or improve something existing.

All of these skills come in two parts.

The first is the domain specific knowledge - the foundation. This would be the names of diseases, the symptoms associated and the treatment for it. For maths it would be the formulae learned, and for engineering similarly formulae, as well as relevant facts about how the real world works.

The second is the skill itself. This is the part that people aim for, but often don't spend enough time on the foundation. Your foundation is essentially a box of facts, a toolbox which you dip into when exercising the skill. For example, a mathematician might know roughly how to model something, but if they don't know the relevant formulae and proofs they may find it hard to get from A to B. A doctor might know roughly what is wrong, but not the technical terms or symptoms.

Without being able to draw on the underlying domain knowledge, you need to go to a computer or other reference in order to 'do the job,' whatever it may be. This may be acceptable, after all, a doctor can use software to help with their diagnoses, and an engineer can google relevant formulae.

But this doesn't work a lot of the time; imagine trying to speak a language and having to look up every other word. Particularly in a university exam setting, you usually don't get resources to refer back to.

Laying the foundation

So the core of my strategy really revolves around one main principle: Memorization. Even though exams and assignments almost never test you on straight regurgitation of facts, there are some good reasons why I think this is the most important key to my success. In any domain, not only do you need to learn the procedures or theory, you need to memorize absolutely every possible thing that could be considered useful. Now, you might be thinking that memorizing facts is useless without the context, but I haven't found this to be true, because the context comes naturally later.

What memorization gives you is fluency - the ability to recall any needed fact without effort. In a language, this is critical because of the speed of natural speech, which is why you usually hear the word 'fluent' applied to languages. In any other domain, it's still incredibly valuable. Here are some advantages you get from this:

  • If you can memorise how something was derived initially, you almost always understand it well enough to adapt to new problems.
  • In the event you do forget something, the surrounding 'web' of connections in your head will still make it easier to derive or figure out.
  • Usually there actually are a few exam questions that just ask you to regurgitate facts. These become essentially 'free' marks.
  • Never need to cram - cramming is essentially trying to remember the facts you need for the exam about to happen. It works short term, but if you want to carry skills into adult life (lest we forget why we even go to uni) you need to keep them with you. By memorizing everything over the course of the semester, your pre-exam study will become 100% practicing problems, and 0% memorization or learning.
  • Just having something locked into your brain means that there is a stable 'handle' for surrounding facts and context to stick to.

So by now hopefully I've sold you on the idea that, if you can memorize everything in a course, high marks and better understanding follow naturally. However, you probably think this is impossible - maybe you think you have a bad memory, or maybe you just generally don't think you can fit in the time required. It's certainly time consuming, but not as much as you'd think,and I truly believe absolutely anyone can learn to memorize, regardless of how poor your memory is.

The key is Spaced Repetition

Spaced repetition is the idea that things fade from memory unless you recall them often enough. If you learn something once, then never recall it, your brain wont flag it as important and make an effort to hold onto it. Instead, you make sure to review the content enough to lock it into your brain. Each time you re-learn something, it takes longer to forget, so you space out longer and longer intervals - 1, 3, 7, 14, 30 days between each, for example. I won't go into the science in detail as it's covered elsewhere on the web, instead I'll just describe my approach.

The Method

So it goes roughly like this, for each lecture:

  • Watch the lecture and take notes. The notes are not a summary, just rewriting in your own words.
  • The next day, condense your notes into a 1 or 2 page summary.
  • Two days later, try to rewrite the summary page from memory. Then practice off the reference sheet until you can write it from memory.
  • Four days after that, do the same thing - try to rewrite from memory and if you fail to recall anything, drill on it until you can write it out.
  • This repeats at longer and longer intervals until the end of the semester, and you do the same thing for each lecture. I personally go 1 day, 2 days, 4 days, 7 days, then double the interval each time until the end of the semester or a break of over a hundred days.

It helps if you can write a blank 'quiz sheet' for your summary. For a maths subject for example, the quiz sheet might list only the names of formulae that you then have to write out. Below you can see my summary for a lecture on the left, and accompanying quiz sheet on the right.


That's pretty much it. Do this for every lecture and that HD is almost certainly yours. Mind you, it's simple, but it isn't easy. By the time you get into the middle of the semester, you will be spending usually an hour per day per subject just on revising past lectures. But an hour a day all semester is better in my mind than cramming for a week at the end, and works far better for retention.

There are going to be other parts of the course that you need to learn, like where and when you should apply the formulae you memorized. In my experience this comes naturally - and if it doesn't, and you can put it into a dot point form, then you can memorize that too.


All this info would be useless if I didn't also give you the tools to set it up easily. There are plenty of spaced repetition tools out there, here is what I tend to do.

For things like lectures in math, where you have maybe 20 or so lectures over a semester, I use a tool called Trello. For each card, I write the lecture number, the due date of review, and the number of days to move the due date after review, like so:

Trello Example

Sometimes this isn't practical. For example, when learning a language you are going to have literally thousands of words to remember, and managing a Trello list would be impossible.

For these situations there are some SRS apps such as Memrise and Anki. I personally use Memrise for studying Japanese, but I've heard a lot of good things about Anki as well. These apps either allow you to download premade learning packs, for common things like languages, or you can create your own if nothing suitable exists.



So that's pretty much it - in my opinion and experience, the key to blitzing uni, or just to remember and retain things you learn, is to use a spaced repetition tool to memorise the basic facts and foundations of a subject. That's it, that's all there is to it, and the main reason that people fail courses (besides external events) is that a staggering amount of people don't try to do this, or assume that they don't have the memory for it.