College Strategies

Notes on effective techniques for college.

Table of Contents

    This is a work in progress.


    1. Understanding over memorization — In the long run, understanding first trumps repeated memorization in both efficacy and time spent, especially when factoring in assignments that use course material and cumulative assessments. And, more importantly, it makes the knowledge useful.
    2. Focus on the building blocks: the best tools, optimized processes — The fundamental building blocks have a huge effect on the end result. Modern tools, such as note-taking apps, spaced repetition software, SelfControl, etc., and optimized processes, like the Cornell method, have huge benefits. Don’t skimp on tools.
    3. Apply concepts from psychology — Use concepts such as distributed practice, active learning, memory consolidation, spaced repetition, and other concepts and methods from psychology. [See Dunlosky et al. 2013]
    4. Time leverage is essential — The goal is to find the highest value activities that have the lowest time input, but high time input activities with a very high value are also acceptable.
    5. Long-term benefits at the cost of short-term suck. Understanding over memorization, strict time management systems, and other things suck in the moment and take a lot of work, but they pose a long-term benefit (and help us practice delayed gratification).



    OmniOutliner is the gold standard in note-taking software. It’s the best tool I’ve found for taking notes during class. I start with the regular template, and added columns, headers, and tweaked fonts and formatting, and created my own modified template.

    • Transcribe if necessary. — I try not to basically transcribe what the prof is saying, though some things do merit transcription. I’ve found that trying to keep up when taking notes while also trying to put things in my own words is very difficult, especially in fact-based STEM classes.
    • Use logical headers. — This will make it easier to mentally organize the topics. This is usually pretty easy if the class has slides, and takes a bit more guesswork if it doesn’t.
    • Record the lecture, but try not to rely on it. — I’ve written “[fill in 34:25]” many times when not paying attention or falling asleep, and that doubles or triples note review time afterwards. Don’t do this. Try to be as diligent as possible for the hour or two and stay focused, or else, for me, it takes 2–3× more time later on to review the material I missed while browsing Facebook.
    • The obvious stuff... Keep notes organized, preferably in Dropbox, numbered by class, date, and topic (e.g. Class 19 – 4/14 – Control of Cognition). Resist the temptation to go on Facebook or turn off the internet altogether. Sit in the first 5 rows of class. Ask questions. etc.


    This is the essential bit. Taking notes in class is good, but the knowledge isn’t quite consolidated during the first pass. Doing a note review, a second pass, will help in solidifying the knowledge and assist in the process of moving it to long-term memory (LTM).

    While studies show that rereading has low utility compared to other techniques [Dunlosky et al. 2013], I find that STEM and social science classes throw so much at you that rereading does help you figure out what the hell got taught during that class.

    But that’s not enough: during rereading, we should actively think about what the relation of the knowledge is to the bigger picture.

    As well-known as it is, the Cornell Notetaking System is the best method I’ve found for note review, mostly because it’s logical and makes sense from a psychological perspective. My use of Cornell might differ from the original, though, so here’s how it goes:

    • Timing. The CNS recommends writing questions as soon after class as possible; I prefer to forget about the class and get coffee instead. There’s a few ways you can do this:
      • Later in the day or the next day. I use this since it injects a bit of the spacing effect; if I read my notes over right after class, it might be useful, but I’ll probably be fairly familiar with it. If I do it later in the day or the next day, it allows me to see it with new eyes and solidify my knowledge a bit more.
      • Weekend. Could be effective and free up week-time, but high probability of procrastination.
      • Right after class. Useful if you, like me sometimes, procrastinate on doing notes in favor of doing more high-priority stuff. I think it’s less effective, though.
    • Method. In my OmniOutliner template, I have a Cues column that is hidden by default, on the right side. During review, I unhide it, and start as I review the notes, I write questions that pertain to the notes:
      • e.g. “The prefrontal cortex acts as a switch operator by knowing what the context is and inhibiting a prepotent response if necessary, such as inhibiting the response of picking up the phone at a friend’s house.” → How is the PFC like a switch operator? What is an example?
      • Questions should be on all levels: they can be specific, but they should also cover large topics that make you take a big-picture view to explain; so there should be big-picture questions like How does the brain control thinking?
      • Questions should come naturally, but to challenge my ability to come up with questions, I’ve come up with different cue types:
        • ID cue: What is expected utility?
        • Compare cue: How does expected utility differ from expected value?
        • Application cue: What would expected utility say people will pick given a choice between $5000 and a coin flip with $20,000/heads and $0/tails? How does that differ from expected value? (+ compare question)
        • Example cue: Give an example of where expected utility differs from expected value. [or Give an example of when expected utility can differ with the magnitude of the choices given.]

    Time & task management

    Day-to-day time management

    I followed a stringent time management system that was like a digital offshoot of the one in Cal Newport’s “How to Become a Straight-A Student”.

    The idea is to plan out pretty much every chunk of your day, from wake to sleep, during the beginning of the day or the previous day. Here’s my calendar from finals week:

    It seems like an intense practice, but it’s very effective, because:

    • It gives you a plan for the day. It’s clear what you have to do, and when you have to do it. There’s no more ambiguity over what you should do next.
    • It reduces procrastination during tasks. Because everything is timeboxed, if I’m supposed to be spending 30 minutes doing “Skim chapter 15” and then move immediately on to 30 minutes of “Review class 22″, I’m less inclined to think that there’s some leeway for me to go on Facebook and slack off. If I slack off, I fall off schedule and everything gets screwed up. It places just enough pressure on you to get you to focus.
    • It reduces procrastination between tasks. Between-task procrastination is the devil. It’s easy to fall into: finish some task, sigh, and go on Facebook for a minute or fifteen. But when you know exactly what you’re supposed to do next, and you know you’re avoiding it, there’s less mindless procrastination going on—instead, you’re mindful of your procrastination, and that slight guilt gets me back to work.
    • It gives you an honest look at a) how much you can get done in a day, and b) how much you got done during a day. I’m always ambitious with how much I can get done and generally don’t achieve all that I want to do. Doing this gives me an honest look at what I can get done. Not only that, but at the end of the day, I can get honest, quantitative feedback on whether or not I actually got a lot done that day or not. We don’t generally get this kind of feedback.
    • It reduces the moseying that comes with non-work tasks. I like to take my time with dinner, but there’s no reason that getting a burrito and walking home takes more than 45 minutes. During days I don’t do the scheduling, I get a burrito, waste time reading Hacker News on my phone while eating, maybe grab some ice cream, mosey around and get something from the store, and what the fuck it’s 10pm?!

    The technique:

    • Timing. Best to do this the day before, I find, especially if you have early classes or suck at being a morning person (like me). Before doing my daily end-of-day review, I take 3 minutes to look at my task list, see what needs to get prioritized, and plan out the next day including prospective wake-up time (see below).
    • Follow it. Or do as best as you can.
    • Mistakes happen. All the time. There’s not a day where I don’t adjust my plan, usually since something took longer than expected.

    Progress & growth

    Cycles of progress, continuous improvement


    Take folks through a tour of the brain or something during the course of this?