How to Study Without Notes

Notes are a little ridiculous. You spend all this time writing them and, for exam purposes, they’re useless.

Even if you’re writing an exam where you’re allowed to bring them in, mental recall is orders of magnitude faster than flipping through a pile of paper. If it’s a serious test, you don’t have any spare time.

So here’s the guide to your life without notes:

1. Shorten your study sessions. You can realistically put in about 90 minutes of studying at any given time. ONLY do this when your mind is fresh and clear and calm: mornings are best. This state of mind is a precious, precious resource, use it wisely.

2. Stop after 90 minutes, or as soon as you feel your energy flagging, and go do something else (don’t go drinking). For the next 10-20 minutes, while you’re doing whatever you’re doing, replay all of the topics in your head. If you’ve gone over too much material for this, you studied too much. The point is to see if what you’ve learned can be incorporated into your intuition.

Ok, time out.

Read this quote:

Numerous studies over the past thirty years have shown that when people of any age and any ability level are faced with mathematical challenges that arise naturally in a real-world context that has meaning for them, and where the outcome directly matters to them, they rapidly achieve a high level of competence.

I like to think there are two types of intuition: intuition about nature and intuition about humans.

Nature is the stuff we didn’t invent: physics, biology, chemistry, natural geography. These things are studied by walking around the world and asking questions about it: why is the sky blue? What is gravity? What are earthquakes? etc etc.

Everything else, we invented: history, politics, economics, computers, etc. For these, you must use your intuition for human behavior. Why did Hitler invade Poland? What was the 2008 financial crisis about? What is the difference between a conservative and progressive politician? You learn this by experiencing people and society.

Math isn’t in either list because math, by itself, isn’t knowledge: it’s a tool, a language. I don’t believe in abstract mathematical intuition.

Back to step 2 because this is so important: engage familiar situations with your new knowledge. Reread the quote above. With calculus, for example, you already know what acceleration is: just get into a car and floor it. If you work a calculus problem and your solution says a dropped bowling ball slows down before it hits the ground you know you don’t understand the mechanics of the tool well enough yet. But that’s different than understanding what it’s supposed to do.

If you can’t even get an answer, wind back the clock and study earlier math topics. Don’t be discouraged. You’re trying to run before you can walk.

How about history? Ask yourself: if I was in Republican Rome, what would I do? Would I join the military? Would I assassinate Caesar? Can I put myself there? If not then I don’t understand the history well enough yet.

3. You’re going to realize there are some things you only thought you learned. Write these down and go over them one more time. Spend the most time on the hardest stuff, but not longer study sessions.

4. You’ll have to come back over the whole material again later. And maybe one more time again. Don’t take notes, just read the material and think about every concept.

And always work problems designed to mimic test questions. These are how you’ll be evaluated so you might as well get good at them, even if they’re only incidentally related to learning.

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