10 Steps to Earning Awesome Grades (While Studying Less) - Summarized

I’ve recently finished reading Thomas Frank’s 10 Steps to Earning Awesome Grades (While Studying Less). The book is really about what it says on the cover - and since I’ve just begun a new semester, I thought I might as well find out how to do it right.
While the lessons in the book are designed to help improve your college experience, they are usually more widely applicable. That’s why I think it might be valuable to summarize the one’s I found useful - in part as a reference for myself, but also as an overview for others. This summary will be terse and of course highly subjective! There are lessons in the book that I will not cover, because I did not feel like they were of value. So if you would rather have all of the information, I highly recommend you check out the book (which you can get for free at the link above!).
As a piece of advice though, taken directly from the book:

Multiply anything by zero and you get… zero. You’ll be a lot better off if you just read one step of this book and put it into action than if you read the whole thing and proceed to do jack.

The following sections will just be the chapters of the book, with whatever information I found valuable in them.

Chapter 0: Introduction

Thomas starts out by explaining his study time equation, according to which the goal of a task is not simply its result (like a good grade), but a certain state of being called the desired preparedness. The result of a task (like a grade) is therefore a measure of the your desired preparedness.
The study time equation comes out of this as follows:

Desired Preparedness =
(Class Time * Learning Quality) + (Study Time * Study Efficiency)


Study Time =
(Desired Preparedness - (Class Time * Learning Quality)) / Study Efficiency

Assuming class time and desired preparedness to be constant, we want to increase study efficiency and learning quality in order to cut down on study time.

Chapter 1: Paying Better Attention in Class

As a general piece of advice: your mind is part of your body. Improve your body and you mind will work better.

The base assumption of this chapter is that partaking actively in classes is a better use of your time than being passive. It’s easier to retain information by being active, which reduces study time.

When stuck on problems ask your professors for help. But

First you must try; then you must ask.

Employ the 15 minute rule to work through road blocks:
When stuck on a problem, try it for another 15 min, documenting every problem you encounter along the way. If you still can’t solve it afterwards, ask for help. You should now be able to ask specific questions.

Chapter 2: Take More Effective Notes

Taking notes is a balance of retaining the semantics of the noted information, while still following proper syntax (e.g. the grammar rules of the english language). The less you focus on syntax, the more you can focus on semantics, i.e. learn more. Taking notes is therefore a balance between taking nice (syntactically correct) notes and retaining the information being recorded.

Outline Method:

Write down a summary using bullet points.

Cornell Method:

Split your sheet of paper into a cue column for open questions, a notes column for active note-taking during class (e.g. using the outline method) and a summary column to be filled in after class in order to revise the material.

Mind Map:

… useful when trying to flesh out ideas.

Flow Method:

I don’t quite understand this method, so here are two quotes from the book:

Flow-based notetaking is a creative process, not a recording process. Instead of just writing down what the professor argues, you’re also going to come up with your own ideas, examples, and connections.

Here are the basics:
• Connect terms and ideas with arrows
• Deliberately write things down in your own words
• Create backlinks - links ideas back to related terms and details mentioned earlier in the lecture

Chapter 3: Get More Out of Your Textbooks

There are two categories of reading material:
Primary readings: Textbooks required for classes and such.
Secondary readings: Articles, smaller books, etc.
Gauge your classes individually for what is primary and what is secondary reading. Deal with primary reading first.

Like with attending classes, reading can be done actively and passively. You want to be reading important information actively to retain more and hence cut down on study time.

Pseudo-Skimming Technique:

Variably adjust your reading intensity to the perceived importance of the information currently being read. This counteracts the problem of having high levels of focus when starting to read and insufficient levels when getting towards the end.

Skip to the End:

Read the end of a chapter before reading the rest. Usually the end of a chapter (in textbooks) contains important terms. Knowing them beforehand primes your brain for what to look out for, making it easier to read actively.

Take Notes and Summarize:

Note-taking fulfills the same role as in classes - it helps you consume the information you’re subjected to actively. Summarizing that information helps you slide down further on the learning pyramid - it’s like a lesser form of teaching, so vastly better than just reading.

Chapter 4: Plan Like a General

A successful student […] know[s] how to effectively split their time between their Planning mode and their Doing Mode (which I like to call Robot Mode instead).

Planning Mode:

There exist two types of work, high intensity and low intensity.

Plan your next day the night before!
This lesson has really helped me with getting stuff done. I simply have a list of things I want to do on a given day in my notes app. Whenever I am bored or have low motivation, I can check the list for things to do right that moment.
As a rule of thumb, try to do the most important tasks first - they will probably require the most willpower, which is a limited resource.

Robot Mode:

Before starting a task, try to estimate the time you’ll need to perform this task. This provides two benefits:

  1. you have a specific end goal to work towards
  2. you have (constructed) time pressure, which should increase your efficiency and reduce delays

Mind the planning fallacy when coming up with your estimates though. That is, people tend to underestimate the time it will take to perform tasks, because they only think of the best case scenario. This even holds when people know about the planning fallacy!

Should you encounter difficulties starting on a task, try breaking it into subtasks. You’ve probably heard this advice a million times before. The reason you should do this though, is similar to why you should take notes in class. The very act of dividing work into subtasks has you thinking about the task, which reduces its barrier to entry.

Chapters 5 & 6: Build Your Optimal Study Environment & Fight Entropy and Stay Organized

I feel like I’ve got these down pretty well, so I did not take any notes on these chapters. Again, if you want to read the whole book check out the free PDF.

Chapter 7: Defeat Procrastination

I’d say that this was the chapter that had the most value for me. I’m not sure if most people feel like they procrastinate too much, but I sure do. Thomas starts with the following guideline:

Saying, “I don’t feel like it” does ABSOLUTELY NOTHING to limit your choices going forward.

This is pretty obvious, but being mindful of it has helped me overcome situations of mental resistance a couple of times so far. If this simple reminder is not enough though, there’s the procrastination equation:

Motivation = (Expectancy * Value) / (Impulsiveness * Delay)

I’ve actually put up a post-it note on my wall with this equation, because it is a great tool for overcoming procrastination - assuming that procrastination is a result of lack of motivation. You want to maximize the expectancy or value of your goal, or minimize your impulsiveness or the time it will take until you reach that goal (the delay). This way you can actively influence your state of “I don’t feel like it” if you don’t have enough willpower to overcome it.

A great way to increase your available amount of willpower is establishing habits. Willpower is a limited resource, so you need to make sure you spend it on the things that are most important. If brushing your teeth twice a day eats up a lot of your willpower, you won’t be able to achieve more difficult goals.
Habits are like a source of (almost) free willpower. Once you’ve established the regularity of a certain task, once you don’t really think about whether you are going to do it, you need very little willpower to actually do it.
As an example, I’ve made it a habit to read once a day. It used to be that I had to overcome a certain hurdle to actually start reading (even though I knew it would be enjoyable), but now it just comes naturally.
There are apps abound to help you form habits. I use one that Thomas recommends, Habitica. I will not go in to detail here about it’s benefits, but in short it helps you form habits and keep track of to-dos while employing gamification.

Talking about games… the next piece of advice is to avoid low-density fun. Thomas explains this perfectly:

I have friends who almost never let themselves do the really fun things they want to do during the semester. They’ll talk about how much they want to play a certain game or watch a new movie, but when I suggest that they just go play it, they’ll say: “I really can’t; I have way too much homework and I’d feel guilty.” Five minutes later, though, I’ll see them scrolling through their Facebook feed. […] Scrolling through your news feed or watching a few funny videos on YouTube is easy, and it’s sort of fun to do. However, because it’s so easy and feels so unlike “real” fun, it’s easy to not feel guilty about it - which leads to a lot of procrastination.

The solution? Commit to having your high-density fun.

Lastly, if you haven’t heard of it before, check out the Pomodoro technique. It’s a technique for increasing focus, that especially comes in handy when a lot of studying is required in a short amount of time (which it won’t be 😉).

Chapter 8: Study Smarter

This chapter is somewhat based on the assumption that you are studying for an exam. As Thomas puts it:

Why are you studying? You’re going through your classes and major because there’s a specific set of information and skills you want to learn… but there’s a more pressing reason as to why you need to study now. That reason is the assessment. Your immediate need to learn and remember certain material from your classes stems from the quizzes, exams, and essays you’ll face later on.

If this is in fact the situation you find yourself in, you could use a study guide. A study guide is a plan of what material you will study and and how you will study it. You create this plan by compiling all of the resources associated with a given class and starting to filter out the important material. Sounds simple, right? The study guide will allow you to optimize your learning efficiency, by performing a key step: replicating your exam conditions. If you know exactly what you are trying to achieve, you will be able to achieve it more quickly.
As an example, in my studies we have two types of classes, lectures and exercises. I used to focus more on what was taught in the lectures and created a folder for each subject which compiled the information into a structured format. This did work out well in terms of learning the material (in my opinion), but it wasn’t what was needed for the exams. The exams focussed on what was thought in the exercises, i.e. how to calculate on thing or another. So when exam period was neigh, I had lots of work to do.

Along the lines of previous advice, emphasize active instead of passive learning. This is similar to the example I showed above. Engage with material by doing exercises, not just reading lecture notes.
This should also help you to identify the source of your confusions more precisely - which is also the next piece of advice. If you have this vague feeling that you don’t quite understand something, don’t let it rest. Find out specifically what you don’t understand. This will make further studying much easier.

And at last - the piece of advice everyone hates to hear - improve your learning via spaced repetition. This is not suitable for every kind of material, but when it is, try actually implementing it.

Chapters 9 & 10: Write Better Papers & Make Group Projects Suck Less

As I study computer science, neither of these topics play a significant role in my studies. That’s why I’ve grouped them together here.

When writing anything, not just papers, start by writing down everything - what Thomas calls a brain dump. The material you produce will probably be a mess. This reflects your current mental state on the topic - the dump is a reflection of your mind. Writing the actual text requires you to organize how you think about the matter at hand - writing is thinking.

Group work can be improved by following some basic guidelines:

Final Notes

Reading this book has spawned a second era of productivity for me (to put it in overly dramatic terms). A couple of years ago I used Productive, and tried to integrate good habits into my life that way. Back then I failed though, and by now I think I know why: I made too many exceptions.
This might sound overly strict, but I’ll try to explain why it’s not. It has to do with how we pursue happiness. CGP Grey has a video on how to pursue misery, with the point being to show how to avoid it. One of the ways to pursue misery is to strive for happiness directly. I take this to be hedonic things like going partying. These plainly pleasurable activities might be fun, but that’s all they are, pleasurable. And at least in my personal philosophy pleasure ≠ happiness (I recommend The Picture of Dorian Gray, if you want to read a whole novel surrounding this topic).
Instead success and happiness are side effects of repeated desirable action - or in other words, of following the system. So when I say that I used to make “too many exceptions”, I’m saying that I was trying to pursue happiness directly through pleasure. I thought that following the system too strictly would make life kind of meaningless and leave no room for fun. But instead it hindered success and happiness from naturally arising.

So when approaching your path towards productivity, success and ultimately happiness, try taking into account that pleasure might not actually lead to happiness - unless you’re a hedonist, in which case you probably shouldn’t have read this.
In any case, thanks for reading!