Study Tips

I’d like to pass along four study tips that have worked well for me. It took me most of my career as a student to “discover” and use these tips, and I hope that I can save you guys some time and trouble.

These tips are useful for studying throughout the course; they’re not targeted for cramming sessions right before a test. If you follow along with these, not only will you be more prepared for the test (and the in-class quizzes, less importantly), but you’ll feel better as you come into each class.

Tip 0: Re-watch the lecture videos I post on Vimeo (where applicable).

Tip 1: Sleep on the reading

Read the material at some reasonable hour (not right before bed), then get a solid’s night rest, and then read it again the next day. This tip requires the most work, but will give you the most bang for your buck. In my experience, the night’s rest between the readings helps your brain to file away what you’ve learned into long-term storage, and will greatly improve your ability to recall it when you need it during the test.

Tip 2: Speak the reading

In the same way that sleep can help you remember a reading, I’ve found that simply reading aloud is a huge help. I think there at least two reasons. First, if you force yourself to go word-by-word, you’ll resist the temptation to “skim” parts of the reading as you might do if you were just reading silently. Second, you’re now invoking another one of your senses: you’re both seeing and hearing. If you’re following along with Tip 1, I think you only need to speak the reading when you read it the first time (though your experience may be different).

Tip 3: Rewrite the reading

I know that some of you are already taking notes along with the reading, which is great. This tip is just a small extension of that: I suggest “rewriting” what you see in the text in any way, great or small, rather than copying down what’s in the book. This could include making notes that refer back to other things you’ve learned in the class; drawing a diagram; creating your own analogy; or even creating mnemonic devices that might help you remember facts in the book. The idea is that in the process of shaping the material in your own way, you’re giving yourself some ownership of the concepts, and you’ll care about them more. In fact, during the test you might even visually recall where on your note page the “answer” was, which can only help (this actually happened to me a lot, and I have far from a photographic memory). And of course you’re now incorporating a third sense (touch), which is great.

Tip 4: Teach the reading

As both a student and now a teacher, I can testify without hesitation that you don’t truly understand something until you can teach and explain it to somebody else. If you can find a friend or family member—ideally someone who’s not already familiar with the material—who will sit down with you, or have a phone/Skype call with you, for 10 to 15 minutes a week while you explain the week’s readings, it will benefit you immensely. First, you’ll be forced to affirmatively present facts and concepts, rather than just respond to some question that I’ve asked you. Second, you’ll inevitably find yourself calling back to earlier material in order to explain what you’ve learned this week (for example, “This is just like the TCP checksum, but at the network layer only the IP header is checksummed”), which will help both for the upcoming test and for your career-long memory of what you’ve learned in this class. Third, you’re now working a fourth sense, taste (OK, that’s a stretch, I admit; let’s call it “learning by doing”). Fourth, this is great practice for the group presentation at the end of the semester, or for any presentation you might give in your academic or professional career. And last but not least, you’ll be spreading the fun of what you’ve learned to a wider audience.

I hope these tips are of some value to you. If you have any questions, or any suggestions or feedback for the list, please let me know.