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Some years ago, I had a rather romantic view of studying. This view did not help me pass the courses, and after failing a substantial number of exams, I decided to implement an algorithmic strategy for passing exams, which by its very nature is extremely pragmatic. This article does not reflect my views on studying in general, it is merely a tool, applicable to me and others in the same situation. In fact, I think the first rule of my approach should be offensive for most serious students.

Studying: a Pragmatic Approach

The reason for studying is passing exams.

Passing Exams

The usual verbal exam has a number of topics, each with a number of key terms. The objective of such an exam is to know and be able to explain all key terms of a randomly selected topic.

Following Courses

The primary objective of a course is to prepare for the exam.

The goal of these is to aid in creating dispositions for the exam. The exam topics should be found before the first lecture and each lecture should result in notes with explanations of key terms.
Exercises and Workshops 
The goal of these is to gain intutive understanding of the topics, speeding up the process of exam preparation. The value of these should not be underestimated, but it is advised that they are done alone.

When commencing a new course, it is very important that overview of the topics of the course is gained early. Before the first lecture, you should look up key terms and write down descriptions of them. You have succeeded if nothing during the first lecture is surprising. Always read ahead of the lectures. The contact with the lecturer is one of the few chances you have to ask questions about difficult topics but this is impossible if you don't have sufficient understanding of the rest of the material.

Exam Preparation

There are 2 ways of studying for an exam: independently and collaboratively. The latter is accomplished with a study group.

Independent Preparation

First, the number of full days available for studying is determined. Divide the number of topics with the number of days, rounding up. This is the number of topics you must create dispositions for each day, until no more topics are left. If there is any time left upon completing all the topics, review the created dispositions and rehearse the exam.

Select a topic. The order of these is significant:

In order 
if some topics are based on earlier topics, the early ones should be examined first
Size dependant 
if it is impossible to make dispositions for all topics, the simplest and shortest ones should be completed first.

For each topic:

  • Create notes:
    • Have a note sheet of paper ready for taking notes. If you have an itemized summary of the chapter, use it as a note sheet.
    • Gain Overview:
      • Look in the table of contents of the relevant study material, usually a book. Examine the chapter contents of the relevant chapter.
      • Make sure you understand each term of the headlines. Use wikipedia or a dictionary to look up any unknown terms.
    • Key terms, for each key term:
      • look up the term in wikipedia or a dictionary, and write a short description in your notes.
      • If the description does not make sense to you, read about the term in the book. Note that you should not read in the book, unless it is necessary to understand the key terms.
    • Extraneous Material: The book may contain material other than descriptions of key terms, that you want to include in your exam presentation. Browse the book to find them, and make appropriate notes.
  • Create a disposition:
    • Prepare a disposition LaTeX file or a piece of paper for the disposition, marking it with a topic number and the name of the topic
    • Collate your notes and create a disposition for what you want to say at the exam. Make short paragraphs, using boldface for important terms. Make sketches of diagrams as needed.
    • Read the disposition - pretend you are at the exam. Check if anything is unclear, and elaborate as needed.

Study Group Preparation

A study group should consist of 2 or 3 students. The study group must meet each day in the exam preparation period.

Any number of the students (based on the time available for studying) is selected for reading the part of the syllabus covered by the topic. If a itemized summary is available, use it for notes. Create notes for the topic as described in the next section.

Techniques for Efficient Independent Studying


All sources of entertainment should be avoided. This means anything that could steal your attention. For me, that means TV, music, games, other people, and computers. Interestingly, I'm a student of computer science, and I must actually avoid using computers for studying. They are simply too much fun to tamper with. The ideal study environment would be secluded, with no TV, stereo, and computers. Any computer-based information is printed and studied in paper form.

This approach ensures that the material studied is the most entertaining medium around. Even when taking breaks, the other medias should be avoided. When a day of studying is completed, after perhaps 10 hours of work, the work can be 'rewarded' with engagement in an entertaining activity.


  • A corollary of Murphy's Law: you always draw your worst prepared topic for a given exam.


Memory Techniques