TL;DR: If you are looking for the answer to the question of how to write higher grades at college, then this book might not be worth it if you already know that pulling all-nighters and rereading notes and lecture slides is not an effective study technique. If you don’t, read this and be careful of the Swimmer’s Body Illusion. Otherwise, this book serves as a good example of a mental model on how to utilize books with titles like “How to become XY”, counting on anecdotal evidence.
I recently picked up “How to become a straight-A student” by Cal Newport because I wanted to see whether I am missing out on some important study techniques. Also, I recently decided to orient myself towards the Computational Neuroscience M.Sc at the BCCN, for which I need good grades. My current study stack revolves around creating Anki cards and I am pretty evangelistic of them.
Turns out, it wasn’t worth it (So, I skipped most of the last section on essay and paper writing – mostly because this section didn’t seem innovative enough. A common writing guide will serve the same purpose. I will come back to this section when I have to write more essays at University) and I probably will use less than 5% of the “study hacks” mentioned. Thus, I read the first two parts, about study techniques (and mindset) as well as the part on exam preparation.
The book heavily relies on anecdotal evidence and builds on the promise that it reveals “the Unconventional Strategies Real College Students Use to Score High While Studying Less”. Cal Newport surveyed several “straight-A” students from US colleges and asked them about their study techniques. His book is about clustering those results and providing “explanations” and elaborations on those.
The reason why I put “explanations” in quotation marks here is that this book is a great example of the Swimmer’s Body Illusion.
The Swimmer’s Body Illusion “is a cognitive bias where you attribute a trait or characteristic to a certain activity, and not the other way around. For example, you might look at a professional swimmer’s toned body and think you can gain that same appearance by swimming. However, these individuals are so good at swimming because they already had that kind of body.”.
Most of the quotes mentioned in the book by the surveyed “straight-A” students are sophisticated, nuanced, and thoughtful. Additionally, they seem to have enough general intelligence and metacognition to come up with those study techniques themselves – having a system in the first place, while many students don’t even have one. Besides that, those students are enrolled at top universities in the USA – meaning that you could argue for them having higher intelligence scores anyways.
Thus, are their good grades a consequence of their “straight-A” study techniques, or an inherent ability? I am aware of the fact that efficiency and effective study techniques can greatly influence your grades and serve as a catalysator for academic excellence, but I don’t see how the techniques in the book are so innovative that they achieve that. In the end, efficiency can only do so much¹.
Besides that, what about those students who use the same techniques but don’t score high? He explicitly selected straight-A students, leaving him with an instance of the Outcome Bias. Just because the outcome is having straight A’s, this does not imply that their study techniques were great. There probably are students out there, that he didn’t survey, that don’t have high grades, despite using the same techniques.
So, to conclude:
I don’t believe that the study techniques in this book are necessarily what is going to help you score high. But I don’t want to argue for the case that you have to be super smart to score high (even though that might help). Instead, and this is where I see the purpose of this book:
As Cal mentions in the conclusion, “what’s important is that by making it this far, you’ve learned two crucial insights: (1) Brute force study habits are incredibly inefficient; and (2) it is possible to come up with techniques that work much better and require much less time”.
So, if you plan to read this book, but you don’t yet subscribe to those two theses, then read the first part of the book.
Leaving you with this advice, I should like to point out that you are smart enough to come up with a study system that works for your needs, and makes your study sessions feel like play, instead of work.
A more general point I want to add here: Cal mentions his formula for academic success in the book, “work accomplished = time spent x intensity of focus”. I argue that this seems to be an instance of the pandemic of simplified formulas, that leave out important factors, but seem handy. In this example, things like efficiency as well as talent are missing. But that’s just a side note.