Cal Newport, How to become a straight A student: the unconventional strategies students use to score high while studying less

This book begins with the words: ‘This is not your average study guide.’  Indeed it isn’t and that’s not always a virtue.  How to become a straight A student contains a mixture of good study techniques, common sense and advice that I thought at best risky and at worst deplorable.  Let’s deal with the positives first.

Newport advocates some study techniques with proven effectiveness, such as using retrieval quizzes as part of your study programme.  He explains how to take effective lecture notes; how to read a book or an article for its argument; how to make best use of a library catalogue to find relevant reading; and how to plan an essay.  Newport provides extended examples to illustrate his points and encourages the reader to use these as opportunities to practise particular skills.  This is all very useful.

Also helpful are what I think of as the common sense tips in the book – things I think everyone should do naturally but which seem to elude many, and thus are certainly worth emphasising.  Amongst these are: use a diary to schedule your work; work away from distractions; don’t put off important tasks until the evening; don’t study for more than an hour at a time without a short break; and make sure there aren’t any gaps in your knowledge and understanding.  These tips form a significant part of the book, and specific guidance being given about how to do each of these things to best effect. Again, this is great.

Unfortunately, there were also times when reading this book made me want to put my head in my hands.  The following passage was one of those: ‘Many technical courses have assigned readings.  These are usually textbook chapters, and they typically focus on a specific technique or formula.  Don’t do this reading … Why?  Because the exact same material will be covered in class.  If you don’t understand the topic after it’s presented by the professor, then you can go back and use the reading to fill in the blanks.’  (Italics and bold type as in the original.)   This seems to assume a lot about what reading particular course tutors will set and their purpose in setting it.  Perhaps they will give their lecture assuming some that students have gained some prior knowledge from their reading, at which rate the lecture will simply be confusing for someone who has not done that reading?  Perhaps they have set reading which will complement their lecture?  Even if the lecture and the reading cover exactly the same material, from an academic point of view revisiting the material will be useful (a truth Newport acknowledges in other contexts in the book).

Another suggestion in this book of which I was wary was that of asking another student to explain a concept or idea with which you are struggling.  Yes, this might be useful but what if the student you ask does not understand the concept themselves and gives you an error strewn explanation?  Far better, surely, to ask someone who is genuinely an expert or consult a book you know to be accurate.

What was really depressing about this book, however, was the lack of any notion of learning being engaging and enjoyable.  Newport treats learning not as something to which you might want to devote time and mental effort but as something to be managed.  It my mind, I have retitled this book How to become a straight A student: a manual for jobsworths.          

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