How To Study Less and Get Better Grades

This is how I would study in high school, knowing what I know now. If I had known how to do it like this then I would have gotten far better grades and spent far less time studying. I mean like less than half.  I gave a copy of this to my students the first day of high school.

john harrison
formerly a teacher at, O’Connell High School


The first question that you should ask any teacher new to you is: “What would you do?” You need to ask: “How would they study their course knowing what they know now.” This is my answer.

The answer is both simple and complex. You, like every other student I have seen and very much like me when I was your age, are probably deficient in some study habits. Basic study skills can be taught, they can be made available, they can be demonstrated and most important they can be fostered.

Unfortunately, none of these are likely to happen in today’s schools. In preparing for the coming year and I thought that I would write down some of the things you need to know so that you might use them from the beginning of the year rather than play catch up at the end.

Study skills are a craft. Since study skills are a craft, your personal intelligence is not relevant except in the sense that the brightest students generally realize that these are very good ideas and are more likely to incorporate them into their schedule sooner than the less bright students. The ideas themselves are simple. They require tenacity, not brain power.

About one-third of your life will be spent in school – however good study habits are only rarely taught. For example, cursive handwriting is no longer taught. Nevertheless, good cursive handwriting is faster to write and much easier to read than bad handwriting.

I once had a court reporter that used a fountain pen to provide a word for word transcript of a trial. While she used a special form of short hand, she was by far the best, most accurate, court reporter I ever had. She used a fountain pen – Palmer method, and beat all that new technology. She had mastered her craft, and never had a repetitive stress injury. She was about 80 when I met her, and she was still going strong.

Having said this, if you do not already know how, you need to learn to touch-type. The speed advantage of touch-typing is too great to ignore. However, I must warn you that every typist that I have known that had repetitive stress injury was a touch typist.

A friend of mine is a reporter for the Post. She has repetitive stress injury. I gave her an inexpensive fountain pen. The beauty of a fountain pen is just like a pencil, if you push too hard it stops writing. Also, unlike most ballpoints, a fountain pen is made to be held. Using the fountain pen, not only could my reporter friend take notes again, after a while she could type again.

Many ballpoint pens require you to constantly press harder and therefore hold them tighter to make them work. The court reporter I mentioned above could take word for word notes all day and I never saw her have any indication of writer’s cramp. Pressing down hard, holding the writing instrument too tightly are both recipes for writer’s cramp and repetitive stress injury. Get a fountain pen or a pencil. Throw the ballpoints away.

Many of the better colleges (Duke MBA for example) are banning laptops from the class room because it is much too easy to catch up on e-mails etc., and they are distracting for the other students that are still listening to the professor drone on. You too may be taking notes in college the old-fashioned way, hand written. Prepare.

Reading is a life long process, but it is not generally taught after the fourth grade. Based on tests I gave to each of the entering Freshmen classes at O’Connell High School for several years, roughly, 25% of all students had not even gotten to the 4th grade reading level and an additional 30% or so did not get past that level. The rest of the students advanced by a hit or miss process losing speed to gain comprehension or losing comprehension to gain speed.

Of course, you do not need to lose either. You can read both faster and with more comprehension. You only need to read like a person in high school, not like you did in grade school. Take the Evelyn Wood Reading course, or read the book.

Every study agrees, the faster you read, the more you retain, and equally important the more you read. Therefore, one of your goals should be to constantly improve your reading speed while retaining your comprehension. Reading speed is so important that it cannot be over stressed. As one of the primary choke points of learning, improving your reading speed is something you should work on every day. The truth is powerful, and whether or not it will set you free – it remains both true and potentially useful, and whether you believe it or not, your reading speed is vitally important to you. Take the Evelyn Wood Reading course. It is worth it.

Organization is also important. Just because something happened does not make it important, but if the teacher says it is important, or the textbook says it is important then it is likely to be on a test and your note system should highlight the portions of the teacher’s remarks that the teacher indicates are important. Contrary to what you have been told: the first goal of education is preparation; the 2nd goal is to advance to the next level in school; the third goal is to excel. All of these are measured with grades. Get used to it.

On the other hand, true learning is something you do on your own. It has little to do with school or study. However, from this point on your success will be measured, and therefore you will be advanced or retarded, by your ability to study and to take a standardized test on what you have studied. If you can also use this information later, then you will have learned something. However, you must deal with tests about that information whether you have learned anything or not.

Only if you know your enemy, can you defeat him. One of the greatest comic strips I ever read was Pogo who said: “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” If you can defeat “us” you can do anything.

You must study. Whether you learn or not is up to you. You must remember information in useful patterns. Whether you use that information or not is up to you. You must be able to regurgitate that information in order to prove that you deserve a good grade. You must study at a rate and about subjects chosen by others. This is not easy, and often it is not much fun. Do not spend more time doing this than you must. You can learn to do it better, and doing it better means you will have more time to learn, more time to play and you will get the grades that your intelligence indicates you deserve. Learn how to study usefully.

You must learn. As a human being, you really have no choice. The question is not whether you will learn, rather it is whether you will learn, recognize what is useful in what you have learned, and remember that useful part, or not.

Almost any learning discipline can be divided into an art and a craft. Even a true artist that does not know their craft will be utterly unable to reach their full potential. This failure of craft will inevitably produce frustration, and jealously even in a very talented person – only rarely will it produce the kind of study of the artist’s craft that could cure the problem.

The art of the thing cannot be taught – but a true artist can learn it. However, only an artist that has fully mastered their craft can learn all of it. An accomplished craftsman will beat even a true artist that has not mastered their craft every time. Ask your parents. As a lawyer I saw this happen in the courtroom daily. As Jake Stein, a truly great trial lawyer in DC said; “The drudge will win over brilliance every time brilliance is not equally prepared.” The reason is simple; you cannot be a complete artist without mastering the “craft” of the thing first.

The example I use to illustrate this is a comparison of basketball players Michael Jordan and Allan Iverson. Both men have often made truly impossible shots on the court. Both men “see” opportunities on the court invisible to almost everyone else. However, only Jordan’s teams actually played better when he was on the court. Jordan was a true basketball player. He realized that basketball is a team sport.

Iverson, apparently, will always be only an enormously talented performer. Moreover, Iverson will never be an artist of the court until he too can raise the level of play of his whole team. When Iverson played, he repeatedly presented a series of spectacular, improbable, individual performances leading to an ultimately unsuccessful season for his team. This is because he is a performer, not a true player. Unlike Michael Jordan, he never learned the true craft of his sport.

What this means for a student is simple, a student’s vocation is to study and take tests:

1. There is a craft of study, including taking tests.

2. Any student can learn the craft of study, whether talented, intelligent, or not.

3. If a student learns the craft of study, they will get better grades.

4. If a student learns the craft of study, they will study more efficiently and therefore will spend less time studying, and they will still get better grades.

5. Only by mastering the craft of study will a student be able to use their talents along the lines of excellence, and thus fulfill the late John F. Kennedy’s prescription for a full and happy life.

The essential study skills are:

I. Listening. It is a paradox that listening is the easiest way to learn – but it is the hardest study skill to master. We hear things all the time, but we do not always listen. However, this should be no real surprise since we can think at least 4 or 5 times faster than the average person can speak.

a. Unfortunately, many very talented people are simply not coach-able (particularly by their parents) and thus never learn the craft of listening. Therefore, they do not listen.

If you can make yourself coach-able, if you can teach yourself to listen, you will be able to surpass many people who are more talented than you because you have learned the craft of listening and you will beat them with craft by learning in class while they are day dreaming.

b. A true player never rejects any advice from a coach (defined as a person that knows more than you know about whatever they are talking about) until they have mastered the skill the coach has advised and have tried honestly to integrate it into their game.

Therefore, if you want to be a real player, you cannot say “no” until you have tried it. However, a smart person rejects all “dares” out of hand, and may reject all advice from all non-coaches with total equanimity. You are the sole judge of who is a “coach”.

c. The classroom is the place to learn; after all, you have to be there. You might as well do something. Doing something in the classroom will free up time that you can use for other interests. The something you need to do in a classroom is to simply, listen to the teacher.

It amazed me when I began to teach at O’Connell high school how few students come to class in high school prepared to study. In the course I teach at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business, the class is sitting down, their notebooks/desktops are open, and they are ready from the first minute of class till the last. They do not start putting their stuff away until the teacher stops teaching. It is an unbelievable difference only partially attributable to the fact that every student in the room is paying about $50,000.00 of their own money, a year to learn.

A classroom it is not the only place you can learn to listen, and listen to learn, but it is a good start. There are only two kinds of listening:

1) Good listening, or

2) Not listening at all. Not listening means that you did not listen, or you do not understand what was said, or you do not remember what was said, communication has failed. You have not listened at all because you have not heard, understood and remembered what was said.

d. Good listening takes will power since the mind will wander. The mind wanders since you can absorb information far faster than any one can speak. You are not bored; you are not rude; you are simply not completely occupied no matter how good the lecture. Your mind is better and works faster than anyone can speak. You must recognize this. If you do, you can make use of it to reduce the amount of time you have to spend to study outside of class, or you can let it distract you from learning.

1) Good listening requires either preparation, or a plan, or both in order to be effective.

2) The 5 Ws help. (who, what, when, where, why and how {don’t ask how the 5 Ws can include an H, and be 6 words, it just works}).

3) Knowledge of the subject, even a little, is preparation and preparation is the most useful aid of memory. Start with people’s names. They give you a place to hang information.

4) If you can only do one thing as you listen, get the first “w.” Find out the “who?” The rest will follow.

5) For history, the History Channel, the Discovery Channel and classic films such as: Cleopatra, Casablanca, Schindler’s List, Spartacus, Ben Hur, Die Bruecke (the Bridge), Das Boot (the Boat), Young Winston, Zulu, Band of Brothers, Northwest Passage, Patton, the Desert Fox, Roots, etc., and many more are an aid to memory and more important they are an aid to concentration in class.

6) For English, most of the great books and plays you will study have been made into movies, sometimes great movies, Huckleberry Finn, the African Queen, All the King’s Men, Animal Farm, Anna Karenina, Beloved, Billy Bathgate, Bleak House, Brave New World, the Brothers Karamozov, the Call of the Wild, Canterbury Tales, Charlotte’s Web, A Clockwork Orange, the Color Purple and many, many, more are available 24/7 on Amazon.

However, do not make the mistake of watching the movie, but not reading the book. Most teachers have seen the movie too and their tests will often rely on the differences between the book and the movie to find out if you actually read the book. Therefore, watch the movie, read the book, record the differences and you will have the answers to many of the test questions. Since the book is almost always better, reading the book first will often spoil the movie, but watching the movie first will make the book even more enjoyable. Your choice?

7) Get a friend or two, have a movie night at home, once a week, popcorn, pizza, soft drinks and watch a great, a classic, and an oh so very useful movie. Talk about it and eat the pizza. Many teachers will allow you to write a review or two and get extra credit as well. Your parents will probably love the idea.

II. Note Taking: Extracting the essential, recording it in a useful fashion and then using it, as a resource is the key here.

a. Your notes should be classic, hierarchical notes. You cannot do this kind of note taking by accident. You must process the information in order to create notes like this. When you process the information, you must use your long-term memory. When you open your long-term memory, you have a much better chance of remembering the information.

Yes, it is difficult, but it is useful and it get’s easier to do. Word and many other word processing programs will help you do this, by helping you do classic hierarchical notes. But, you must think and decide what is important, and it is this that makes the process memorable and it is this that imprints the information in your memory. It takes longer to do because you are actually doing something useful.

b. All of your notes should be in complete sentences. You need to think through what you are writing in your notes in order to put together complete sentences.

If you do not do complete sentences, and you continue to take notes like everybody else, then you too will be one of those condemned to frustration because at the end of the semester you, like your friends, will no longer understand all of those really great “sound-bites” that you wrote down so quickly in class. When you re-read them months later to study for a test that is all they will be, sound bites. They are not notes because they are not useful. Your eyes will search your sound bites continuously and unfortunately, unsuccessfully for any real, any useful information to study.

Notes that are not useful to study from later are a waste of your time to take and they are a waste of your time to study. You must be in the class, or they will arrest you – if you are not in class, your parents will be upset, yada, yada, yada, so why not use the time in class to save your time when you could be playing! Take useful notes. Do not just write. Write something useful. Write complete sentences.

c. Use two locking 3-ring binders for your notes. One binder you should carry back and forth to school. It should have no more than two, or, three weeks worth of notes in it. The other binder should stay home all of the time, and it should contain all of the notes. If you go to the trouble to take good notes, you do not want to lose them. If you take them out of the house, you will lose them at the worst possible time – trust me.

d. The Perfect Notebook:

1) Personally, I really like the two ring Bindertek binders since they can be locked down and are virtually indestructible. They are also expensive. However, you can get a good 3-ring binder, reasonably priced, that locks too. Get one or the other.

2) For history, prior to class you should read the section to be lectured on, make good reading notes after you have read a section, leave plenty of space (double space the notes, write only on one side of the page). That means you should have about 2 or 3 pages of notes for each section.

When the teacher lectures on this subject area have these reading notes on your desk, annotate these notes from the lecture. If you do this, you will be able to use and understand even sound bite notes. Attached to your full notes these sound bites will make sense most of the time when you read them. If you do not have enough room in the double space area, then put these annotations of your notes from the lecture on the back of the page to the left. You know the blank one that is there because you only write on one side.

Then you will have one set of real, of useful, notes to study from for your tests. As you review your notes, you will be able to see how well your extraction of what seemed to be important from your reading agrees, or disagrees, with what the teacher is testing on. It will be like shooting tracers at a target. You will see each time you hit and each time you miss.

Put a star on each of your notes that the teacher mentions in class. That is what will be on the test. Either you have the notes of what is important, or you do not. If you do not have the notes, change the way you take notes. If you have lots of notes about material that is not on the test, change the way you take notes.

3) Marginal notation system for reading a book. Don’t stop reading, make a quick mark and keep reading.

a) “✳︎” Most important,
b) “+” very important,
c) “–“ important. If you don’t own the book, use pencil. When you record the information in your notes, erase the pencil mark.

4) Marking system for textbooks:

a) ? – Do not understand (This one and the next one are pure gold for a student. All good teachers love to answer, particularly in class, good questions from students. If you do not understand or you do not agree with the author for some reason – ask the question.)
b) d – Disagree with the author
c) ff – Facts & Figures
d) “ – Good Quote
e) S – Summary
f) O – Observation
g) T – Topic
h) PV – Point of View
i) ✳︎ – Teacher emphasized in class.

5) When you take reading notes and you come to something you do not understand, mark it (?) and ask a question on it either at the beginning of class, or when the teacher gets to it in his lecture.

Good teachers love these questions, and they love students that ask them. There is no better way to show a teacher that you are prepared and interested. Your classmates who did not realize that they too did not understand the section until you asked the perfect question will also appreciate your good study habits. Do not be argumentative, be inquisitive.

6) Keep all handouts, punch three holes in them and put them in your notebook in the place where the notes are that relate to the handout. That way when you study, it will be in order. Your brain loves order and remembers.

7) Put all quizzes and tests in your notebook right after the notes that relate to the quizzes and tests. Put in the answer sheet as well. When you study for an exam later, you will read through your notes and then take the quiz/exam again as a test of whether you are ready to proceed to the next section.

In high school, many teachers use the tests created by the textbook company – these companies often repeat quiz questions on the final exam. Keep all tests! Always! If the teacher will not let you keep the test, then try to remember everything on the test right after the test and either annotate your notes again, or write that information down in your notes if it is not already there.

As a heads up, many math teachers give all of their exam problems out as homework during the semester. Then the homework is often corrected in class. They just put different numbers or values in the equations for the tests. n.b. Keep your homework too. ( “n.b.” stands for notum benum. It is a Latin expression that literally means “note well”, and signals that the information that follows is important.)

8) When you get back a quiz, a test, or homework, go through each question; find the section in your notes that relates to each question. See if you have the answer to that particular question in your notes. If you have the answer, good. Put the question number right in the middle of the notes that relate to the answer, (use a different ink color) then go on to the next question.

If you do not have the answer, or you do not have all of the answer, annotate your notes. Add the answer to your notes where it should have been in the first place. Again, if you do not have enough room in the double space area, put the information on the back of the page to the left. Then put the question number right in the middle of these new notes. If you do this, every time you look at your notes, they will tell you if you are getting better at taking notes on what is important. Every time. It is like shooting tracers, everyone likes to see the tracers go through the ten ring.

Yes this is time consuming at first, but, the more you do this, the fewer notes you will take, the fewer notes you will study, and the better your grades will be.

9) When you study for the exam, those areas of your notes that have a lot of question numbers and stars on them are prime areas for extra attention. Those pages of your notes with no or few numbers and stars on them can be pretty much ignored. (Not completely ignored as they may provide context that is an aid to your memory). As you do this through the year, if you are rigorous, you should be able to predict many of the questions on the tests when you create your notes.

Make it a game. The better you are at identifying what is on the exam, the less time you will spend studying for that exam and the better your grade will be.

10) Most history texts have a New Vocabulary section – define these words before you read the section. This is preparation. When you have a complete page of vocab notes tape it to your bathroom mirror, until you have another page of vocab notes to substitute, to look at in the morning while you brush your teeth or whatever. If you spend a lot of time on the toilet, put it there. There you will read it, over and over.

The best way to make new words a part of your life is to read them, then use them, over and over.

III. Reading:

a. Reading speed both helps and more important, indicates comprehension. I know this sounds wrong, but the more you know about a subject, the faster you read. The more hooks you have in your brain to store the information, the faster you read. You read the sports pages, or People magazine faster and remember more than you do from your history book – Why? Because you know more about it. You know the vocabulary and the subject so neither slows you down. You read the second Harry Potter book much faster than the first.

1.  Reading speed is really the best indicator of comprehension, as well as being useful in itself.

2.  A clue, if you are reading something slower than normal, it shows that you do not understand yet.

3.  Reading something more slowly than your normal speed is an indication you need to study this area more. Most likely it is a vocabulary problem. Start a new words list and see if that helps.

b. All reading is reading. Read. Read. Then read some more. Use the techniques we talked about to improve your reading speed no matter what you are reading. Books, newspapers, magazines, whatever. Read.

c. Always read with a plan. Use the 5-Ws. If you know who did it, you probably know what they did. If you know who did it, and what they did, you probably know where they did it. If you know who, what, and where if you do not also know when – be ashamed, be very ashamed.

IV. Time Management:

a. If you do not manage your time – your obligations will manage you. Take your choice. Either you, or somebody else will run your life – who is it going to be? If you do not make a plan – it will not be you.

Pretend all you want, but you either make a plan, or you will do what other people tell you to do when they tell you to do it. Your choice?

b. Carry, and use an up to date calendar. Record all practices, all assignments and all games, tests and other important dates as soon as you receive them. Every time.

Practice estimating how long it will take you to finish a project, and put that time in your calendar. If you have to do the project, then recording this time in your calendar only reflects reality, which by the by is what a calendar is for, or it too is not useful.

There are only three basic tools of education: Time, Books and Teachers.

The only one you have control over is books. If you are assigned a textbook that is difficult for you, and if you read it more slowly than normal then it is difficult for you – get another book. If you hit a subject that is difficult, get another book. After a point do not fight the problem, solve it. Get another book.

An encyclopedia is almost always an excellent first choice. Your entire algebra course will be covered in two or three pages written in language appropriate for your age in an encyclopedia, so will history, chemistry, physics, biology, etc. It will all be there. The rest of what you are doing in class is practice and use of the information.

If it is not the vocabulary, quite often the problem with comprehending the material is that you need to know where the teacher is going in order to understand what he is saying. Particularly in the sciences, the teacher literally may not know how to talk about the subject in a sufficiently simplified manner, or you may not know enough of the specialized vocabulary of the subject yet.

Start with Encyclopedia Britannica. If that does not help, then go to World Book Encyclopedia or any other encyclopedia. Don’t just sit there. Think. Get another book and read it. Two lights on the same subject are always better than one.

Talk to your parents about any study problems you are having. Just talking about a subject will help more than you expect. To talk, you must first think about the subject and formulate a question. Law firms exist at least in part because of this remarkable power of collegiality. Lawyers talk about problems constantly. These talks often produce solutions. Read. Talk. If that does not work – pray!

You may want to try praying in Spanish or what ever foreign language you are taking. One should not lose the opportunity to double task¡ {The “¡” is the upside down exclamation mark that I have stolen from Spanish. I have designated it the “So what” mark in English. Thus, in this context it indicates an attempt at humor.}

Books are the memory of mankind, use them. The answer, when you have a problem is almost always more books, more reading, and now you know why I really want you to read fast. Really fast.

Good luck. E-mail me if you need some help. I do not do science or math


John Harrison

P.S. Show a copy of this letter to your parents as well. They, or a “study buddy” can help you by reviewing your notebook with you once a week or so. If they cannot make sense of your notes, it is unlikely that you will be able to make sense of them when you study for exams months later. Do this right after you write the notes because if you fix a problem early, it is really an opportunity.

Their view is particularly useful in deciding whether your notes actually do answer the questions on the tests. Doing notes my way seems like a lot of work at first, but over time it will save you so much time, particularly at exam time when you do not have any time to spare; and your grades will go up so far, that I guarantee if you do it for the first semester, you will do it for the second semester without any prompting.


6 thoughts on “How To Study Less and Get Better Grades

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