How to become smarter by doing less in the information age

Common: Believing that focusing on detail is the only and best path to success.

Uncommon: Let’s be honest: Most things studied in college are quickly forgotten.  I believe this is partly due to the sheer number of concepts addressed per class, per semester. In my experience, the emphasis is often on breadth versus depth. This poses a challenge to students studying for comprehensive tests.  I know; I’ve been there many times.

But I didn’t have the “luxury” of making the library my second home to spend hours on rote memorization. My time was very limited and so I sought ways to perform better by doing less. In the process, I made a simple, yet liberating, observation.  And whether you’re a student or not, I have found this concept critical for success in life.

The eclipsing effect of detail:

Traditional college advice places an extremely high level of importance on detail, but this train of thought can be a hindrance, at times resulting in increased stress and workload. Why?

An extreme focus on detail limits one’s ability to grasp the larger picture, which is critical to knowing what details to focus on. When you’re very close to every concept, everything appears important.

Even though it may seem like some tests include everything covered during the semester, 99% of tests do not. As comprehensive as the SAT may be, it also, does not include everything a student is expected to know. The surprising thing is, however, most students study as though everything is equally important and as though everything will appear on the test. This notion creates an immense waste of time when preparing for exams.

Of course, studying with the sole intention of increasing test results undermines the broader concept of education, but unfortunately, most conventional education relies on tests to measure discipline and intelligence. So, despite the philosophical debate surrounding the subject, it is important to study in ways that improve test results.


Selective learning:

I know I studied far less than most students, yet I was still able to graduate magna cum laude. How? I studied what mattered most and ignored the rest.

During study group sessions I was baffled to see other students spending hours trying to commit all of their course work to memory. When I declined to make study notes on every concept, the group wondered why. “It won’t be on the test,” I responded. Most just looked at me funny and returned to their stacks of index cards.

While it’s still speculation, it is possible to become better and better at estimating what will and will not appear on tests. But, this requires removing yourself from the intimate details of the data on hand, to step back and ask overarching analytical questions about the class, course, and professor.

Context means clarity:

Predicting the content of future tests relies heavily on context.  In many cases, the best way to understand the degree of relevance and significance is to seek out:

  • Overall patterns and trends of information (terminology, concepts, assumptions, beliefs, etc.)
  • The personal opinions of the professor and TAs
  • Language patterns of the professor and TAs (how are certain concepts stated? Consider specific words, tone, and repetition.)
  • The history of the class (whenever possible ask students from previous semesters to describe the teacher and the tests in detail)

Using this method requires an ongoing commitment to observe classes with a meta perspective. Waiting until the last minute to initiate a class analysis will not be nearly as effective.  One of the best ways to direct your brain is to redesign the questions you ask yourself during class.

Some questions I would regularly ask myself during class and while studying included:

  • What concepts, words, and phrases does the teacher continue to emphasize?
  • How would l summarize the main thesis/concept of this lecture in 3 sentences or less?
  • Could I restate and explain this concept in simple terms to someone who is not taking this class?
  • What concepts were skimmed over (not given much attention)?
  • What is the professor’s goal in sharing this information?
  • How does this single concept relate to the main thesis of the class?
  • What are the similarities (and/or differences) between Concept A and Concept B?
  • What was the previous test like?

Observe, don’t inscribe:

This is something that will likely upset many keen students: Detailed note-taking is a distraction and an obstruction. Focusing on recording everything said during class is the fastest way to overlook context. When the goal is excellent note-taking, your mindset shifts to a very myopic view of the class whereby content is king.


I found as I got better at using context to study for tests, I could more easily distinguish the important content from the interesting content. Ironically, as my note taking decreased, my overall understanding and retention increased.

Some might say, “Well, this may work for conceptual and theory-based classes, but not classes that revolve around detail.”

Not so. I found this approach also worked extremely well in classes such as art history, where dates and details were critical. I remember this class specifically because it was challenging. By the end of the semester I had very few notes (especially compared to other students), but finished in the top 10% of the class due to intensive listening and weaving details of paintings and time periods together.

Leadership in the information age:

If there is one safe bet to make in the information age, it’s that information will be prevalent. In college and in life, there is not only a continued exposure to data, but also the need to retain it.

While some circumstances will always require rote memorization, I predict that the need for context-based learning will only increase. An important 21st century skill will be the ability to discern what is most important and how it contributes to the larger scope of things.

Thought leaders of tomorrow will not be those who expend immense amounts of time and effort to develop an encyclopedic brain that makes a Jeopardy fiend blush, but rather those who successfully and efficiently take scattered data dots and connect them to create a map of relevance and overall comprehension.

Your thoughts?

What have you found works best for you – as a student and/or professional?

Stay uncommon,

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