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How to Become First-in-Class in College

Four essential tips and psychological tricks for effortless learning

During my second year of uni, I studied one of the Information System papers and luckily I got “First-in-class” award for this paper. To be honest, it is an absolute surprise for me. As a result, I became the teaching assistant of this paper. Meanwhile, I gradually discovered the way to learn faster and excel in this course. From a student and tutor perspective, I would love to share some thoughts on how to study in a more productive way and my personal opinions on how to have better grades at university in general. In this article, I will use data analysis course materials as examples, while sharing some psychological tricks (p.s. it does NOT mean CHEATING) that would enhance your learning effortlessly. I would be truly glad if these tips can contribute even a tiny bit to your learning journey.

1. Have a Bird’s - Eye View

The first thing to do after enrolling in the course, or most probably even before your enrolment, is to check the syllabus. Just like reading the table of contents in a book, it gives you an overview of everything covered in this semester. Why is it so important?

Firstly, it let you know whether there are any topics you have already learned in other papers, which means that you will save a lot of time studying these materials again while balancing your time and effort for other papers. Or maybe there is a particular module that you are highly interested in, then it can motivate you to build up the fundamental knowledge prior to studying this module.

Secondly, it is the magical priming effect. Simply quote Wikipedia, “priming is a phenomenon whereby exposure to one stimulus influences a response to a subsequent stimulus, without conscious guidance or intention”.

Prior exposure to certain stimuli unconsciously alters our subsequent behaviours.

For instance, if I knew that this semester would cover the topic “SQL”, then while reading an article or watching a YouTube video, suddenly a word SQL pops up, your attention will be naturally drawn to know more about this. However, if you have never read the syllabus in the first place, it would mean nothing other than three random letters. Therefore, take advantage of this trick which allows you to subconsciously hunt relevant information throughout the semester without even putting any intentional efforts.

2. Study Past Papers

This may be a quite controversial strategy which depends on your intention. Do you want to get a good grade? OR do you intend to have a deeper comprehension of course contents? Yes, they are not equivalent to each other! But studying past papers would definitely help both.

First, identify what is likely to be tested?

Personally, I would look at past papers before I revised any materials for the exam and allocate time accordingly. This process let me know exactly what are the main focuses. Topics that frequently appear in past papers should be put under the spotlight while you are reviewing. Allocate more time on these areas and enforce the 80/20 rule. It is also known as the Pareto Principle which states the universal imbalance between inputs and outputs. Basically, it means spending 20% of your time to do 80% of the work. For the remaining 80% of your time, you still need to study other paper, besides, I mean … we still need a life in uni.

Maximize your productivity by mastering this principle and avoid the perfectionist mindset.

Secondly, recognise how it is being tested?

Discover the pattern by looking at whether there are more theory-based questions that require you to memorise certain concepts, such as what is data warehousing or what is the difference between conceptual ERD and logical ERD? Or is it more likely to be practical, where you need to answer based on the provided case and scenario. Most likely, questions are gonna be practical. However, patterns still exist. For example, even though being given different cases, they always ask you to write down the SQL statement that sorts the result by date or group by gender. Then you would know ORDER BY function and GROUP BY function are more likely to be examined. Therefore, get yourself familiarised with the syntax and logic of using those functions. Instead of looking at a list of all single row or aggregation functions and having no clue where to start from, put your attention on what the examiners what you to know.

But again, this is a risky strategy because the pattern may change and you may never know. I guess we all have experience of being “the chosen one”, that when “I” was studying this paper, suddenly the exam format changed and the patterns no longer followed.

3. Link the Concepts Together

Finding the similarities and comparisons among concepts can save you a lot of time. If we managed to find out that two concepts follow the same underlying principle then we only need to learn the logic for one of them and then generalize it to the other.

The psychological trick behind is called Emergent Stimulus Relations. There are several research articles if you are interested to know more (bear in mind, the wordings make these articles so frustrating to read). Simply put, it means that learning new concepts may happen without explicit training. For instance, we have already known that A and B are similar concepts, and now A is associated with a new concept C. Then we naturally learn that there is an association between B and C. This saves us the time being explicitly trained to link B and C together. Take a very simple example from learning SQL. We found that MAX(), MIN(), SUM() and COUNT() function are applied when we want to calculate a feature of group, hence they all belong to aggregation functions. Then we only have to learn the syntax and logic of using one function and then generalize it to other aggregation functions. Studying them as a group saves us a lot of time from remembering them one by one.

On the other hand, we can also discover the contrast between topics and make use of it. For instance, normalisation and data warehousing seem to work in the reverse direction. Normalisation is the process of eliminating all derived attributes and identifying all kinds of dependencies, then create separate relations as the result. Whereas data warehousing is aiming for combining information from various dimensions, create dependencies and then generate the fact table with derived attributes. Knowing that these two processes operate in the opposite direction, we can learn one of them and consolidate the understanding of the other by thinking backwards.

Built upon this strategy, I would further suggest using mindmaps to draw out all the concepts and link them together. In this article, I shared how I used mindmaps to learn machine learning. Feel free to check out this page and download it if you are interested in these topics.

4. Practice, Practice and Practice

Last but not least is PRACTICE. Practicing questions is a crucial process of Active Recall. Active recall refers to constantly testing yourself on your knowledge rather than passively reading, highlighting notes or receiving information. It requires you to actively retrieve information from your brain. As a result, your understanding of the knowledge has been gradually consolidated and short term memory would be transformed into long term memory. Moreover, the recall of the information will be more accessible in the future. Productivity guru Ali Abdaal talked a lot about how active recall can remarkably boost up learning speed in his channel. This is why I always believe in the importance of doing past papers. If lucky enough, you got the standard answers for your past exams. I would suggest that practice your first past papers by referencing the answer. Study the answer just like the way you study your course materials. This process is even more effective because the answers are the extract of core objectives in a certain topic. Additionally, they are also written in a standard format that the examiners would love to see. So make the most use of it. However, not every university would provide sample answers for past papers, then it is the time to search Facebook groups or any forums and find out if there are any shared documents where students discuss past paper solutions. If still no, create one with your friends and encourage others to collaborate (the past papers NOT the actual exam).

Take Home Message

Hopefully, you will find this article helpful for your study. But more importantly, grade is not everything. In fact, most of the time, a higher GPA is not equivalent to a more comprehensive understanding of the course. Therefore, I strongly encourage that not evaluating your ability based solely on a number that is temporarily displayed on the screen.


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