How to Ace Your Finals Without Studying

thinking hard?

I’ve never been that keen on studying before an exam. I rarely study for more than a half hour, even for big final exams worth more than half my grade. When I do study, I usually just skim over the material and do a few practice questions. For some of my math classes I have yet to do a single practice question for homework. Most people study by cramming in as much information before walking into the test room, whereas I consider studying to be no more than a light stretch before running.

Despite what some might point out as horrible studying habits, I’ve done very well for myself in school. I had the second highest marks in my high-school class with honors all four years. My first term university marks were two A+’s and an A, for calculus, computer science and ancient Asian history, all courses with high failure rates. I also won a national chemistry exam for a three province wide district that I didn’t even realize I was writing until I was called in and told to get started.

It’s very easy to look at my successes and apparent lack of effort and quickly deem that it is an innate gift, impossible to replicate. I think this is bullshit. I believe that myself and anyone else who can produce these results simply has a more effective strategy for learning new material. With my system of learning, you only have to hear or read something once to learn it. Best of all I believe it is a system that can be learned.

Webs and Boxes

The system I use for learning I’m going to call holistic learning. But in order to fully appreciate what holistic learning is, you need to take a look at it’s opposite – compartmentalized learning. Virtually all learning is done somewhere between completely holistic and completely compartmentalized learning. Although people rarely sit exactly on one extreme, people who are close towards learning through compartments will need to cram and study for hours just to hope for a pass where people who lean more to holistic learning can often breeze through heavy course loads.

People who learn through compartments, try to organize their mind like a filing cabinet. Learn a new chemical equation, these people will try to file that information. Hopefully they will file it near some other chemical equations so that they will stumble upon it when they need to on the exam. Compartmentalized learners make distinct file drawers for science, math, history and language arts. Placing all the things they know into little boxes.

Holistic learning takes an opposite approach. Learning holistically is not done by trying to remember information by using repetition and force. Holistic learners instead organize their minds like spider webs. Every piece of information is a single point. That point is then consciously related to tons of other points on the web. There are no boxes with this form of learning. Science becomes literature which becomes economics. Subject distinctions may help when going to class, but a holistic learner never sees things in a box.

When it comes time for exams (or any practical application for your knowledge) compartmentalized learners have to hope that they pounded the information hard enough into their head so it might come up during the exam. Holistic learners do the opposite. Holistic learners only need to start at one point on their web, but they can use that web to feel around and find all the associated information they need.

The chemistry exam I won for three provinces I wasn’t even taught over half the information on the test. Because my web was so heavily interrelated, even when a node on the web was missing I had a good chance at guessing at what it contained. This meant that on a multiple choice test I could only understand a third of what the question asked and still be able to eliminate answers. Winning a test that you don’t actually know half the information on it sounds impossible, but not to a holistic learner.

Compartmentalized learning is an exercise in insanity. A comparable strategy would be if the users of the web didn’t hyperlink anything. So to find any information you just had to keep typing addresses into your browser, hoping that it would pop up. Studying for these learners is akin to setting up thousands of domain names that all lead to the same information, so that you will hopefully get to the right place by just guessing enough. Not only is it ineffective when exam time comes, it takes hours to put in place.

Very few people are purely compartmental learners. For most people they manage webs of information holistically to a certain degree. But unfortunately, their webs simply aren’t interlinked enough. Each subject usually has a fairly distinct web and each unit of information has only one or two associations. Like trying to surf the net when each page only has one or two outgoing links. Possible, but far from effective.

If you look at the structure of your brain, it will become immediately obvious why compartmentalized learning, organized like a computers file folder system, doesn’t work. Your brain is itself a web of neurons. Creating hundreds of associations between ideas means that no matter where you start thinking, you can eventually get to the piece of information you need. If a road is closed for some reason, you can take one of the hundreds of other side streets.

Maximizing Your Holistic Learning

Understanding holistic learning is one thing, putting it into practice is another. I’ve been learning very close to the extreme of complete holistic learning for so long that my web is pretty well interconnected. But if you haven’t been really interweaving your web, then the best way to improve your ability to learn is to start now.

Here are a few suggestions for how you can better interlink your web:

1) Ask Questions

When you are learning something, you can make associations simply by asking yourself questions. How does this information relate to what we’ve been studying? How does this information relate to other things I’ve already learned? How does it relate to other subjects, stories or observations?

Be creative and try to find several different points of reference for every idea you learn. Figure out not only what things are similar too, but why they are what they are. As this becomes a habit, you’ll find that you automatically remember information because it fits into your web of understanding. Ask yourself after you hear something whether you “get it”. If you don’t go back and ask yourself more questions for how it fits it.

2) Visualize and Diagram

One of the best ways to begin practicing holistic learning is to start drawing a diagram that associates the information you have learned. Better than taking notes during a lecture is drawing a picture for how what you are learning relates to anything else you have already learned. Once you get good at this you will be able to visualize the diagram before it is drawn, but start drawing to get practice.

When I try to understand economics it often helps me to visualize the relationship between different factors. I view cycles of money, GDP or price levels as a structure that combines all the different elements. If you can’t immediately create vivid pictures of the information, try drawing them first.

3) Use Metaphors

Anything you are learning should be immediately translated into a metaphor you already understand. When reading Niccolo Machiavelli’s The Prince, I understood his writings by relating all the examples of statecraft and war he offered to areas of business and social relationships which I already understood.

While visualization creates tight webs that interlink within a subject, metaphors create broad webs that link completely different ideas. You might not realize how that blog article on fitness you read two weeks ago relates to math, but through making metaphors you have a huge reserve of information available to you when you need it.

4) Feel It

Another technique I’ve experimented with to improve my holistic learning is feeling through ideas. This one is a little more difficult to explain, but the basic idea is that instead of associating an idea to a picture or another metaphor, you associate it with a feeling. I’m a visual learner, so I’ve found it to be ineffective for large pieces of data, but it is really helpful for data that is otherwise hard to relate.

I used this process to easily remember the process of getting the determinant of a matrix. For you math buffs, you probably already know that the determinant of a 2×2 matrix is basically the left diagonal minus the right diagonal. I was able to associate this information into my web through a feeling by imagining what it would be like to move my hands through each diagonal on the matrix. This is an incredibly simplified example, but feeling ideas can be very useful.

5) When in Doubt, Link or Peg It

Questions, visualization, metaphors and feeling should cover about 99% of the information you need to learn. They are the most effective ways to interlink ideas. But if you still need to memorize some information that you can’t understand or relate, your fall-back can be the link and peg system.

Explaining these memory systems is out of the scope of this article, but the basic idea of the link system is to create a wacky, vivid picture relating two seemingly unrelated ideas so that a connection between them is forced. The peg system takes it a step further creating a simple phonetic system for storing numbers and dates. You can learn more about these systems here.

Dirt Roads and Superhighways

An effective web should heavily interlink between ideas of a similar subject, but it should also have links that extend between completely different ideas. I like to think of these two approaches like comparing dirt roads and superhighways. You need lots of cheap dirt roads to interconnect closely related areas and a few superhighways to connect distant cities.

When I was learning history I would make dirt roads connecting the aspects of one particular time period and culture to itself. Linking the artistic achievements of the Song Dynasty with their political situation. But I would also make highways and superhighways. I would compare Song China to India and to the politics in the United States.

Some people build a lot of dirt roads but forget the highways. They understand things well within a subject, but they can’t relate that subject outside of the classroom. Hamlet is one of my favorite literary works because in the classroom where I learned it, our teacher went to great lengths to help build superhighways. We would discuss how aspects of Hamlet related to our own life, politics and completely different areas. As a result I remember more from that play than almost any other piece of literature I studied.

The End of Studying

Studying should be like stretching before a big race. It isn’t a time to get in shape. I lied a bit when I wrote the title of this article. I do study. But I don’t do it for the same reasons that other people do. I study to ensure my web is functioning, not to start building it. Even when I do study, it is just a quick review, never an all-night cramming session.

Some of you may read this article and start thinking that going to the trouble of drawing out diagrams and thinking hard about metaphors to practice holistic learning is going to take too much time. I believe the opposite is true. I have saved a lot of time using these techniques so that school has become just a minor time investment in the overall work I do each day. Practice holistic learning and you can spend less time cramming and more time actually learning.

Looks like I can’t help but start a bit of controversy. 😉

I’ve addressed many of the confusions and concerns this article has generated with a follow up post on what holistic learning is, precisely, and how you should really be using studying to learn. Ultimately holistic learning isn’t about passing exams but understanding anything, a skill anyone can use.

Check it out here: Studying and Holistic Learning

Edit: April 26, 2006 – Wait! There’s more. Check out the Holistic Learning E-Book for 27 Full Pages. Full color illustrations and best of all, it’s completely free.

Check it out here: Holistic Learning E-Book

Edit: September 10, 2008 – Still want more?  I’ve written a full e-book guide covering holistic learning, answering common questions, dozens of techniques, productive studying skills and exercise templates to get you started onto holistic learning.  Plus, if you don’t love the book, it comes with a 120-day money back guarantee.

Check it out here: Learn More, Study Less

  • Dominick

    Yeah, after posting this I glanced through your archives, noticed you learned French, and then just figured the eBook was outdated.

    By the way, speed reading: good idea. Its a skill I never knew I needed before reading your post, and now I feel I must learn to speed read. I started my training this week.

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  • Jasleen

    Best tips!!Thanks

  • Lisa

    You are awesome.

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  • n. shon

    this is the very first book on how to study that finally makes any sense.

  • mark48torpedo

    HAHAHA – I am NOT impressed by your claims that you got ultra-high marks in … “high school” and “first term of first year of university”.

    High school is a joke – tons of people can get straight As with barely any studying. I got straight As in my first semester of university (Engineering Science, University of Toronto, Canada), and I virtually didn’t study. THEN it get starts hard – I have to study more and more to keep up my marks, simply because there’s more and more to learn.

    Seriously – saying that your system works because you got decent grades in the first sem of uni and high school means NOTHING. Care you share your grades in your upper years of university? Or… did you drop out?

  • Scott Young


    My GPA remained between an A and A+ my entire career in university. I have 3 classes left (out of 62), so I would say my claim holds.

    However you are correct–getting good marks in highschool or early university courses isn’t really much of a benchmark. Some would argue that you haven’t really entered a challenge zone until after you’ve entered grad school at a tough university, but that hasn’t been the road I’ve taken.

    In the future I have some more interesting learning challenges planned.


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  • Nick

    Wow! This seriously has blown my mind! I never even thought of comparing studying to your idea that it’s “stretching before a run.” I’ve somewhat always been a holistic learner, I just never realized it’s potential to me as a person. I’ve never done well in school, but I always scored in the top 95%-99% on standardized tests and it was because I related material I needed to learn to other things I had already known. Personally I’ve always felt like I could see the “bigger picture” better than other people and it’s because I like to learn anything that interests me or questions my logic. I would go on the internet and read article after article on random subjects and after a while, everything starts connecting on it’s own. This was definitely described and confirmed my “eye opener.” Thanks!

  • Flory

    :)) Sweet! Cool advices. Personally I was just attending the classes but I never used to study. It was sufficient to attend the class and I always got big grades. :) I can say that I was learning on the way..

  • Charles

    Here’s a nice metaphor. Rote memorization is Encyclopedia Britannica in book version. Each entry is isolated. Every entry only has one link to it. You find it alphabetically. Holistic learning is Wikipedia. Each entry has a hundred links to other entries. Two topics that seem to be completely unrelated can be connected by a few clicks.

    Maybe that’s why we like Wikipedia so much… it works like our brain.

  • Layla

    I just read the first couple of paragraphs and I’m intrigued.

    My first instinct was to be like “pfff that’s stupid, he must be taking easy artsy courses” but I’m going to read on anyway. I’m only taking 1 course right now (working full time) and I have my exam in 8 days. As it stands now, I’m grumpy and tired and looking forward to getting 8 hours of sleep on the 8th of April.

    I’m going to read the rest of it now…

  • Layla

    Sorry for posting again. I just have to say this is inspiring.

    I do a lot of holistic learning (without even realizing it). I compare relationships between people to science, and I apply conservation laws to EVERYTHING ever. I’m going to put in a more cognizant effort.

    Problem sets have their place. Learn to do the problems fast, otherwise you won’t get them done in the 3-hour exam.

  • Alex

    Hi, your article is interesting and informative. I think I like your blog.

    I just wanted to say that a type of learning useful for studying one subject is not necessarily useful for studying another one. I myself am a bio student. Lessons like organic chemistry or cell biology, which have many interconnecting concepts and pieces of information, do favour holistic learning. One can think of many different reactions as a group of reactions and of many different groups of reactions as a larger group with many different, yet associated, mechanisms. Or one can think of the changes a protein undergoes through the secretory pathway and then think of the mechanisms and the organelles with the help of which these proteins become functional and follow this pathway. However, other lessons, such as plant physiology, are so full of terms and, also, some irrelevant to each other pieces of info that holistic learning seems way inappropriate.

    Anyway, best wishes and keep on writing nice stuff.

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  • 21clover

    Hi scott,

    I appreciate to learn with understanding. Because of u, I realise the importance of holistic learning . I feel that my education environment is quite mechnical, dont emphasize on holistic learning. It strives for productivity. As a result only minority (‘robots’ you know….sighhh….) benefit, most people like me find it hard to do well CONSTANTLY for exams,quizzes … I hate it when facts get messy and overwhelm me. However, I explore and seek for clarity through youtube, ect. It is useful.

    I cant wait to try out ur methods. But I want to deal with my biggest prob first; note taking especially the STRUCTURE of note taking. I feel this is tricky to me as it has to do with how i organize things.

    Can u share with me ideas on STRUCTURE of notes taking for subjects like : science , maths and history?

    thank U!

  • Scott Young


    Check out this PDF for notetaking strategies I use:


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  • Shirley

    Hi Scott,
    I just came across your website and I can’t wait to use these study techniques. Every time I write an exam or test, I always end up getting 79%. I never got over 80% which is really frustrating. Because of this, I am unable to get into my honours psychology program by my 2nd year. I have reapply when my average is raised higher. I really hope this will work for me!!

  • sean

    anybody here stating they don’t study is totally lying this is university engineering u have to do work like hell u have 2 study like hell heck it depends on the school u go to maybe your school isn;t a top school look at mit for instance the mean final exams averages r low 50’s

  • Elli

    Hi! Amazing post as usual! :)
    I just noticed a little typo “Because my web was so heavily interrelated, even when a node on the web was missing I has a good chance at guessing at what it contained.” ^”I has”
    hehe. just thought it would be helpful!

  • http://- Nel

    Haha some of the above posters are amusing. I respect the effort invested in persuasion here, but, for the benefit of other equally gullible readers, there is no way you can ace most hard courses without considerable and determined study (sure, the occasional course can be winged, but that’s the exception not the rule).

  • btoblake

    I used this approach for years, and in courses that weigh essays and tests heavily, it often leads to an easy A.

    I found only one issue with it. It feels easy and pleasant enough, that you’ll be tempted to make this your entire studying approach, and skip doing homework completely. While this works with most courses (even physics), if you can fall back on your rote homework skills, you’ll be in better shape. (Biochem is hard if you aren’t willing to memorize for an hour or two a week.)

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  • dhruv

    hey Scott!
    i really loved this article! i hav had reviewed many other methods of studying like mindmapping,teach-it method and many others! but this method was the best ! i have my half yearly’s coming up and i wud try out holistic learning. but i hav a question . whenever i try linking things i really get ridiculous connections ! will that help? and can you please explain me that how does holistic learning apply in maths??

  • Berger

    Unfortunately, these systems already exist. In fact, what you call holistic learning is actually a version of mind-mapping which was developed by Tony Buzan, a brilliant psychologist who, among other things, was recorded as having the highest creative IQ in the world.


  • Neshan

    This explains clearly why some students do so well in their early education, but gradually degrade in performance as time goes on.

  • Neshan

    Students must first be taught of to learn before learning anything else. In my opinion, mind-mapping is just another form of compartmentalizing. It may help in the beginning, but in the long run it doesn’t work and you’ll just be lugging around an enormous file of papers. Ive tried mind maps before, and this is my standing on it. This is coming from a holistic learner such as me. When I was younger, I used to credit my excellent grades to common sense and logic. Thanks Scott, for telling me about a skill which I didn’t even know I had.

  • Mark

    I know that you didn’t develop or coin the term holistic learning, but I felt a more intuitive grasp of intuitive learning after searching through your website and reading your book learn more study less. Please check out my video where I give MY example of holistic learning. It includes visualization and metaphor and visceralization as well.

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  • nuzzz…

    hey scotth,, i doubt whether these tricks work for every 1..??

  • Mike

    My mind was obliterated when I read this, it describes me perfectly and helped me answered a lot of questions I’ve had about myself and about others when it comes to learning for most of my life. I’m an extreme “hollistic” learner as you put it, and my entire life I’ve always tried to “understand something” and how it fits into the world when I learn it.

    I managed to breeze through high school with straight As and was the dux, then through university with a 6.8 GPA (here our GPA is /7) without ever really studying or even turning up to most of my lectures. Many times through university I found myself in the situation where I had to learn my entire course for the term with only 1-2 days to go before the exam and I still managed to almost always get HDs.

    I could usually bullshit my way through the exam even on questions about things I had never “learned” just because I understood how whatever the question was about was related to the course. Nobody could ever understand how I did it, and I never understood how people found it difficult, however after reading your article I understand.

  • Keri

    I never knew this system had a name, outside of “bullshitting my way through class.”

    I once studied for a medieval history test in college and when I got my test, there were only 10 questions on it (so each was worth a whopping 10 points). And one question asked for information on a historic figure (I think it was a saint) I had not studied.

    I figured I couldn’t get less than a 0 on the question and I had plenty of time left, so I wrote a lengthy paragraph lamenting the fact that I had no idea who that saint was and why hadn’t the professor asked me about two other saints I had studied–which I supplied lots of information on. I ended up capping off my answer with the process of how the modern Catholic Church makes saints and I gave the timeline for when Mother Teresa (who had just died) could possibly be beatified and/or elevated to sainthood.

    I made 8 out of 10 points.

    I took a medieval history class from that same professor in my senior year and I was so damn poor by that point that I couldn’t afford to buy any of the books for class. But I went to class, listened to what people said about the books in discussion and related what they said to information I already knew about history, religion, architecture–you name it.

    I think I made a B in that class; never read the first assignment. Not the way I would recommend getting an education, but it was the best I could do at the time.

    I took one class which was strictly lecture and the professor required you to regurgitate everything he said without any deviation. I failed the class because I couldn’t help but go off on tangents, drawing paralells between what he said and other things I knew about the Bible and religion in general (in fact, I couldn’t have even told you where his teaching ended and my thoughts began). I learned a hell of a lot, though; he had good information, but I couldn’t manage to repeat it back to him the way he wanted. We just couldn’t speak a common language on that issue.

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  • Bob

    Can you apply this technique, or do you when you are reading a book, like a fictional one.

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  • Mark Chambers

    hey scott,
    Excellent post! It is very useful! I have no problem learning with hollistic learning in Physics, Biology, Computer science. But i seem to have a problem in doing the things you have posted in your blog in Chemistry and Maths, and in some places in Physics too. Please reply to this post concerning the techniques to learn Chemistry, Maths and Science.


  • Mark Chambers

    hey scott,

    I was learning Chemistry the other day… As you said I was just going through and doubling my reading rate. But.. It is a bit hard to learn the equations with holistic learning.. Is there a method for learning equations? Or do we have to do rote memorization with them?

  • John Smith

    Hey Scott,
    Love your idea about holistic learning! Only thing is, what exactly is the “web” you’re referring to? Is it a poser-type web that you use when you take noted. Can you please clear up what a “web” is?

  • Bobby Parker seems to be a dead link. Can you please post another resource?

  • Scott Young


    Yes–I realize that. Google “Peg System” “Major System” for mnemonics and you should get a whole bunch of articles, it’s a very well-known method.


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  • Chris

    Hi Scott,

    Life-changing tips here! thank you so much :).. I just read your brilliant e-book on holistic learning but I lost hope just at the end when you said it will not be effective in studying law :(… While reading it, I thought there were ways it could work but I’m having second thoughts now. Do you have any suggestions for more effective ways/models of ‘studying law’…. thanks again.. :)

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