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

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  • TG

    I totally agree with making relationships to learn information. Has always worked for me too. If you get to hung up on details, you miss the big picture. If you don’t get the big picture, you didn’t really learn anything, you just memorized some fun facts. Learning is much more fun when you allow the information to resonate. I used to have a friend who related spanish to math, totally not what you what would expect, but its finding what works for you.

  • Katherine

    Thanks! I was extremely encouraged by this article because I finally found out why I learn so differently. In the Studying and Finals article, what you did with your chemistry test I did with my Spanish placement test. I actually had Spanish class since pre-K, but it was a horrible language program at my school. When I went to a different school, I had to take a Spanish placement test. I knew only about 10% of the stuff on the test and I used critical thinking, generalizations, and sometimes just guessing to put down whatever I could. Well, I got placed in Spanish 2 honors (for freshman year) and apparently the teacher thought I “demonstrated sufficient ability to be placed in Spanish 2 honors.” I didn’t really agree with her and I thought Spanish was going to be really hard this year, but I managed to get hundreds on almost every quiz and test we had. I totally relate to the part where successful students downplay their abilities to fit in — the story of my life. I work pretty hard for my grades (mostly I OCD over homeworks, reports, projects, etc.), and a lot of people refuse to talk to me because I get good grades (it’s been happening since 1st grade). I’m pretty sure I learn holistically for almost everything. I don’t study for much except history. When I study for history, unlike everything else, I compartmentalize. I’m in global history 1 honors and hoping to move on to AP European history next year. I really need to develop better studying skills for history so that I don’t take two hours to study one section, but I cannot seem to relate anything in the culture of hundreds of different peoples to anything that I already know. I’m pretty successful when I take my tests after I literally memorize everything, but it takes so much longer to memorize some history than it does to memorize 100 Latin words or a biology unit. And I find that I forget all of it a week after the test and have to re-memorize for midterm and finals. US history seems to be much easier for me, probably because I can relate everything in US history to something that I already know. Any suggestions to form a web for global history? Thanks so much. And I disagree, you do have an innate ability! 😀

  • Ilya

    wow.. this really helped me. i used to do well throughout grade school without having to study like the other kids and i do downplay my abilities just to fit in. i thought it was only right to do that. i started to “study” and be “a good student” in school. from then on, my marks dwindled and i had this sick feeling that my brain is weak and malnourished. :) studying was never my forte and i had succumbed to the idea that i was just lazy and luck had played me out. i realized one day in college that i had to do something about my little secret, why information stuck without me writing my own textbooks (or “notes” as they call it here in Asia hehe) during lectures while other students slaved away. Failing to rationalize my so called ability, i just explain to people that i love stories. tell me a good story and ill remember it for life :) one more thing, i love jokes too and i remember things teachers teach in class so much better, even if i want to forget about them i just couldn’t. That is, only after i whisper a joke about the teacher to a friend who would laugh with me. Lame jokes are the best :) like you said, superhighways and stairways to heaven. thanks for the great article!

  • Taichi Kamiya

    Good one, man. The ideas you’ve presented appear similar to the ones talked about in a book called ‘Moonwalking with Einstein’. I think your ideas are better though, because they focus more on understanding and feeling what you’re reading, rather than using the tricks to simply rote learn without understanding the content.

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  • jim

    The article is great for intuitive learners. But for most people, the article doesn’t give much detail. If you have tons of materials to learn which you would if you are in law school, there are no shortcuts or ‘study smart, not hard’ tactics. I wish Scott Young would do something about this. A practical plan to study effectively rather than just saying don’t study hard, study smart.

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  • Lynda Hue

    A big Hello, I am commenting from Melbourne, Australia. Thanks for the great article. It helped me a lot with my TAFE computing research :)

  • Jandu

    It was quite interesting to read this blog. I have also read the ebook on Holistic reading but still not able to understand the concept fully. I dont understand how to link different subjects like maths to history, science to economics etc. If someone could elaborate more on this technique with real examples would be a great help to me.

  • Website Homepage

    Hi 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?

  • Hollie

    Hi Scott,

    I am taking some doctoral level mathematics courses. One of the course is a relatively new area. The handouts my professor gives us are almost the only material since there is scarcely any supplement on the internet that is directly helpful to my study. I skipped a couple fundamental courses and sometimes it’s really hard to build intuition using just the class notes. TBH it often gets frustrating. Have you ever experience the same situation? How did you solved it? BTW have you studied Convex Analysis before? Thank you!!

  • mo

    Oh man! I am starting my exam next week!!
    but after reading this article i felt more better
    well done and KEEP IT UP!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • Scott Young


    I didn’t touch on too much convex analysis. My advice is to do the Feynman method for hard topics like that (and talk it through with a partner if you can)

  • Amy

    I’ve always found it difficult to get the motivation and mental alertness (fall asleep) to sit for long hours like 10 hrs a day to study for finals which is actually necessary. How do you manage to do it? I am a person who loves to learn though

  • kC

    I always built “webs” in my head and connected information . the article was great . It made me realise what I was doing . Damn I use to feel guilty for studying for 10 minutes for an exam and getting better marks than those who studied for hours . Now I know why so there’s less guilt

  • Behnam

    Come on, this method takes a lot of time. For example, I have to study 21 credits this semester and I have to take part in the classes too. So I literally have very little time and if I wanted to use this method, it would take me weeks to finish my study.
    On he other hand, in one of your posts you have mentioned that studying isn’t manual labor and therefor one has to get enough sleep. But again, I have so little time that even 4 hours of sleep doesn’t give me much time to catch up on my procrastinated affairs.

    The problem is either me or your techniques.
    Please answer.
    anyone got any idea?

  • stochastis

    Hi there!

    I am currently reading a chapter from my electronics textbook about BJTs and I am using the holistic learning method. But I am wondering: Should I mind map every idea I read or should I mind map only ideas and concepts that I do not understand? I find the first one very time consuming and that it worries me, but then again I think that if I will follow the second one, I will miss the opportunity to relate with webs crucial that I think I(but in real I do not) understand. And how I could understand what I …understand from what I have read and what I have not? When I will try to solve some problems that relate to what I have read? But I think this is dangerous, because you will have to re-read again everything and so I will waste more time. I am little confused about what method exactly to follow.


  • Anum

    I have been reading your blog for a while now and I really like your outlook on learning and how it can be done out of sheer enjoyment, not just for a certificate at the end. I think your ideas on holistic learning are brilliant and have helped me to make sense of the way I learn and why I am sometimes able to come up with answers to things I haven’t actually learnt before. It’s all about the mind-web!

  • Jen

    Although this is a very effective way of learning, if you don’t know what half of the information on the test is, then what’s the point of taking the course? What are you actually accomplishing?

  • John

    Clearly, you’re not an engineering student.

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  • hariss

    Hey scott,

    am an undergraduate medical student, who has faced trouble in my study due to the nature of the courses and field. I used to be very good in physics and math because yes, i did make metaphors since i was a kid (i remembered lecturing a friend on the relations and similaritiies between a small stone and a kingdom when i was 11) and i do feel and think quite intuitively, without memorizing. (i’ve won some robotics competition and national physics quiz in my country when i was in high school. But when i started doing medicine i realized that, it’s pretty hard to be good at it without memorizing and becoming a compatmental learner as u call it. Being a holistic learner would create confusións between many of the information available (i think i just need half a brain to understand the materials) but damn man, memorizing them is really challenging for me. Só, do u have any practical advice for me to ace my medical study? Or what do u say? Will holistic learner be more superior to compartmental learner in this case? Thanks.

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  • Jack

    Hey Scott,

    Dominic O’Brien’s technique, would be very good for creating connections.
    Like, using a deck of cards to create connections between cards, might be the same for information too!

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  • MR DR

    Well written and very informative. 😀

  • Justin

    hahaha what a joke you must be in humanities or something bird like that lmfaoo…. try that logic in engineering and see how far you get

  • wanderer

    As some other posters pointed out, this would not work in engineering. You have to not only understand all the theory and each equation but also be well experienced with all equations through rigorous, lengthy problem solving. Nobody can approach a bunch of complex problems with no practice in a very limited amount of time and expect to pass.

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  • Wendal

    Hmmm… This method seems to be simple in practice and it does seem practical, but I’m not too sure about its overall effectiveness and realism. I would disagree on the idea that anyone can learn this method, it seems like a very innate method of learning that some people would just seem to be born with. I do agree about the theory and claims, especially about holistic and compartmentalized learning as I have theorized both to a lesser extent. I know that you are simplifying your ideas, but when I think of it in the practical sense it seems so much more difficult to implement. Maybe if sufficient practice one may be able to see your ideas in a new light, but as I am trying to apply your ideas to my current knowledge, it further seems like a talent more than a method, or it could be that your approach is harder to apply in other aspects of learning. Though this is just my first impression and I have yet to take serious thought and implementation of these ideas. Interesting none the less.

  • http://donthaveone Aaron

    I always cram before a test and i usually get A’s and B’s, but for finals its too much to cram for. So i have finals this tuesday, wednesday, and thursday coming up. How do you think i should study? I have 6 finals altogether 2 a day

  • Me

    This sounds really cool! I mean I would love to learn this way and have loads of time for other stuff!! But I just don’t quite understand how I can create webs interlinking different ideas… how do I do this in subjects like sciences, or languages? I’m currently learning French at my secondary school and I do get A’s in French but I always do it using rote memorization, seeing as I can’t understand how you can link the basics of learning a language with totally other stuff that aren’t related, and although this technique has been useful to me I still need to practice for weeks before a big exam. It’s the same with my science lessons, I have no idea how I can link stuff like equations in chemistry to different ideas and I have exams coming up in 2 weeks, for English, Maths, Science, Geography, History, French, and ICT!! I’m quite slow, but it’s probably the way I study that is slowing me down. Thanks a lot for posting this article, but you said that holistic learning would take quite a lot of practice to master. I will try it out, but do you have any advice on any useful ways to study for 9 exams that I have in 2 weeks? I’ve already stated studying but I would really appreciate it if you could give me any further tips… I’m in Year 8, or Grade 7, or maybe 8, I think, you might call it in the USA? I’m basically 13. Thanks :)

  • Hemanth

    hi scott
    i am studying engg.i dont know how to create metaphors and Visceralization in my subjects.can you give some examples on subjects relating to engg

  • White Guy

    Not everyone’s Asian k.

  • Brad

    I relate this to the movie “Road Trip” when they are on their way back to the school at the end. “I could teach Japanese to a monkey, the trick is relating it to something you already know”. Fantastic advice.

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  • Tara

    I’m interested in this particular style of learning and I want to start applying it more. I know I’ve used it automatically in some cases, such as in high school when I used to listen to my iPod in class and I’d be reminded of the information when that song was stuck in my head.

    I also remember being stuck the night before an English final in college where I hadn’t read the book I needed to write an essay on (provided topic list beforehand) and linked information I found on the web and from skimming the book to that of the book I needed to compare it to. I’d assume this is, if not the same thing, a similar web system to the one of which you speak.

    After reading this I shall look for ways to start building webs for everything I need to know. Thanks for writing this article and the PDF e-book!

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  • ComputerN11

    Wow, This has saved my life in university.
    In high school, I would often use elements of holistic learning in my math and science classes. I wouldn’t have to cram the night before, but I would still need to study frequently. At university I am taking a linear algebra course, where there are little connections to my high school background. I ended up purely compartmentalizing everything I learned in that course, and for the first midterm I got 52%. After reading this, I have looked at linear algebra and other courses with new light, and I feel like everything makes sense now. I will continue studying hard (I am in first year engineering), but I think I can now take my classes with more ease.
    Thank You.

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  • chris

    Que hay de nuevo Saludos desde desde Colombia. Intentare visitarlos de nuevo, ya que sus contenidos son muy buenos.Creo que este es el lugar mas adecuado para comentar sobre los incendios y los equipos mas importantes del mundo. Ademas, gran parte de sus materiales aqui no los pudiera haber visto tan fcilmente por otras partes de la red, seguro ha de ser porque ustedes y su sitio son levemente conocidos, sin embargo dire que me la he pasado bien leyendo tanta informacion. Lo que yo estudie tiene un gran parecido con este tipo de temas, yo soy planeador civil y creo que me tengo que actualizar o mantener al corriente sobre todo lo que aqui he encontrado. Sin embargo. Un abrazo. Por cierto la semana pasada lei unas cosas en este blog que eran realmente importantes pero no las puedo encontrar, tienen algun mapa de sitio?, sin embargo no dejo de felicitarlos por su buen diseo y contenido, muy pronto en estos das me hare cargo de una pagina y tomare uno que otro contenidos desde aqu, espero que no les moleste ya que igual colocare el link para que tambin los visiten Muchas gracias, creo que son los mejores. Visiten mis tierras que son preciosas.

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