Reprinted from my free newsletter, Learn Faster, Achieve More.
Last week I sat down to write one of the hardest exams I’ve ever had to prepare for, and I’m not even a student anymore.
The class was Classical Mechanics, an MIT physics class. MIT generously puts up many courses online, for free, so you can see the exact course here.
What made writing the exam difficult wasn’t the subject, but that 4.5 days before writing the final exam, I hadn’t seen any of the material. I started the course Tuesday morning, and wrote the exam Saturday afternoon. Less than five days to learn a class that MIT claims requires doing 120 hours of work.
Today I’m going to share how I prepared for the exam (and my results). If you’ve ever needed to learn something quickly, I hope you can adapt some of the strategies I used to your own learning.
Why Learn Physics in 4.5 Days?
For the last month I’ve been secretly researching for a huge learning project I’ll be starting in October. Successfully completing this course in 4.5 days was the last stage of my research to see whether I was up to the challenge.
I’ll be letting newsletter readers know what the challenge is in August, but 4.5 wasn’t a random number I picked simply to be a masochist. It was the pilot experiment of a much larger trial I’ll be starting in two months.
How Can You Learn a Class in Under a Week?
Learning a class in 4.5 days is a lesson in efficiency. A single moment wasted of confusion or idea not deeply understood could be fatal. In completing my experiment, I relied on a combination of macro-level strategies and micro-level tactics.
I’ll discuss both the strategies I used to fit the coursework into the time period, as well as the specific tactics I used to quickly learn the hard ideas deeply.
Strategies for Fitting 120 Hours into 4.5 Days
Strategy #1: Watch Lectures at 1.5x Speed
My first strategy was to watch the lectures at between 1.5-2x speed using VLC Player. Lectures are great at getting a more vivid explanation of ideas than the textbook, but had I watched all 35 lectures at normal speed, that would have easily eaten up most of my learning time.
By adjusting the speed to zip through demonstrations, but slow down at the algebra, I could keep up with all the lectures, and finish all 30 hours in the first two days of learning.
Strategy #2: Work Early, Finish Early
Scheduling was incredibly important too. Because my restriction was in days, not hours, I wanted to squeeze as much work as possible out of my days. I did this by adopting the following routine:
5:55 – Wake up
6:00 – Begin work
8:00 – Breakfast
1:00 – Lunch + 25 minute nap
5:00 – Dinner
7:00 – Finish working
Two elements stand out in this schedule which enabled me, despite the pace, to take my evenings off after 7pm each night:
- I began work first thing in the morning.
- I took a midday nap.
Working first thing in the morning was actually easier than expected. The adrenaline of the challenge helped me stay focused and stopped me from hitting the snooze button. By starting work at 6am, I could complete an extra 2-3 hours of work before most people would start, leaving a much larger period of time off in my evenings to relax.
The midday nap was a suggestion from my friend Benny Lewis, who despite seemingly perpetual jet lag and an aggressive social calendar, has tons of energy. I learned that if I could fall asleep instantly (thus timing it so that I was maximally tired before my nap), that I would have an extra 4-5 hours of energy post-nap.
Surprisingly, I didn’t feel burnt out by this pace either. I woke up Sunday morning at 7am without an alarm, just out of habit.
Strategy #3: Relate Everything to the Subject
The final strategic element I used was a complete obsession with physics, while I was learning. When I was at the gym, I found myself absentmindedly calculating torques and energy consumption. Running the tap triggered thoughts of fluid dynamics.
I enjoyed learning the material, so the extra obsession meant that every experience was being translated into metaphors automatically, even when I wasn’t trying to learn. I’m not sure how replicable this is, but the attitude of being obsessed was one I tried to foster.
Tactics for Rapidly Learning Under Constraints
The big three tactics that were most useful to me in learning the material were:
- Deliberate practice.
- The 5-Year Old Method.
Deliberate practice was crucial because it had been awhile since I had done serious algebra or calculus. Understanding the gist of the concepts was fairly easy, but transforming complex sets of equations into meaningful answers quickly was hard.
My weapon was to do tons of practice problems. Since the number of assignments and practice problems exceeded my time limits, I developed a method for highlighting which problems would be the most useful.
First, I would scan through the problems thinking in my head if I knew the method to solve the problem. If it was a clear yes, I’d go straight to the answers and confirm if my conceptual understanding was correct. This allows you to do a weaker self-test on the easier topics much more rapidly, so you can devote time to the hard questions.
Next, for the questions where no immediate answer came to mind, I would try to solve them. I would keep going until my efforts at algebra were exhausted, and then I would try for another 10-15 minutes. I wanted to develop the habit of thinking hard about the problems, rather than just jumping to the solutions.
When I got the answer wrong, I would see which concepts it was connected to. As an example, early on I was messing up questions involving torque. That meant it was time to switch gears and deeply understand what torque was about.
The 5-Year Old Method
Once I identified, through a practice problem, a concept I didn’t fully understand, my next goal was to develop a deep intuition about the idea.
My best method for that was to write on a blank piece of paper the name of the concept and write out an explanation to myself in terms even a 5-year old could understand. Then, when I’d hit a point where I was drawing a blank, or couldn’t adequately simplify, I’d jump to the lecture which explained the topic and carefully watch over that segment.
You can see an example here (PDF).
Visceralization is the name I give for a combination of visualization and visceral. Basically, it’s a way of associating ideas and concepts to tactile feelings and senses.
I used this tactic a lot with the physics concepts, in addition to metaphor, so that I would remember how ideas worked. When understanding the relationship between torque, angular momentum and angular velocity, I imagined feeling twisting, spinning and rate of spin as forces applied to my body.
This tactic may sound silly, but I can vividly recall making the corkscrew motion with my right hand to determine which direction the torsional vector would be.
Final Exam Results and Rapid Learning Lessons
Even with my tactics, it was a difficult week. I’ve never taken university-level physics before, and I was even missing a lot of the calculus necessary to do a few of the problems (my initial exposure to calculus stopped before integrals and Taylor series).
Not an A+ by any standard, but considering I wrote the exam Saturday, and had never touched most of the concepts before Tuesday morning, I was pleased with the result.
Action Items and Takeaways
Some of my methods weren’t ideal. Watching lectures at twice the speed and skimming over practice problems isn’t the best way to learn. But, if you’re in a similar time crunch and need to learn a lot of material quickly, here’s my advice:
- Have a clear strategy. I never just “studied”. Every single hour was devoted to a specific goal, whether that was to go through lectures, focused problem sets or active recall on key ideas.
- Never memorize what needs to be understood. Under time pressure, I often felt like certain ideas would just have to be memorized. But I resisted this temptation, sometimes repeating the explanation 4-5 times, before explaining it again in my own words. Understanding is an investment in less future studying.
- Clearly separate work from time off. I took almost no breaks during my day of work. Even eating breakfast, I’d replay lectures or re-read my notes. This may not be desirable every day, but it meant that I could still relax at night, despite the workload.
If you’re interested in going deeper to understand some of the productivity and learning tactics I used, I explain them with a lot more examples and depth in my course.