How I went from getting an F in every subject (failing GCSEs and A levels) to getting 80–90%s at a Russel Group university. This isn’t some wishy-washy “believe in yourself” article. This is a fundamental list of things you can implement, right now, to get amazing grades.


Take notes

Notes are essential to learning. Always be taking notes. The most fundamental thing is to decide to take notes. It doesn’t matter so much whether it’s digital note-taking or paper note taking, as long as you take notes. As a general rule, for science & maths subjects that have a lot of symbols, I’ll handwrite them into a notebook. If not, I’ll write it onto a laptop using One Note.

Try not to copy the slides word for word. Write down what the lecturer says instead. This will force you to listen to the lecturer.

If you’re taking paper notes, the Cornell note-taking system is good.

Cornell Note Taking System

A typical written note layout. The “class name” is literally the name of the class. Every other word in this image represents a new section.
Some people care a lot about the exact dimensions of each section. I don’t care. Do whatever helps you the most.

The left-hand side is your cues. These are questions that come up in lectures. If the lecturer asks a question, write that question down. Sometimes, the lecturer will ask a question which is very similar or is a future exam question. Writing down all questions will also help you develop a fake practice exam near your final exams. Some modules don’t give out revision material, so this is beneficial.

Write down every question you ask, every question you have but didn’t ask, and every question the lecturer asks. Questions are the fundamental building block of learning.

The notes section is short, which is good. This forces you to synthesise the data in the lecture into a nice short summary. You have to be selective about what you write. You have to shorten some things down to make them fit, which will help you learn the topic while the lecturer teaches it.

I always try to make sure my notes don’t go over 1 page. This forces me to synthesise the information and decide on what’s most important. I find that if I write more than 1 page per lecture, the probability of me going through my notes at the end of the day significantly decreases. I much prefer the shorter, 1-page method.

You’ll fill the summary section out after class. The summary section is essential. Highlight the main points and summarise the entire lecture into a few lines. This will help you learn what’s being taught. Normally, I’ll put a few formulae here, some little historical fact or whatever is important.

Lecturers try to include 1–3 main, key, essential ideas per lecture. It’s important to understand these and summarise them here.

I try to include humour in my notes as much as possible so I don’t collapse into sleep when going over them later in the day.

I’m not sure on the notebook size, but I use a Leuchterum 1917. This is the best notebook I’ve ever used. It’s expensive, but not too expensive. I find that if I use a cheap notebook I don’t care about the contents / the looks of it — thus my notes look and feel bad. A nice notebook makes my notes feel and look nicer.

Also, don’t feel like you have to draw the lines every single time you take notes or use a ruler. Often times in lectures I draw a couple of wonky lines and carry on with taking notes. Obsession over trying to get the “perfect” tools is another form of procrastination. If you want to be effective, you have to stop caring about whether the line on your paper is straight or not.

Digital note taking

Some of my real life digital notes. If you spot spelling mistakes, do not correct them. These notes were never meant to be shared. I don’t worry about spelling when taking notes — I only worry about taking notes.

Digital note-taking is like the Cornell system. I write down questions (notice the question mark to the left), I write down definitions (green) and I write down things that may help me in studying this. At the end of the lecture, I summarise the lecture. Here’s my summary of this lecture:

Boris, if you’re reading this, I’m sorry for thinking this

Also, you can be funny in your own notes. No one will see them, well, unless you publish them on Medium.com for an article to help students. I didn’t include questions in my summary as I don’t worry about questions until a month before the exam season starts. You can include them if you want.

In fact, do whatever you want. There is no one size fits all for note-taking. Experiment a lot, and if you find something that works well, do it. Even if everyone else thinks you’re weird for doing it.

Go over your notes every single day

Highlighted is my notes added at the end of the day. Sorry for the mess 😅

At the end of the day, spend some time to go over your notes. Read the summaries and questions. If you haven’t answered the questions, do so now. Try to expand on any notes that aren’t very useful. You need to do this now because if you wait, you’ll likely forget the lectures.

The idea is to put in the 30 minutes of hard work now so that when you’re revising for your exams you don’t have to worry about bad lecture notes. Or even asking the lecturer questions relating to a lecture taught 4 months ago.

The work you put in now compounds. The more work you do now, the less work you have to do before an exam.

If you come across a question, and you can’t solve it no matter how hard you try, don’t be afraid to email the professor. This leads us on to our next section.

Always be asking questionsThe lecturer, after you adopt this habit. Gif taken from here

Studies have shown that there is a direct correlation between the high achievers and how many questions they ask.

Questions engage your mind. Instead of memorising formulae and facts, you learn the fundamental principles. You can use flashcards all you want to memorise things, but the fundamental principles can only be learnt from curiosity.

One of my modules had an exam built entirely of edge cases. Every single question in that exam, apart from 5 or 6, I asked in lectures or via an email to the lecturer. Imagine walking into an exam and 80% of all the questions on the paper are questions you’ve already asked or thought of.

This is the power of putting the work in right at the start instead of waiting until the last few weeks to cram everything in.


SIt right at the front

Your friends will distract you. It’s true. Even if they want high grades, you’ll get distracted. The people who sit down at the front are nerds. You need to become a nerd to get good grades.

My friends all want high grades, but every lecture they sit in the middle and talk or play games. Every lecture they take minimal notes. I go out of my way to avoid being distracted in lectures to help me learn.


Ask your friends for help or offer to teach them

You know those cliché university pictures that show you and your friends all studying? Yeah, this is you now. Image from here

Teaching people has been my number 1 source of learning. whether that’s writing blog posts or holding study sessions.

I write up my notes for every single part of a module, and I publish them for my class mates to read them.

Teaching others improves my own understanding of the subject. Also, If I get something wrong 20 people will correct me.

It’s good to have this central corpus of knowledge that you know is correct, that everyone can use. It’s like Wikipedia, but for your class notes.


Flashcards are key. Use them, always.

Flashcards promote active recall. The process for actively retrieving information from your brain, making it one of the best tools to learn. Here are 4 tips on how to effectively use flashcards.

❶ One of the most important things you can do to increases your flashcard effectiveness is to create your own flashcards. It doesn’t matter whether they’re digital or handwritten. Flashcards work because they are yours. If you find writing it out helps you memorise it, then write them out. If you don’t, then don’t write them out. Whatever floats your boat.

❷ Your flashcards need to have pictures and media in them, alongside text. In 1985 there was a study that showed that when you had a picture with descriptive text next to a flashcard it was easier to recall than a flashcard without a picture.

Photo from my hometown. The connection to my hometown makes it more likely that I’ll remember this flashcard. Pictures that have a connection directly to you have the greatest effect.

The pictures don’t have to entirely relate to the flashcard itself. If you can’t think of a picture, use the most ridiculous thing you can think of. The more weird and crazy these pictures are, the more likely you are to remember them.

❸Only have 1 fact per flashcard. An illusion of competence is where the brain can easily confuse recognition with recall. With recognition, your brain says “yes, I have seen this before.” Recall is where you are actively retrieving something from out of your brain.

Flashcard on left shows Harry Hill with the question “who is this?”. Flashcard on the right shows 4 facts about him, including his name. Image of Harry Hill from here.

If you make a new flashcard for every individual fact, you’ll either get a flashcard wrong or right. There is no “I knew half of this stuff right” illusion. Let’s look at the above example. You might recall that this strapping young lad is Harry Hill. You might recall that he is a world-famous comedian. You might even recall that he’s the host of You’ve Been Framed. But when you turn the flashcard over, your brain will think “ah yes, I’ve seen these 4 items before so I must have recalled them”. This isn’t true, your brain has just fallen into an illusion of competence.

If you only have 1 fact per flashcard, you either get a “yes I recalled this” or “no I didn’t recall this”. None of this “yes, I’ve seen some of these before”. This helps learning, which is why you need to do this.

❹ You need to study the flashcards in both directions. Once you know what the answer is to a question, do it the other way around and find out the question to an answer. Let’s look at a simple example:

You look at the front and read the question, you try to recall what the answer is and then you turn it over to find out. Nothing special here.

So now we know what the symbol is when we’re asked: “what is the symbol”. But what if we come across the symbol and want to know what the symbol is? We need to do the flashcards backwards like so:

Now we read the flashcard from the back, see the symbol and try to recall what it means. We turn over to the front to find out.

It doesn’t matter whether you handwrite your flashcards or use an app like Quizlet or Anki for them. If you find writing helps you learn more, then write. If you don’t know what’s best, try using both and see what works better for you.

Personally, I use Quizlet as it allows me to study on the bus or when I’m out and about.


Study everywhere

It’s important to vary where you study. If you stick in one place for too long you risk developing situational knowledge. This means that you only have that knowledge in one situation / place.

There have been numerous studies showing that if you study in different places, you will retain more information. Which in turn, gets you higher grades.

I try to go out of my way to not schedule my study sessions. I find that if I randomly start studying when I’m waiting for friends or on the bus, my ability to recall is improved.

I still have times where I sit down and study, such as my daily going over my notes. I try to limit it as much as possible to have fun because that’s what university is about.


Your health matters

Yeah. this part kinda sucks but it’s so true. If you don’t exercise or eat well, your brain can’t perform as well as it can.

There have been studies showing that good physical health can result in better grades. I’m not going to give you a “How to be healthy 101”, but in short: eat healthily and exercise.


Know when to fail

You’re going to fail some things, and that’s okay. Try to plan your failures. In my last semester of university, I had 3 assignments due in on the same day. The assignments were as follows:

  • Algorithms: worth 20%
  • Java: worth 25%
  • Computer systems: worth 10%

Do the insane

Okay, this part is a little insane but hear me out. a few days before the exam, I rewrite the entire syllabus out in pen and paper. Every single thing. I try to do it from memory, then I double check the slides & my notes to make sure It’s correct.

This is insane, yes. I wake up at 4 / 5 am and write until 8 pm every day for 1 or 2 days to finish this. My hand kills afterwards. But, every module I’ve done this in I’ve never gotten lower than 90%.

I try to mix this in with answering past paper exam questions too. This is where the questions from earlier come in. To stop me from going completely insane, I take breaks from writing by answering all the questions I’ve come across or completing past papers. I read my notebook, a lot too. Even when I’m at dinner I sit there with my notebook, memorising every single line.

For an algorithms class once, I memorised every single algorithm we came across in both Python and Java — just in case, it came up. There were 2 questions which required us to write code for an algorithm we’ve come across. Each question was worth 25%. It was worth it, memorising all of the algorithms.

This is insane, but to get insane grades you need to do insane things.


Exams are not books, jump through them

With most exams, the first question is the easiest and the last is the hardest, with the questions getting more difficult as you go along. When I’m doing an exam I like to complete the first question, flick through every question and find the ones that are difficult to me. I’ll work on these problems for a while, before returning to the start to completing the easier ones.

I find that if I only have hard questions left, my confidence goes down which in turn pushes my recall down. If I’m working on a hard problem and complete an easier problem, it distracts my mind away from the problem.

Your mind has 2 modes. Focused and diffused mode.

Focus mode

Your focus mode is exactly what it sounds like, you’re sitting there focused and engaged in solving a problem.

Diffused mode

Your diffused mode is more creative, you aren’t actively focused on solving the problem but your mind, in the background, is working on the problem. Your diffused mode is more creative than your focused mode, so some of the best answers come from the diffused mode. If you have to think creatively or are stuck on solving a problem, the diffused mode is what you want to be in here.

The diffused mode is paradoxical in the sense that we want to be in the diffused mode but by actively trying to be in the diffused mode we are in the focused mode.

It’s like sleeping. We want to be asleep at night, but if we actively try to fall asleep the very act counter-acts us falling asleep.

If you come across a problem you can’t solve, it’s best to not think about it to let your diffused mode try to solve it. The typical advice is to distract yourself. Go to the toilet, stare out of a window, play with your pen. I have found that by working on other, smaller, more manageable problems my mind enters diffused mode to solve the harder questions.

This is why I work on the harder questions first and then move to the easier ones. Also, sometimes a future question will give you the answer to an earlier question. A small mistake on behalf of my professor thinking that you’ll go through the exam from start to finish. This small mistake allows us to score points easily.


Conclusion

If you’ve completed all of these steps, you’ll finish the exam and come away thinking:

“Wow, I over prepared, like a lot.”

I would rather be over-prepared than under-prepared. You can only be over-prepared after the exam has finished since you don’t know whether the questions will be difficult or easy.

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