How do MIT students study for their courses?

Answer by Michael Fu:

I find that my studying routine for classes at MIT depends largely on 3 factors: 1) how difficult the concepts are to grasp, 2) how much content there is to learn, and frankly, 3) how much I care about my grade in the class.

However, for the purposes of this answer, I'll elaborate a bit on my study habits for a hypothetical technical class that has a lot of difficult material, and one that I actually care about doing well in (this condition is pretty crucial). I'll break my studying habits down to what I do 1) In class, 2) Outside of class, and 3) For tests.

1. In Class:

  • Sit in the first four rows of the lecture hall. This has the effect of helping me stay more alert (read: awake) in class since you feel like the professor is right there in front of you, eliminating distractions from people with laptops open, and helping me see better (some professors have tiny writing).
  • Don't be afraid to be the guy who asks questions. I know, it can be awkward to be that guy. However, many times professors will assume knowledge about a particular concept that is not so obvious to the rest of the class. If there's a concept that just didn't make sense, I'll usually lean over to the person next to me for some quick clarification first, and if we both are lost, I'll raise my hand.
  • Take notes as if you're taking them for your friend. I've been known to take some pretty scrupulous and neat notes. Call me anal, nitpicky, or whatever. But I've never encountered a situation where I've struggled to read my notes come review time. Taking neat notes in a very deliberate way also helps me internalize what I'm writing, so I don't have to relearn them again later. Learn the stuff in the moment so you don't waste another hour later having to learn it from your notes.

2. Outside of Class:

  • The night before lecture, skim the corresponding section in the book. Can't emphasize this enough. To be clear, this isn't a detailed perusal of the content, but rather a quick flip-through to orient me to the material being presented. If there are bolded definitions or important diagrams, I might take some light notes. The point is, when I come to class the next day, I know which parts of lecture are particularly important to grasp and which ones are more peripheral. This step really shouldn't take more than 15 minutes per class, but it saves so much time later.
  • Right after class, skim over your notes. I find that this helps tremendously. Often when I take notes, I'm concentrating on internalizing the particular diagram or definition and not necessarily tying it to the larger picture. Looking over the set of notes as a whole helps me fit the puzzle pieces together. How does the content at the end of the lecture fit into what he was talking about at the beginning? Are there obvious gaps in the topic that he failed to explain?
  • Old-fashioned studying. Hopefully if you've done the two bullet points above, this step shouldn't take that much time. I generally find that the best way to do this is to have my notes and the book open at the same time, and just compare them to see if they jive. If there are parts in the notes that aren't in the book, or vice versa, make a note of that, and consider why that is. Is the topic new? Outdated? Unimportant?

3. For tests:
These studying tricks have worked extraordinarily well for me, but I realize that they might not work for everyone. But what's the harm in trying them out?

  • Do your review at least 2 nights in advance. It's okay to cram when you need to – just do it 2 nights before. For example, if the test is Friday morning, do your cramming Wednesday night, not Thursday night. This will give you some buffer time to digest and chew on the material, not to mention relieve the pressure of last minute studying.
  • Condense your notes twice. The best way I've found to review the material is to look back at your notes (which are hopefully detailed and neat), and condense/summarize them by half in another sheet of paper. Then take those condensed notes, and halve them one more time. (When I say condense, I don't mean just write smaller – I mean actually summarize the concepts so that the new set of notes only contains what you deem to be the really important or overarching themes of the unabridged notes.) When you are all done, your final notes should be able to fit on one sheet of paper, front and back. Carry this with you and do a mini skim-over when you have a spare minute (a minute is all it should take to review this).

I hope this has helped! These are the primary study habits that have worked well for me over my four years at MIT. Not saying that they'll be perfect for everyone, but hopefully you'll take something helpful away from them!

How do MIT students study for their courses?