How to Excel in Exams Without Studying


This article is a transcript of an article by Scott Young.

I want to make a confession. I hardly studied or worked hard when I was in high school and could still come second amongst so many other students of my class who did put in a lot of hard work. Even in University, I usually studied only for about an hour or a couple of hours prior to any major exam and could still manage grades between A and A+ during the four years of University study.

One more recent example that I can mention is when I had to give my law exam that could influence 100% of the grade and since I was not in town, I could get back only late Sunday night for the exam on Monday morning at 9am. The only time I had to prepare something was the one hour in flight and I still managed an A.
It is natural for you all to think that I am showing off. If that was all there was to it, I would have even agreed with you but when you read on, you will understand that there is more to this.

The question is how are some people able to learn quickly?

Despite my so called achievements above, I am a nobody when compared to some others who can read and write eight languages, mastered difficult study courses and who have been able to jump from either C or B grades to A+.

However this story let me assure you is not going to tell you about my greatness or of others. The idea is just to present an insight into the methodology of learning of smart people. It is to tell you how smart people learn in a different fashion as compared to normal people.

It is this strategy that enables smart people to grasp concepts and learn more efficiently than others who seem to struggle despite spending a longer time in studies.

Many believe the IQ scores have a lot to do with the genetic factor as well as the environment under which one is brought up. Though I do not wish to discount that, it would appear that some of the smart guys have just got too much genetic advantage and some have even made their kids go through Chaucer as well as quantum mechanics in their formative years.

Despite these advantages, I feel that smart and quick learners do have a learning strategy that is totally different from the rest and that would be interesting to find out. Wouldn’t it?
So what is this strategy that distinguishes quick learners?

I am convinced that if you have to understand this strategy, then it would be better to have a look at the strategy that normal people adopt, which is learning by rote.

This concept is based on the fact that repeatedly looking at the same information would lead to retention of the matter in the head.

This theory would be acceptable if our brain really resembled a computer since computers require just one shot at any information in order to store it. However, rote memorization works on the basis that you need to look at the subject information a number of times before you can store it in your head. You would obviously throw away the computer if you had to save a particular file so many times in order to store it.

The strategy adopted by smart learners is special in the sense that they manage to retain information by just connecting ideas they have looked at. So they are able to absorb and retain information for a long time since they have understood the concept well through the process of linking many ideas and they can recall it even when they miss any one link.

When you ponder over this idea, you will see the logic in it since our brain itself is not like a computer hard disc where matter written once can be stored due to it being in a linear form. It is a complicated network of many trillions of neurons which will work only when connected seamlessly.

So why not embrace a strategy that is in consonance with the working of our brain?

The above idea is not something new but is one that has been grossly underutilized.
It is not my intention to claim that I am the inventor of the above idea and as already mentioned, it is not a new one at all.

Marvin Minsky the great cognitive analyst and polymath researcher mentioned once as under:
‘If you are able to understand concepts or any information in an one-dimensional manner only, then it means that you have not understood it in the way it needs to be understood. The trick is to link the information such that you are able to view it in your mind from many perspectives and pick on the one that makes the best sense to you and something you can retain. That is the true process and advantage of thinking.’

Similarly, Benny Lewis, the famous polyglot who could speak eight languages took on yet another challenge of learning the Thai language within a couple of months. His first task involved the memorization of the phonetic script since Thai has different alphabets as compared to English. So how did he manage it?

‘When I saw the Thai symbol, I needed to link it with the alphabet ‘t’. I therefore started thinking of many of the common words that would begin with‘t’. Though initially I had problems, when I got to ‘toe’, I realized that the symbol resembled the big toe and had a circle which looked like the second left toe nail and since this is pretty distinct, I could remember it and am not likely to forget for a long time. So now whenever I see the symbol, I am able to visualize it properly.

It has taken me time but I am not able to associate certain visualizations with all the seventy five symbols and while some are downright funny, have relation to sex and are even childish, they help me remember and that is the important thing.

Daniel Tammet, the well known British savant who has this gift of being able to multiply five digits mentally says he is able to do so as he perceives every number to have a particular color as well as texture and he actually does not do a calculation like normal people do but just feels the process.

We therefore know that all these famous people are those who believe in linking ideas and each of them has his own method of doing it. Pictures, colors, shapes as well as abstract concepts are all useful in making this possible.

So how can you replicate this and become a quick learner?

While all of the above sound great how does one actually go about it?

I do not for a moment suggest that you too become like Minsky, Tammet or Lewis as all of them have been at it for years and have been able to achieve what they have due to their hard work, genetic factors as well as the environment they grew up in.

But after writing and detailing the ideas below and some of them following it, I have noticed them making tremendous strides in their learning process. Though it does take practice, students have written to me saying that they are able to now remember things, get better marks and grades without getting very stressed and one of the students even attributed his success in getting exemption for an important test to this method.

Let us look at some of the techniques that will help you learn by making connections. These are the ones I have personally tested out and also recommended to students.

1. Using the advantage of metaphors as well as analogy

It is possible to associate metaphors with various ideas and by that token the concept of calculus and differential equations can be linked to even the odometer or speedometer of a vehicle. The various functions in a computer program can be compared to pencil sharpeners and the profit and loss statement of a company can be compared to the circulatory system of our body.

Shakespeare used this concept of metaphor pretty well in order to create the visualization necessary for his ideas and his audience could relate to him due to that. You must also try this out and are sure to find success from it.

2. The process of visceralization

This is the stage which involves the envisioning of a concept even if it is pretty abstract and gives it a tangible form. So you need to not only imagine a picture but also lend it specific sounds as well as texture to complete the picture just like Tammet did.

For instance, when trying to solve a matrix problem, I pictured my hands taking something and going through one of the matrix axis and depositing it into the other axis thus depicting the subtraction as well as addition processes of the various elements.

You must believe you can also do this and whenever you do come across a pie chart, you must try to make it more real and need to exercise your creativity to be able to do so.

3. The method you would use for a five year old

Sometimes you need to imagine that you have to explain something complex to a five year old and go about your task. While it is difficult to explain concepts of thermodynamics to a five year old, your attempt to do so will stimulate the thinking process so that you come up with different ideas to be able to do so.

4. Mind-mapping

The retention of information can be managed better by the process of diagramming where the linking of associated connections to the core idea takes place and it resembles the unpeeling of the onion.

Coming up with diagrams and other pictures thus enables you to link ideas and if you can draw relationships between them, you would be able to remember information for a longer time.

5. The method of storytelling to retain facts as well as numbers

The method of pegging has been used by people over the years to retain numbers and facts and people have been able to link specific numbers to a particular story in order to remember it better.

While the concept of pegging is not what I want to discuss in this article, I need to mention it just so that you get an idea of what I am trying to say. In this every number is remembered by connecting it the sound of a corresponding consonant. So 0=c, 4=d and 3=t can be some of the combinations and in this manner, you would be able to make the conversion of any number into its consonant string.

The system also permits you to include vowels of any number right between consonants so that nouns are made such as d-t-c-d=dot code. This way you can convert a list of such nouns into the story such as ‘the dot was a code that the snake used.’ Now you only need to ensure you remember the right order of the said story in order to link back the nouns as well as consonants back to their numbers.

The earlier method of learning is getting changed
Children being very imaginative and creative are picking up these new methods of learning quite quickly and many modern schools are adopting this method in order to make studies less monotonous.

Subjects like computer science, chemistry, mathematics and classic literature should be stimulating fresh thought and ideas in children and should be learnt to achieve that objective rather than just to pick up marks at a test and get a good grade. Thankfully some schools are realizing this.

It is thus hoped that if this informal method of studying is restored, then people would find it interesting to study and would even score good marks while thoroughly enjoying the learning process.




  1. thanks for this post!
    I always wanted to find out, why some people are just smart!
    unfortunately, I can’t be like them :(

  2. The method detailed by Scott closely resembles that as taught by Adam Khoo, the smart guy who got his First class honours in 3 yrs. Thanks for the post! Will mentally map it along with Adam Khoo =)

  3. I am good at memory but week at application?
    Anyone can help me?
    I can memorize a text of 300 pages within 6 hours..
    And i can chant it word by word.
    But however my grades drop as i grew older as the question is steering towards application questions..
    I am improving though learning through understading…But is there anyway out?
    How i wished the question is plain memory :]

    • it’s good that you realize your weekness NOW. Route-learning is the worst way of learning. For me, I feel the best way to do better is to PRACTICE, PRACTICE and PRACTICE. Do as much practice exercises and problems you can find. Really understand the concepts and actually offer to explain concepts to classmates as it really checks if you truly understand it. Many times I found out that I didn’t actually fully understand certain concepts when friends asked about it and I tried explaining. Hope this helps :)

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