How to pass any exam

I’ve told my students this exact advice so many times:

Here are some posts I’ve written about serious study strategies:

  1. Lecture to the wall
  2. Thomas Aquinas on Memory
  3. Study Space
  4. The Bible’s Study Pattern


Simplify Complex Problems Like Descartes

Ever Feel Stupid?

Many of us wish we were smarter than we are. Rene Descartes even felt this way:  

“For myself, I have never fancied my mind to be in any respect more perfect than those of the generality; on the contrary, I have often wished that I were equal to some others in promptitude of thought, or in clearness and distinctness of imagination, or in fullness and readiness of memory…I will not hesitate, however, to avow my belief that it has been my singular good fortune to have very early in life fallen in with certain tracks which have conducted me to considerations and maxims, of which I have formed a method that gives me the means, as I think, of gradually augmenting my knowledge, and of raising it by little and little to the highest point which the mediocrity of my talents and the brief duration of my life will permit me to reach.”

So, though he felt less clever than many others, he was able, by his estimation to increase in knowledge and mental ability over time because of a method of thinking which he came upon at a young age. And while we shouldn’t fool ourselves, his IQ has apparently been estimated to be around 162, his methods may yet help us. He made important contributions to philosophy, intellectual method, (for better or for worse) to anthropology with his dualism, and to theological proofs. Even Hume claimed to be convinced by Descartes’ proofs of God’s existence.

The Method

Let’s assume, for a moment, that Descartes really did improve his mind with his method. Don’t we sometimes face relationship problems, philosophical questions, difficult assignments, or some other such issue that makes us freeze or look for distractions? Descartes did too, but he used this method:

  1. The first [rule] was never to accept anything for true which I did not clearly know to be such; that is to say, carefully to avoid precipitancy and prejudice, and to comprise nothing more in my judgement than what was presented to my mind so clearly and distinctly as to exclude all ground of doubt.
  2. The second, to divide each of the difficulties under examination into as many parts as possible, and as might be necessary for its adequate solution.
  3. The third, to conduct my thoughts in such order that, by commencing with objects the simplest and easiest to know, I might ascend by little and little, and, as it were, step by step, to the knowledge of the more complex; assigning in thought a certain order even to those objects which in their own nature do not stand in a relation of antecedence and sequence.
  4. And the last, in every case to make enumerations so complete, and reviews so general, that I might be assured that nothing was omitted.1

A Paraphrase

Did you get that?

Here’s my paraphrase:

  1. Start with what you know. Ask these questions, “What do I know? What can I figure out? What is the problem I am facing? What facts are present? What knowledge do I have that is less certain?”
  2. Break the problem down into smaller pieces. For example, when trying to solve a relationship problem find answers to questions like, “How do I feel? Is this feeling based on selfishness or a genuine offense? Do I need to apologize for anything? Who wronged me? What did they do?” In a mathematics problem break the problem down into smaller steps. Try to discover which equations apply through trial and error, find out precisely which unknowns/variables you must discover, look at mathematical expressions in terms of discrete steps like in the classical order of operations (PEMDAS). 
  3. Then start solving it. Answer from the simplest and easiest questions first. Then move toward the hardest and most complex synthesized answers. Just because you do not know the solution to a problem does not mean that it is not available. 
  4. Through the whole process, take notes. Write everything down, the human mind is fallible, forgetful, and is jogged quickly by lists, diagrams, and graphical representations. Write what you know, write the smaller problems and questions, write the solutions to them and the steps, then finally bring it all to a conclusion. 

Good philosophy is the art of asking and answering the biggest and smallest questions of our existence. 


1Rene Descartes, Discourse on Method, (Electronic Edition), 2.7

Jordan Peterson’s Online University

Over at Captain Capitalism, Aaron Clarey made a point I don’t find fully convincing.

It’s a brief and hidden point in a post I otherwise agree with entirely. He mentions Jordan Peterson’s desire to offer a liberal arts education online and calls the degree Peterson would offer worthless. 

Now, in context, Clarey has affirmed that which I affirm: that the modern university’s liberal arts program is worthless. He describes it here:

Yes, liberal arts degrees, especially the social justice warrior slop Coursera is serving up, are worthless, pointless, even damaging to the students naive enough to take them.  Yes, these courses/degrees will ruin their lives, at minimum sending them down the career path of poverty and e-begging, at worst replacing family, love, freedom, and excellence with a fervent ideological addiction to socialism.  And yes, you can learn this slop for free, with the exact same employment prospects, as going to the library and reading ALL the liberal arts/Marxist books you want.

With this I absolutely agree and majoring in that crap not only leaves you nearly unemployable, but it also makes you resentful and teaches you to reject the past and every good thing you might learn from it or that it has given you.

But I think that the vision Peterson has for a liberal arts degree is of the sort that made those degrees worth having in the past. Clarey has a “Clarey test” for whether or not a person might have good advice. One of them is whether or not they have a worthless degree and he gives history and other humanities degrees a pass if they’re before the Marxist/Postmodern shift in the universities. If Peterson’s vision is like this, and people learn to think logically, creatively, precisely, and deeply through his program then I think it would teach people to be extremely happy in an economic and spiritual sense. 

Anyway, Clarey’s book are good. I recommend them.

Youth Science Projects and American Aspirations

I came across an archived usenet post linked on social media:

How come the heros of our movies are no longer Micky Rooney or Spencer Tracy playing Thomas Edison, or Paul Muni playing Erlich or Pasteur, instead Val Kilmer playing Jim Morrison and Woody Harrelson playing Larry Flint? And movies whose heros are lawyers.


Paperwork and lawyering. Fixing and improving and advancing society by talk-talk, not building. A lawyer president and his lawyer wife. Crises of power that don’t involve spy planes and sputniks, but incredibly complicated and desceptive word defintions and complicated tax frauds. You think we’re not preparing to go to Mars because SF is too optimistic? Sure. But it was optimistic about whether or not the can-do engineering of the 40’s and 50’s, done by the kids who’d grown up playing with radios and mechanics in the 20’s, was going to continue. Needless to say, it didn’t. I’ve seen a late 1950’s book of science fair projects for teenagers that include things like building your own X-ray machine and cyclotron (no, I’m not kidding– it can be done). There are rockets in there, and cloud chambers, and all kinds of wonderful electronics stuff. But we didn’t go that way. Instead, we turned our children into little Clintons, and our society into a bunch of people sitting at PCs, entering data about social  engineering, not mechanical engineering. So instead of going to Mars, we went instead to beaurocratic Hell. Enjoy, everybody. It really could have been different. Nature didn’t stop us– WE stopped us.

I’m not opposed to lawyers, we need them. I even that a few of them read this blog. But the idea that the aspirations of American culture were transformed by entertainment focusing on paperwork fields and the actual content of education are obvious. My wife and I intend to home school our children. And I suspect that we’ll be buying some of those old science books.

I think our young simply feel that the world handed to them is either good enough or impossible to bend toward their own success. So their aspirations end at “make enough money to chill.”

Effort Habit: Keep the Faculty of Effort Alive in You

William James on the Effort Habit

One of my favorite selections from James’ psychology text book is about developing an effort habit:

Keep the faculty of effort alive in you by a little gratuitous exercise every day. That is, be systematically ascetic or heroic in little unnecessary points, do every day or two something for no other reason than that you would rather not do it, so that when the hour of dire need draws nigh, it may find you not unnerved and untrained to stand the test. Asceticism of this sort is like the insurance which a man pays on his house and goods. The tax does him no good at the time, and possibly may never bring him a return. But if the fire does come, his having paid it will be his salvation from ruin. So it is with the man who has daily inured himself with habits of concentrated attention, energetic volition, and self-denial in unnecessary things. He will stand like a tower when everything rocks around him, and when his softer fellow-mortals are winnowed like chaff in the blast. – William James, The Principals of Psychology, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1983), 130.

That little paragraph has been very helpful to me. James makes the excellent point that exercising yourself in self-denial until it becomes a habit for you to handle discomfort is an an incredible down payment on handling trials. I agree. Self-mastery of this sort is practically a super power.

Your Bad Habits are a Hell on Earth

He also notes later that “the physiological study of mental conditions is thus the most powerful ally in hortatory ethics. The hell to be endured hereafter, of which theology tells, is no worse than the hell we make for ourselves in this world by habitually fashioning our characters in the wrong way. Could the young but realize how soon they will become mere walking bundles of habits, they would give more heed to themselves while in the plastic state (James, 130).”

In the Christian conception hell is an experience in life and post-mortem. Even if you reject the existence of God and of eternal judgment, you cannot reject the existence of hell if you’ve seen the state people get into because of their own awful habits.

You must develop good, challenging, creative habits in for your mind, body, spirit, career, and relationships and you’ve got to do it little by little every day. And if you don’t want to, imagine for a moment the hell you’ll be in if you let yourself continue down the path of your worst possible self.

Develop Christian Habits

In the present age we American Christians have become soft. Too much comfort, entertainment, easy to prepare food, and soft chairs should have given up more time to read Scripture, contemplate God, improve our skills, perfect our bodies, and care for our neighbors. William James has a lot to say to the religious today: keep the effort habit alive. Being a Christian does not excuse us from self-denial, it demands it of us!

A Parting Quote

As we become permanent drunkards by so many separate drinks, so we become saints in the moral, and authorities and experts in the scientific and practical spheres, by so many separate acts and hours of work. Let no youth have any anxiety about the upshot of his education…If he keep faithfully busy each hour of the working day, he may safely leave the result to itself. He can with perfect certainty count of waking up some fine morning, to find himself one of the competent ones of his generation in whatever pursuit he may have singled out ( James, 131).”

Quick-Sand Memory: Lecture to the Wall and Beyond


Many young people are challenged to study harder to succeed, but very few of them are given any helpful guidelines for studying. Below are two helpful study techniques and one piece of research that support them.

Lecture to the Wall

“The Overnight Student” by Michael Jones which can be found here. The book is wonderful. Read it, it only takes about an hour. Jones recommends doing things this way:[1]

  1. Take a bite – Read a manageable portion of your source material.
  2. Use Your Tongue – Explain what you’ve just read out loud to an imaginary audience without looking at the book or at any notes. Take note of everything that you cannot explain. You do not understand those things.
  3. Reread – Read your source material again asking yourself consciously, “what does this mean, how can I explain this to an audience, to what does it relate?”
  4. Repeat steps two and three until you have mastered the material.

Lecturing to the wall makes you embarrassingly aware of your gaps in knowledge, but with a plus! You’re embarrassed at home with nobody around to hear it but you (or a roommate). This is far better than being embarrassed by not knowing the material on a test, at a job interview, when giving a speech, while defusing a bomb, during a hostage situation, while fighting Godzilla, or during a group project.

Update: In a 2014 study, John F. Nestojko found that “participants who expected to teach learned more from a passage than did participants who expected to take a test.”[2] In the experiments, subjects did not actually teach, but were told to study material as preparation for teaching. So, the expectation of teaching primes learners to learn more, probably because they expect to have to explain things. This goes nicely with the fact that we learn while we teach. So lecture to the wall is not only anecdotally effective, but it has more scientific support than I had initially supposed.[3]


Another technique, which is similar to Lecture to the Wall, but less helpful is PQ4R.  It’s from Richard Restak’s Think Smart:[4]

  1. Preview – Skim through a chapter of material, noting the headings, vocabulary words, and concepts.
  2. Formulate Questions – Ask questions about the material you have read.
  3. Read – Read the passage looking for answers to the questions you’ve asked.
  4. Reflect – Think about what you’ve read and how to apply it as well as its relationship to the subject at hand and its relationship to other subjects.
  5. Recite – Repeat the material from memory after you’ve learned it. Do this with the text book closed, and only open it to check your accuracy. Put it in the exact language of the text as well as in your own words.
  6. Review – Try to recall and summarize the same points.

Restak’s system is helpful, but it is slightly disorganized. For instance, how can you know what questions to ask about the material until you’ve read it more carefully? I think that Preview, Read, and Formulate Questions should be somehow in the same step. It’s also too many steps to remember. You’d have to study the method to utilize it.


[1] Michael L Jones, The Overnight Student (Bellingham, Wash.: Louis Pub., 1990), 44-60.

[2] John F. Nestojko et al., “Expecting to Teach Enhances Learning and Organization of Knowledge in Free Recall of Text Passages,” Memory & Cognition 42, no. 7 (October 2014): 1045

[3] K. J. Topping, “The Effectiveness of Peer Tutoring in Further and Higher Education: A Typology and Review of the Literature,” Higher Education 32, no. 3 (October 1, 1996): 321–45

[4] Richard Restak’s Think Smart: A Neuroscientist’s Prescription for Improving Your Brain’s Performance, (Riverhead Books, 2009), 109.

Book Review: Stuart Ritchie’s Intelligence: All that matters

Stuart Ritchie, Intelligence: All That Matters. (Hodder & Stoughton, Kindle Edition 2016).

As an educator and leader, I try to stay up to date on research into personality and human potential. But sometimes I cannot keep up with recent findings. Stuart Ritchie’s new book helped fill the gaps.

Dr. Ritchie is a post-doc researcher at the University of Edinburgh where he is researching the development/decline of intelligence across the life span.

The point of the book is essentially to clarify the facts of the case with reference to intelligence:

“The research shows that intelligence test scores are meaningful and useful; that they relate to education, occupation and even health; that they are genetically influenced; and that they are linked to aspects of the brain. (44-45)”

Through the book Ritchie deftly explains the research with reference to each of these issues. For me to go through how he shows this would make the book superfluous. But some of the most interesting points are:

  1. The differences between male and female intelligence are not in terms of the average, but in terms of the outliers. The mean IQ of men and women is roughly 100. But men skew more toward very low IQs and very high IQs. More men are significantly below average and more men are significantly above average (1226).
  2. While eugenicists were interested in early IQ research, the earliest intelligence scientists were interested in helping the less intelligent to succeed. Not only so, but just like the Nazi discovery of a connection between smoking and cancer, the findings of the early eugenicist IQ researchers have been supported by later research (1192).
  3. Multiple intelligences theory isn’t backed by current scientific research (355).
  4. “Nevertheless, we’re lucky that the tools for raising intelligence – which might partly have caused the Flynn Effect – seem to be staring us in the face, in the form of education.” (1168-70)

The take away of the book is basically this: Intelligence, which can be measured by IQ, matters. The books that claim that hard work is more important than IQ are likely mistaken. Also, education appears to actually increase people’s IQ. This part is really important and while Ritchie never mentions him, it coinheres nicely with Arthur Whimbey’s research on training people in sequential problem solving and slowly improving their processing speed.

If you’re an educator, psychologist, parent, or political science major, I recommend that you read this book.