UPDATE (03/08/2020): I revised this guide for the general audience. Plus I included the best resource you can read for the board exams at the Conclusion.
This post is pretty long. If you want, you can just download the PDF →
Contrary to popular belief, it’s not just “hard work” that counts–strategy is equally, if not more, important. With “hard work” as our only option, we’ll fail to see problems in a different, more strategic way.
The result is we’re only going to hammer through every problem when it actually needs a different set of tools.
Yet, when we ask for advice, it’s always about “discipline” or “hard work” but little attention is given to the how of effective studying.
For example, more exposure to the material (i.e. Re-reading) does not always equate to more retention–because retention isn’t an exposure problem: it’s a forgetting problem. Re-reading is a “hard work” solution and that’s why we do it.
When the way you see the problem becomes the problem, more hard work and discipline only takes you further in the wrong direction.
In this guide, I won’t teach you what materials to study (I have one for ECE, though) but instead I’ll give you principles borrowed from different realms like behavior science and psychology that will allow you to:
- Avoid forgetting and maximize retention until the Board Exams
- Learn faster without spending too much time on reading
- Not rely too much on your motivation to get shit done (It’s effective, but it fluctuates)
…in a non-self-help way. Back then, this guide was presented that way, but I thought I’d revise this to make it more actionable and to make you think differently.
In other words, I’m giving you a different set of “lenses” to see your review problems in a different light. Feel free to jump across sections:
- Chapter 1 – IQ is overrated
- Chapter 2 – Habits > Motivation
- Chapter 3 – Productivity
- Chapter 4 – Learning Principles
- BONUS: Examples of Active Recall + Spaced Repetition Systems and “MVE”
- Bonus for ECE Reviewees: List of Materials
- About the Author (aka “Why the hell should I listen to this guy”)
- Conclusion (Also, Why I Wrote This Guide)
Chapter 1 – IQ is overrated
Dedicated to: People who would want to know how to believe in themselves. People who are demotivated because “they’re not born smart”. People who think “they can’t, because ____”.
In Electronics Engineering, when an electron gains enough energy to overcome what we call the Energy Gap, they now become “free electrons” and electric current starts flowing inside the semiconductor.
Put another way, it’s generally the energy gap that prevents the electrons inside the semiconductors from flowing. You, too, have this energy gap–it stands between you and your license.
Popular belief says it’s how smart you are that determines how big this gap is. But psychologists show that how you think in the face of negative feedback might be the more appropriate answer.
The Truth about Talent and Intelligence
Psychologist Carol Dweck discovered that learners can be classified into two categories: those with an entity mindset or those with an incremental mindset. This isn’t like the popular “learning styles” belief. (More on that myth later.)
Those with the entity mindset believe that “either you have it, or you don’t.” If they fail at math, they don’t think they practiced the wrong way. Depending on their personality, they’d either think it’s “not for them” or that they’re too “dumb to learn math”.
Put simply, they focus on things they can’t control–which basically means the entity mindset is a Fixed Mindset. To a great extent, both of these beliefs are false.
Yet people who have this mindset, if they’re honest with themselves, just want to prove to others that they’re smart. (Even though the perception of others isn’t in their control.) The sad thing is even smart/talented people may have a Fixed Mindset; this puts an extreme limit to their potential.
As Dr. Carol Dweck says, “The smartest children don’t usually end up the smartest” precisely because of their tendency to develop fixed mindsets. (non-verbatim)
On the other hand, there are people who have incremental mindsets. They seek to find their blind spots so they know how to improve. They don’t want to prove they’re smart–they simply try to become smarter. They believe that “If you don’t have it, you don’t have it yet.”
They’re not afraid to look incompetent for the sake of learning. It’s subtle, but it makes a world of difference. In other words, they have what we call Growth Mindsets.
For this reason, people who adopt the Growth Mindset develop high intrinsic motivation. They’re able to enjoy the activity for the sake of it–rather than the reward that comes after it.
The takeaway is: Once you think you’re helpless in the face of negative feedback, you’re probably wrong. You can really choose between two things:
- To think you’re not “made for this” and stop looking for solutions; or
- To actually start looking for solutions, damn it.
If you’re reading this article, generally speaking, you have some Growth Mindset in you. If that’s the case, I’ll give you the tools you need to become in charge of your learning. (More on that in later Chapters.)
Goal Setting: Little Tweaks that Make a Difference
Admit it, the goal’s usually “To top the Board Exam” or “to pass the Board Exam”. The problem is, with this approach, your motivation is going to plummet.
Failing a weekly exam instantly makes you lose your motivation. And that seemingly tiny event makes it feel like you’re about to fail the whole exam.
While completely irrational, that’s exactly what happens when your goals are result-oriented. To a major degree, you can not control outcomes, but you can control the actions that lead to that outcome.
With result-oriented goals, you’ll lose motivation instantly after facing a little bit of failure. Put another way, it nurtures the Fixed Mindset–you don’t want that, do you?
I know that you want to maintain your motivation and develop courage in the face of setbacks. That’s why I’m going to share specific strategies that allow you to do that. For example:
- Instead of “Pass the Board Exam”, aim for “Answer 1 Problem Set + Read 1 Chapter + Recall all due reviews for the day”
- Instead of “Get a 100 Math rating”, you can make it “Learn 50 new solutions per day”
An action-oriented goal assures progress, and it’s easy to track. It’s either “I did it” or “I didn’t”. If you weren’t able to do it, then you can easily state the reason why–and then do better the next time around.
Doing it this way is like taking “shots of motivation fuel” you don’t get when you focus on result-oriented goals.
When you focus on result-oriented goals, there might be a myriad of factors why you didn’t achieve it. Worse, you might actually be blaming yourself for not being able to. So don’t do it–focus on action-based goals instead.
That said, I’m not at all telling you to eliminate aiming for results. But there should be more emphasis on what you do every day–it’s what counts.
If you’re learning 25 solutions a day, by 3 months then you’d have learned 2250 different solutions.
If you’re reading 1 chapter per day, it seems small at first but you’re actually reading 90 chapters by the end of 3 months.
It’s small, but it’s sustainable. It does NOT matter if you can read 5 chapters a day but you’re burned out for the rest of the week. Consistency will beat intensity every time.
So, would that be enough to pass the boards?
Who knows, but that’s good enough progress for someone who only learns 25 solutions a day or reads 1 chapter a day.
It’s better to study for 3 hours a day for 6 days, than 10 hours a day for only 2 days a week.
The goal is to become smarter through seemingly small, daily efforts; not to look smarter with humongous, one-time actions.
Chapter 2 – Habits > Motivation
This is for you if: You are waiting for motivation “to come back”. You have a hard time breaking bad habits.
If you’ve ever set New Year’s Resolutions and weren’t able to stick to it after 3 days, then you’ve experienced the unreliability of Motivation and Willpower.
Motivation and Willpower are more like bonuses than expectations. You can’t expect them to always be there, but it’s good to have them sometimes.
Behavior scientist BJ Fogg says that motivation acts like “waves”–they go up and down at different times depending on the context you’re in. For example, if you’re reading a book and you have a ringing phone beside you, then your motivation to answer that phone goes up and the motivation to read goes down.
Now, you might think “This is where willpower comes into play.” Yes, that’s true–but only up to a certain point.
You see, willpower is a limited resource.1 Despite other studies telling people otherwise, the point is that there are a lot of times when we’re too exhausted or demotivated to even exert willpower:
- When we’re sleep-deprived
- When we’re already at the end of the day
- When we just experienced something demotivating
What we can do, though, to bypass motivation and willpower is to build small habits at first, and then grow them gradually.
Habits Make Motivation Irrelevant
Do you ever have to motivate yourself to take a bath?
To use your smartphone upon waking up?
Of course not. We do habits regardless of our motivation levels.
If you’ve noticed, I emphasized small and grow because these are where most people screw up–they think building habits is all about “doing it with discipline until it sticks.”
Yet, why do you see people doing extreme 30-day challenges but never doing it again?
It’s because the habits they’re building are too big. Big actions require big motivation. And if a behavior requires big motivation every time you start it, then it’s unlikely to become automatic. If you can recall, the previous chapter contained small daily goals. This precisely is the reason why.
One secret to building habits the easy way without requiring big motivation is to make default behaviors. Default behaviors happen when you’ve arranged your environment such that it instantly makes a behavior automatic.
For example, Nobel Prize-winning economist Richard Thaler conducted an experiment on Schiphol Airport. His method: Put housefly stickers on urinals. In an instant, these small changes resulted in an 80% reduction in cleaning costs due to spillage. That’s because he made default behaviors that align to the airport’s goals–to save on cleaning costs.
Now, imagine if the moment you wake up, you’re not using your phone but instead your default behavior is going to the study table to read. Wouldn’t that make a huge change in your results? Wouldn’t that make studying a habit? Absolutely.
That’s the power of default behaviors. You do that using art called Choice Architecture. You can learn more about it here.
Of course, that’s just one secret to make building habits easier. I’ve read tons of resources on behavior science and I’ve found books that are excellent if you want to learn more about it.
Tiny Habits by BJ Fogg, Ph.D. is a good place to start–he’s the top expert on habits. Another is Atomic Habits by James Clear–his writing is superb and uses interesting stories to make these scientific ideas stick.
Chapter 3 – Productivity
This is for you if: You want to do less work but accomplish more than your peers. You want to maximize your efficiency and output.
Because we want to get a lot of things done, we always think we need to spend more time doing something.
But the problem is, we’re not robots. Our efficiency declines with time. In other words, the Law of Diminishing Returns applies to our productivity.
The good news is we can harness this law so we can make incredible gains with the least amount of effort. You want to be productive, not busy.
It’s the common belief in this world of instant gratification that you have to spend 6-10 hours, sacrifice your life, and sell your soul to the devil in order to “study hard”. But no, there’s a limit to hard work. There comes a point that more work just equates to losses rather than gains.
At the end of the day, what matters is how much of the right things you’re accomplishing, and not how busy you are.
What’s funny is that the most productive people I know use this principle a lot.
The Pareto Principle: Doing less, achieving more
What happens when an economist walks at his garden, sees his plants, and notice that some plants are bigger than others? For Vilfredo Pareto, he thinks about unequal distribution and economic theories. That’s how much of a nerd he is.
But what’s interesting is this unequal distribution, which is the Pareto Principle or more commonly known as the 80/20 Rule, is applicable to anything.
For example, when you’re studying, there comes a point that the more you increase the time you spend, the less you’re getting in return—in short, you’re saturated; You’re now busy, but not productive.
This means: for the first 20% of your time, you have already achieved 80% of your results.
The point is, there is always a vital few that gives the most amount of results. This occurs everywhere–even in business, learning, relationships, or plants.
Focusing most of your resources (time, energy, money) on that vital few is the key to productivity.
Applying this idea to the ECE Board Exams, here’s what I got:
- For EST, the topics in Digital/Data Communication, Transmission Lines, Antennas, and Wave Propagation comprise 80% of the exam, so I didn’t spend too much time on Analog Communications. (which is a large topic, by the way)
- For ELECS, 70-80% are concepts from the books by Floyd/Boylestad/Malvino, so the majority of my time was spent on learning these concepts instead of memorizing objective type questions.
- For MATH, 90%+ of the exam were problems–making the “objective type” questions less important
- For GEAS, I knew that 80% of the important concepts are taught in Excel Review Center, so I spent less time reading and focused on practicing their problems. (I still read for the few topics I wasn’t able to master.)
In the book Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, author Greg McKeown says that this is the core of the Essentialist’s Philosophy: “Weniger, Aber Besser” which means: less, but better.
By segregating tasks according to the vital few and trivial many, I was able to spend less time worrying about the little things that give meager returns. (That means more time for hanging out and/or resting)
One Tactic to Increase Productivity
After you’re done determining your top contributors, you can now use the “productivity techniques” that most of the content online tells you about.
One method that I used a lot (and a lot of productivity enthusiasts use) is the Pomodoro Technique.
The Pomodoro Technique allows you to:
- Produce high-quality work in less time
- Maximize your efficiency while preventing burnout
- Enhance myelination, a process where neural connections become more efficient
- Form fresh ideas from newly learned information (during breaks when you’re not allowed to think of your work)
To do the Pomodoro Technique, you just set a timer for 25 minutes of uninterrupted work, then when the timer expires, take a 5-minute break. This, of course, is variable. But the ceiling seems to be a 50 minute-10 minute work-break cycle.
If you’re using a PC or Laptop while studying, check out Marinara Timer–it’s completely free. In fact, I used it while writing this post. But why is it so powerful? What’s the principle behind it?
Basically, if you increase the intensity of your focus, you’ll get the same amount of work done in less time. It’s common sense–reduce distractions (internal and external) and you’ll get shit done faster.
The Pomodoro Technique allows you to channel your focus on the task at hand while making each session seem small. (i.e. 25 minutes) Again, this allows for consistency while avoiding burnout.
If you want more resources for Personal Productivity, I highly suggest you check out one of these books:
- Deep Work by Cal Newport. This completely changed my philosophy on working–I recommend you start with this.
- The Productivity Project by Chris Bailey. All the scientific “Productivity Hacks” are in here.
- The ONE Thing by Gary Keller. Productivity through leverage. It also dispels the productivity myths you probably still believe.
Eliminating Internal Distractions
Not all distractions are in the form of “noise” or gadgets. Some are:
- Your current thoughts
- Something that came up
- Some task you remembered might be actionable
It’s not limited to this list, but anyway, I want you to proactively procrastinate on these things by writing them down. They’re probably not that urgent, anyway.
This is what David Allen, productivity expert, recommends every person do to achieve stress-free productivity. Unfinished tasks tend to get remembered, as psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik discovered.2 In other words, they take up valuable mental space–a cause of stress. Writing them down eliminates this effect so you can focus on the task at hand.
As David Allen says in the book, Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity: “Your mind is for having ideas, not holding them.”
Chapter 4 – Learning Principles
This is for you if: You think you have bad memory. You struggle with remembering information long-term. You want to lessen your study time and get the most out of each session.
Back then, psychologists made a huge mistake while studying learning: That there is a “learning pyramid” and that there are “individual learning styles.” (ex: You are an “auditory learner”)
On the bright side, they sure make learning enjoyable.
Now, a lot of you may have experienced understanding something REALLY well during a lecture or when reading a textbook, but when exam time comes–you can’t remember anything.
Does this sound familiar? Here’s why.
According to psychologist Herman Ebbinghaus, our brains forget information at an exponentially decaying rate, thus represented by the Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve.
Now, it doesn’t make sense if we’re not going to be able to recall the information we studied when it’s exam time, does it?
Here’s the thing: We can combat forgetting, make forgetting slower and intentionally encode information to our long-term memory.
Researchers have already found what the best methods are for retaining information and effectively encoding them into your long-term memory.
Based on research, it’s not re-reading.
The Truth about Mastery of Material: Repeated Testing, not Repeated Exposure
A lot of students believe that re-reading notes or textbooks are the best way to go because it feels productive. However, the problems with this approach, according to Peter Brown in his book, Make it Stick (check my notes), are:
- Rereading gives the illusion that you’re actually mastering the material; in reality, you’re just becoming more familiar with it.
- It gives a false impression that you’re going to remember the material. In other words, rereading makes you overestimate how much you’re going to forget.
- There’s no reliable way to measure your mastery by the number of times you’ve re-read something.
Despite the definitive conclusion, I still think that Rereading works for extremely short-term retention. Otherwise, Active Recall is king.
Retention isn’t an exposure problem. It’s a forgetting problem. Forgetting problems are solved by recalling, not re-reading.
Here’s my own experience.
I read a chapter in about 2 hours because I filter out every important thing using the 80/20 Rule and use the Pomodoro Technique.
Now, if I were to reread that chapter, I would have to spend more or less 1 hour because I’m already familiar with the topic. And that’s me being generous.
However, comparing that to my recall system, I only review a chapter for 5 minutes.
On the other hand, rereading that chapter would be faster because I “know” it already. But it would take at least 30-60 minutes for that.
Recalling, then, not only increases retention but also lessens your study time by tenfold.
Rereading something even 3 times doesn’t guarantee that I learned the material, but self-testing even a single time guarantees that I do.
You only know when a piece of info is already inside your head when you can recall it. The easiest way to do this is to use the Feynman Technique.
I hope that makes sense. That’s the power of Active Recall: Efficiency + Mastery + Retention.
The Secret to Retaining Information: Spaced Repetition
Your brain is a forgetting machine–but only if you allow it to. Whenever you actively recall something you’re about to forget, the forgetting curve resets. The best part is you’re going to remember that information for a longer amount of time.
Repeat this over and over again, and that information will eventually be stored in long-term memory. This is a process called spaced repetition.
Here’s what Spaced Repetition looks like:
Spaced Repetition allows you to practice recall only when you need to. You don’t have to do Active Recall every day, but rather, only when you’re about to forget it.
This not only reduces your study time by only reviewing the information that needs attention but also helps you retain everything you’ve learned from the start of your review.
Just to be clear, I’m fully aware that looksfam (looks familiar) is a widely used answer recognition method for Board Exams. Our brains are far better at recognition than recall, and this is why these methods work for exams.6
They’re highly efficient when it comes to topics that are rather impractical to study anymore. (deeper topics of Data Communications, for instance)
But, they should not be the main focus of your studying, especially when you’re just in the beginning phases–recognition does not mean learning.
BONUS: Examples of Active Recall + Spaced Repetition Systems and “MVE”
I teach these exact systems to those who I’m mentoring for their board exam review.
For my Active Recall and Spaced Repetition system, I used a Spaced Repetition app called Anki that automatically schedules when you should review the information next.
I’d study hundreds of scheduled cards every day for a maximum of 2 hours. (I have 3000+ total cards by the end of review)
Because of this, I was able to retain everything that I wanted to remember until the board exams.
You can only use the information you are able to retain up until the exam. So, just understanding the material doesn’t mean you’re going to remember it very well.
If you’re interested, I have a free tutorial for Anki beginners.
Another method that I use is the Google Sheets method that I learned from Dr. Ali Abdaal on YouTube.
He created this guide because he felt like sometimes, Anki was too much of a chore for him. (I address that in my Anki book, though.)
Here’s a detailed guide, because I know you’re drowning in words right now:
Minimum Viable Effort (MVE): The Secret to Consistency
Minimum Viable Effort, or MVE, is the least amount of work you should do every day without fail. It’s not perfect, but that’s what it is–just viable.
Make it so easy, that you lose some respect for yourself by not doing it. I’m serious. During my review, my MVE was 1 Problem Set + 1 Chapter Reading + Finish all scheduled recall. That’s it.
If you do this same method:
By 30 days, you would’ve theoretically learned 30 problem sets, 30 chapters, and then retained them all. Sounds good?
By 120 days, you would’ve theoretically practiced 120 problem sets, 120 chapters, and again, retained everything.
Theoretically because we foresee the future too optimistically. But the outcome should still be near those numbers.
Bonus for ECE Reviewees: List of Materials
It just crossed my mind that there are these most frequently asked questions: “Which review center should I pick?” “Should I go to a review center?”
I’d say the Review Centers would contribute to roughly 50% of your grade, and they will guide you to get your next 50% given that you’ll do the work. The biggest benefit for me was knowing which topics I should put my attention to.
As I’ve said earlier, we want less but better, and that principle also applies to your Review Materials.
Here’s the link to my list of materials that I was able to read during the Review:
Google Document: ECE Review Materials List
Now, you might think, “Just who is this guy who thinks he knows what he’s talking about?”
Here’s my little backstory:
I’m Al. During my first 4 years in College, I was never really sure if I really wanted ECE, to be honest. So, I never took studying seriously. (Relate, someone?)
Normally, I would fail some subjects because I was so busy doing nothing important. (Okay, to be fair, I pursued my interests more than school.)
In fact, I stayed at school after my morning class for 10 hours. (i.e. Slight tambay.)
Because of the rather unsatisfying lifestyle, I thought I’d look at self-improvement.
I read Inspirational/Motivational and Finance books every day, and boy, I was all hyped-up to “become successful”. Except I wasn’t successful. And I started to hate school even more.
So yeah, the attitude got worse. You can say that these inspirational books didn’t even make a lot of difference.
When I got into a major Communications course, suddenly my professor blew my mind when he said: “You’re never going to pass this course if you only read Tomasi.” Eager to pass just to graduate, I was like, “what the hell, that book is damn thick…and reading it won’t get me even close to passing?”
And so that experience made me realize that something was wrong. That I needed a change.
That’s when I realized I need to change how I studied—I previously used suboptimal learning strategies, I was busy and not productive, and most of all, I was just relying on a single book to learn.
I tried to learn every technique from different books written on scientific methods of learning. I started implementing each idea one by one, took what worked and tossed what didn’t.
Fast forward to the present, I landed as 6th Placer in the ECE Board Exams.
What a plot twist. Not bad for someone who didn’t even lift a single page in the first 4 years of Engineering.
Conclusion (Also, Why I Wrote This Guide)
By the way, please check out my friend’s work at PassTheBoardExam.com–I gave a review of his excellent book: Outsmart the Board Exam. It’s probably the best principle book you’ll ever use while reviewing. I’m not affiliated with it, but I want to promote it here because I like it.
Anyway, I wrote this originally as a “How to Pass ECE Boards” guide because I believe in giving value and making an impact on others. Now I want to extend my reach to other disciplines by making this guide more general.
And what I want you to walk away with after reading this guide is that we shouldn’t have to be stuck with “hard work” as our only tool. Optimal methods always exist–we just have to find them.
That said, which one of these did you find most helpful?
What would you want to see next?
Let me know in the comments. As always, thank you for reading and make sure to share this to your friends if you got any value from it 😊
If you have any feedback or if there’s something I’m missing, please let me know.
- Ego Depletion: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ego_depletion
- Zeigarnik Effect: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zeigarnik_effect