Beeminding my comprehensive exams

I’m very pleased to have passed my comprehensive exams, and the occasion struck me as the perfect time to describe one of my secret weapons: Beeminder.

Beeminder calls itself “goal-tracking with teeth”: the premise is, you translate some vague intention or goal (“I want to learn French”) into a quantifiable commitment (“I will do Duolingo three times a week”). Beeminder tells you how much to do each day and makes a very satisfying graph of your progress (that’s the goal-tracking); if you don’t keep up, Beeminder charges you money (that’s the teeth).

As a graduate student, I can be highly motivated just by $5 on the line! And the concrete threat of losing money translates something that will be urgent for my future self into something that is urgent for my present self, one manageable piece at a time.

So, comprehensive exams are kind of a classic Beeminder problem: in May, I got handed a list of 94 texts to read, and in September, I needed to demonstrate broad mastery of those texts. Obviously, the best strategy would be to study a little bit every day for all four months, but the summer is when I get to travel and see all my American family. On any given day it wouldn’t feel like a big deal to do a little less studying and a little more hanging out. Beeminder’s job was to accurately tell me how important today’s studying was. This had the wonderful advantage of also telling me when today’s studying was enough, so that I could still socialize afterward!

Studying I Beeminded

I consistently adapted both what I studied and how, over the course of the summer, to adapt to what I was learning. So in the end, I beeminded… a lot of things.

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Time spent on comps

The big one was just time spent on comps. I wanted to do three hours a day, but especially early on it was hard to force myself to do such a disruptively large amount. I gave myself a break in June for a convention I help run, and another small one in early July to finish a research paper that was urgently due, but otherwise focused on integrating “a disruptively substantial chunk of studying” into my definition of a normal day; by the end of July, I had hit a really great stride where I was still travelling and socializing but always putting my studying first. (I was already using Toggl to track my time spent on different kinds of work, so I just set up a Zapier formula to send the comps time entries to Beeminder, meaning I couldn’t lie on this chart without contaminating the usefulness of my Toggl records.)

I also set up a general-purpose “follow through on my intentions” goal tied to the plans I made in my Complice to-do list, to reinforce, uh, following through on my intentions. This was a great catch-all for one-off studying targets like “read the passing essays from last year” or “make sure I have relevant audiobooks for my 10hr bus ride.” I found this one so general-purpose helpful that I’m still using it!

After those broad goals, I started to get more specific, starting with Anki flashcards. I experienced some technical problems and had to switch my Anki-to-Beeminder workflow a couple times early on (HUGE shoutout to ianminds for enabling my current awesome set-up, though!), so the following charts aren’t perfectly complete from a Quantified Self standpoint, but they do show the rhythm of my priorities.

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Flashcards made (top) and flashcards studied (bottom)

First, I focused on making sure I was turning my reading into something I could use later, by making a lot of flashcards. (I found it helpful to set the max-X-axis on all my comps goals to the date of the first exam, regardless of the goal date, so that all those graphs would be on the same scale at a glance.) Again, a rough start, but then I hit a good stride; I intentionally set the goal early on this one, because I knew I’d want to to shift from “mostly taking in new material” to “mostly contextualizing and reviewing” in August. That shift is definitely reflected in the curve of my “study flashcards” goal, which took a while to get going!

Once I started studying in earnest at that start-of-July inflection point, it became clear that I was in danger of just ignoring all the ‘hard’ cards and never actually learning most of them, so I started one of the MOST helpful goals of them all, to avoid letting a backlog accumulate.

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Flashcards remaining at the end of each study session. This isn’t the easiest chart to read: each dot marks my backlog at the end of a study session, and each dot with a black outline is the lowest value for that day (and therefore the only value counted by beeminder). Most of the red dots show backlogs that I worked through by the end of the day, but the three red dots outlined in black show days that I derailed on this goal and had to pay up because I didn’t study enough. The pink line and blue backgrounds are two ways of showing my average backlog, which I used to ‘see through the clutter’ and get a better sense of my overall trend.

After a month of that, it became clear that I really hated going through the full backlog, and would avoid even opening Anki so Beeminder wouldn’t know I had cards due, which was terrible; I created another goal, with a deadline of noon, to force me to just open Anki early enough in the day to actually deal with the cards due.

All these flashcard goals were really helpful for shoving my head full of dates, quotes, and historical facts, but I also needed to make sure I was really thinking about the texts themselves, and really reading enough texts!

My first goal was to accumulate brief summaries of 75 of the 94 texts; I knew I couldn’t really read everything and thought this was scaled back enough to be reasonable. I was wrong. I stopped restarting this goal when it became clear that reading wikipedia summaries was just getting in the way of actually learning about the texts that I did read in full.

I had a lot more success with my replacement, to really master 24 texts. The numbers get a little bizarre there, but basically, I set up a template with seven categories (Historical Context and Publication History; Life of the Author; Traits of the Language; Influences; Plot; Themes and Interpretations; Quotes) and gave myself 1/7 of a point for each section completed. This was a great one because even my shoddy beemergency research was clearly introducing me to valuable new ideas, especially since the “make flashcards” goal also forced me to distill down what I wanted to retain from the stuff I hastily copy-pasted at 11:55pm. I was pleasantly surprised by how much richer and more multidimensional my understanding of, e.g., Moby Dick became just from doing JSTOR searches for “publication history Moby Dick.” And reading a text with “Traits of the Language” and “Plot” open right next to me kept me focused on reading actively.

Near the end it became clear to me that my methods weren’t giving me a solid enough grounding in the critical conversation around each text, so I introduced another note-taking goal, this one to produce an annotated bibliography with four sources for each text. I did abominably at this goal from a Beeminder perspective, but it nonetheless pushed me to do probably twice as much critical reading as I would otherwise have done, and it made me do more work to really synthesize and retain that reading too.

Studying I Didn’t Beemind

In order to continually assess my progress, ensure that my Beeminder goals were properly calibrated, and course-correct, I relied on two main non-Beeminder tools: spreadsheets, and my study buddy.

My Spreadsheets

Yes, that’s plural spreadsheets: if you’ve read this far, surely you can’t be surprised that I had more than one spreadsheet.

I had one spreadsheet with all 94 texts, which I probably over-engineered by using the auto-colouring and auto-counting-based-on-style features of Numbers so that as I progressed along in my understanding of a text, it updated some pretty pie charts for me.

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That was my big-picture spreadsheet during my studying. Before I started studying, I spent a lot of time going through that long list to assemble weekly reading lists for the summer. Each week had five to seven texts, arranged mostly chronologically, alternating between the Paper I and Paper II reading lists, with one or two texts highlighted for particular focus in each week. I picked my ‘focus’ texts to represent a good variation of, e.g., prose vs verse, though I ultimately didn’t hold too closely to those individual choices.

That reading list I put into a google doc and shared with my study buddy; in this working doc, I emphasized the relentless onward march of time, trying not to get bogged down on the previous week’s readings, so it looks pretty hideous now.

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I found it very helpful to have separate lists for tracking my accumulation of knowledge overall, and for planning my use of time just for the next week.

When I noticed that I was only getting a very shallow idea of the texts I was studying, for example, that was made visible to me by a lot of purple and blue squares in the pretty overview spreadsheet, and almost no orange or yellow squares. To adjust my course, in addition to starting the new beeminder goals discussed above, I also went through the messy planning spreadsheet to un-bold or italicize items until I had a number of texts I could manage to really read and re-read thoughtfully.

Looking back, I’m pleased that I stumbled accidentally on the aesthetic differences that reinforced the organizational differences between each of these spreadsheets, and helped them specialize into these two tasks.

My Study Buddy

Finally, after all this computational whizz-bang, I’m going to say that the most important part was really a social human connection. All of these charts helped me have a complex and accurate understanding of my current position and my goals, but equally critical was my standing Tuesday afternoon skype call with one of my classmates, who was following her own completely different reading list and schedule, but who was absolutely invaluable to keep me accountable for the deepest intellectual work of understanding the material.

At the beginning of the summer, we focused on putting together presentations for each other on the various texts we were reading. We read the previous years’ successful essays and discussed them at length. We shared notes and academic articles. We set new discussion goals at the end of each week’s meeting. We were pretty flexible with each other, but it was obviously helpful to know that I’d be accountable to someone else for the thinking I needed to do, and that my thinking would be rewarded with the fruits of her thinking.

This repeated deep engagement with the actual content of our knowledge quest helped me to continually adjust my course to prioritize the highest-impact intellectual work– those things that are highly unpleasant but, accordingly, highly rewarding.

For example, we did a TON of timed practice exams. We had been provided 24 questions from previous exams, and we wrote full 1.5-hr essays for 18 of those. At the beginning we were just planning to do one or two, but after each practice exam we decided that we had something new to learn from doing another, so we scheduled another. This ad-hoc process was more effective than just setting up a beeminder goal for 18 practice exams: one week we focused on just writing the first paragraph within 45 minutes, for example, and another week we focused on deploying quotes for close readings. The week before the first exam, we actually met two mornings in a row at 9:30am at the library across the street from the examination room; once there, I wrote mediocre essays with the sole goal of remaining awake and figuring out how to settle my coffee and snacks.

Conclusion

I am maybe over-excited about a challenge that can also be made into a puzzle, but I honestly enjoyed the comps process so much that it is still a joy to reflect on it. It reaffirmed my sense that real learning is hard and unpleasant, but that if you can hold yourself to those difficult standards, and avoid the false comforts of busywork, the payoff is immensely valuable. The experience demonstrated the importance of balancing clearly established, quantifiable goals with constant re-evaluation and adjustment. I am excited to do it again with my special fields exam!

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