The 'Red-Pen' Study Method

Updated: Nov 12

This is all about the most effective way in which to study. It is particularly applicable to maths and science subjects, but can be adapted to suit all type of academic study. It is a retrospectively obvious method of approach, yet almost nobody thinks to do it of their own accord!


It took me four long years of hard graft at university to finally figure this out, so treat it with the same kindness it will treat you with!



1a) Mark yourself


Always always always mark yourself with red pen.


Do NOT just assume you got easy questions correct without checking; otherwise, how will you ever pick up and improve on your careless errors?


Remember: By its very definition, a careless error is an error that you didn't realise you made.



1b) Notes-to-self


Marking yourself does not just mean putting ticks and crosses—that's not useful for later!


We want to start rendering your maths and science exercise books useful for revision. To do that you need to learn the art of 'notes-to-self'. Here are some notes on what makes a good 'note-to-self':


  • A note-to-self should be made in red pen (or any pen colour that is significantly different to the one you are working in).

  • A note-to-self should be made any and every time you make a mistake (no matter how careless)

  • Do not rub out your error. Circle it/highlight it/whatever it, but make sure you leave it there so you can reminded of this potential pitfall in the future. This helps you learn from it and means you are less likely to make it again (even if under exam pressure).

  • A note-to-self should be comprehensive enough that, when you look back at it for revision, you do not need to search through the textbook to remind yourself what the question was about.

Example of note-to-self

Below is an example of a question and a solution with an error. Only the righthand side has the incredibly useful note-to-self added.


The righthand side student hence has an infinitely more valuable maths exercise book than the lefthand side student!

Left and right: Same solution, same mistake... but only the right-hand side includes the invaluable notes-to-self!

Top tip: Your maths (or any) exercise book should be mainly black pen (i.e. your workings [not useful to re-read]) interspersed with red markings (i.e. your corrections [VERY useful to read for revision]).



2) 'Tricky Qs' sheets:


It's that simple!

Blindingly simple idea and yet so many people don't do it. All you need to do is note down on one sheet any and every question you come across that you could not do first time (page number + question number); and never stop adding to this log of questions!


Revisit them on a monthly basis. If you feel like certain ones don't belong there any more, highlight them out. Do not cross them out as they may prove a useful record for later.


You will be incredibly grateful you did this in the weeks leading up to the exam: You now have your own personal list of questions that you—not your classmate—find hard. This is INVALUABLE! Whilst others are wading through their textbooks in the hope of stumbling, once again, upon that sneak of a question they saw 6 months ago, you'll be economising incredible amounts of time with the list you already have to hand.

Top tip: If you're working from the computer, you may think about taking a screen-shot and saving your 'tricky Qs' to a folder.



3) Careless error sheets:

There's not a single person in the world who can say they are immune to careless errors. Constructing a 'careless error sheet' is the best way, without a shadow a doubt, to minimise these.


Every time you make a 'careless error', write it down on your 'careless error sheet'; and guard that sheet with your life! Every 'careless error' is an incredible opportunity for us not to make it again, so make sure you're consistently adding to this.

Here is an example of what I might add to my careless error sheet after making the mistake shown in section (1B):

Top tip: This is always the last thing I read through before entering any exam. All my potential careless errors are in the forefront of my mind and I do NOT make them in the exam as I'm conscious of them.



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