The Retrospective Study Timetable and Why it Works

App name: Notion

Hi friends, I hope we’re all keeping well today.

In my post, Ranking My Top 5 Study Techniques, I went over my 5 favourite techniques and tools that I personally use throughout my study sessions.

While I won’t spoil the rankings of this obviously highly anticipated list, I will say that a few of the higher rankings may have been a bit more advanced, and required a more in depth look to fully utilise (which I will absolutely cover in future posts). That said, I did go over a few honourable mentions, in which I discussed some of my other favourite techniques that I used: one of them being the retrospective timetable.

This post will be dedicated completely to this type of technique, where I will explain the basic concept, how to use it, and why I like it. I will also be comparing it to a more conventional study timetable, and discuss the pros and cons of both, then say why the retrospective timetable is 100% superior.


What is a Retrospective Timetable?

Great question. The retrospective timetable is a method of organising and deciding what topics you will study in a study session. It essentially gives you directions and a structure on what you should work on and revise in any given study session.

To understand the retrospective timetable, it is much easier to first look at what a traditional, or more conventional study timetable looks like.

The regular way to go about making a study plan mostly involves allocating different subjects to specific dates. For example, have a look at the picture below.

Example of a Conventional Study Timetable

As you can see, this conventional timetable allocates specific topics in biology, physics, and history to Monday, topics in business, chemistry, and maths to Tuesday, and etc. This means that for this student, they will study and revise only the topics they’ve been assigned to (by themselves) on that day, and nothing else. This plan can go on for quite a while, with the student sometimes assigning themselves topics to study weeks, if not months in advance.

Let’s first dissect the flaws of this conventional revision plan.

Firstly, and probably most importantly, you’re not really studying topics based on how clear your understanding of them is, but rather you’re studying them as a function of time. What I mean by that is, you’re choosing what to study and prioritise based only on when you last studied it.

The easiest way to point out and show why this is a bad idea, is to ask this question: “If the final exam was to come up tomorrow, would these be the topics that I’d wish to be studying?”. If the answer is no, and you’d rather be focussing on completely different topics because they’re your weak points, then there we go. The best way to go about studying, from my experience, is to identify your weak and strong points, and focus primarily on the weak points. The conventional study timetable doesn’t allow this, which is why it is a flaw.

Secondly, and I’m sure many of you who have tried to set up a study plan has experienced this before, is that one slight change of plan, or unforeseen event, can completely derail the entire study plan and/or completely kill your motivation for it, for example one night you may decide to go out with friends instead of sticking with the schedule. This can eventually lead to a kind of butterfly effect, where the end result is you just abandoning the plan entirely.

Lastly, sometimes we may consider setting up a conventional study plan as ‘study’ in itself. We may decide that we spend a whole day planning out what topics we want to study in the future, and do nothing else for the rest of the day. Hence it is a form of procrastination as well.


As you can see, there are many flaws with this sort of traditional study timetable. Learning from the bad points of them, let’s summarise really quickly the qualities of a good study plan that we’re actually looking for:

  • The topics we choose to study and revise must be based on the quality of our understanding of the topics, i.e we study our weakest topics first before moving onto our stronger ones
  • Must be immune to a sudden derailing of plans, and can be continued even when we skip days
  • Must be quick, easy, and effortless to both set up and maintain, i.e setting up the revision timetable shouldn’t be seen as a chore in itself

With these desirable qualities in mind, let’s now finally have a look at what the retrospective revision timetable looks like.


The Retrospective Timetable in Action

Retrospective Study Timetable for Microbiology (Notion)

So, let us use my retrospective timetable for the microbiology section in biology as an example. For anyone wondering, I’m using the wonderful app Notion to set this up, but it is just as easy to use a single sheet of paper.

As you can see, there are no assigned dates in the initial set up of this timetable, rather you just write the heading of the section at the top, and write down the individual topics below. Remember to leave some space between these topics for later.

Now, let’s say on the first day I wish to study amoeba and bacteria, and find I’m relatively decent with these topics. Not very bad, but also not my best topics since I’m making 1 or 2 mistakes with some questions, but just alright.

I will now write down the date I’ve studied these 2 topics just below the names of them, and mark them yellow for ‘okay’.

(Since the date I’m writing this is 22nd March, I’m just using this date as the example I’ve studied these topics)

The colour yellow will signal to future me that I’m relatively okay with these topics, and the dates will remind me in the future what day I studied the topics.

Now let’s move onto the 2nd day, where I study fungi and viruses. Let’s say I find the fungi chapter extremely easy, making absolutely zero mistakes and finding no problems with it. I will now write down the day I studied this topic in the colour green for ‘easy’.

However, let’s also say I find the viruses chapter very difficult, making many, many mistakes with the questions. We now realise the viruses chapter is one of our weak points, as we find it extremely challenging and hard. We will now write the date we studied viruses in the colour red for ‘hard’. This is done below.

We marked fungi green for ‘easy’, and viruses red for ‘hard’. The colours of the topics signal to future us how we found our understanding of these topics when we studied them.

On the 3rd day, we move onto the human defence system and find we’re pretty decent at it. Not much mistakes, but also not the easiest. So once again we will mark this topic as yellow for ‘okay’.

Now, on the 4th day, under the conventional study timetable rules we usually go back and revise the topics which we did the earliest, in this example it would be amoeba and bacteria.

However, under the retrospective timetable, we will instead go back and revise the topics which we have the poorest understanding of first, regardless of when we last did it. In this case we will go back and revise viruses.

Now let’s say we have cleared up most of our initial mistakes with viruses, and have now developed a firmer understanding of the topic. Not perfect, but definitely a passable amount of knowledge. We can now mark that chapter as yellow, since we find we’re ‘okay’ with it now.

We fix up our worst topic first, before going back over the other ones

Now, on the 5th day, we scan to see if we have any more weak topics in the red that we must work at. Since there are none, we can now turn our attention to the topics in the yellow and work at making them green! In this case, we turn to amoeba and/or bacteria.

This cycle continues until you turn all topics into green, which you then go back over starting from the ones you made green earliest!


Final Thoughts and Advice

As some of you may be able to see, the retrospective study timetable essentially improves on virtually every weakness the conventional study timetable had. It is based on understanding of the topics, is immune to any sudden, unforeseen events, and removes any activation energy to keep up and maintain.

This type of timetable particularly shines in the few days/weeks before a major test for a subject, where the plan of attack is simply to try bump all the tested topics into the green before the test day.

Hopefully some of you may have found that helpful, or perhaps even a bit informative. If any of you crave an even deeper look at this study technique, I highly, highly, recommend you to check the King of Productivity’s, Ali Abdal’s, video on the retrospective timetable. Fantastic and high quality video which I can’t recommend enough.

This is definitely tied with my ranking post as one which I spent a huge amount of time and effort in, so any feedback or support would be greatly appreciated!

Okay, that’ll be it for this week then. Stay safe all!

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