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The Swiss Cheese Theory of Study

Updated: Oct 18, 2018

School is back in session, so we caught up with our favorite, retired SAAS teacher, Bill Woodman, for tips on how to be a more effective and efficient learner. Here's what he suggests!

I was asked about my recommendation for an approach to a long term project, and in most cases this is something on the order of the dreaded TERM PAPER.

The model I have used in the past and the one I recommend has been around for a while and is sometimes called the “Swiss Cheese Theory of Study”.

In essence it’s looking at a massive time consuming project, like a term paper, and “poking a hole in it”. If one continues to do this over time, then almost before you know it the project looks a lot like a block of Swiss cheese, and it takes little effort to simply finish it off.

This does take some planning, a measure of discipline and patience.  For example, if the project is divided up into elements such as developing an outline, research, composition, table of content, bibliography, etc. then the idea is to “shoot a hole in the project by never letting the sun set on a day where you have not done something towards attacking one or more of the elements you have developed for the project.

Though some of these may seem obvious, here is a general outline of the steps to be taken to master the most demanding course you might choose to take in School.

  1. Develop a notebook that captures the concepts and principles of what is being taught that day. And insure this is complete as soon after class as possible.

  2. Go back to the start of your notebook and review what you have in the notebook since day one of the course.

  3. Research and answer any questions that come to mind during your review.

  4. Complete any homework assigned. (Do not put this off but do it as soon as possible after having been in class)

  5. Every day, including weekends and holidays, start at page one of your notebook and review the concepts and principles of the entire course up to and including the last entry in your notes.


  1. This process transforms the concepts and principles into something that is well established in your mind if not second nature.

  2. Makes it easy and efficient to study for exams, especially any final that is comprehensive in nature.

  3. Avoids cramming (or reteaching yourself the course using a very lousy instructor).

  4. Makes it possible for a good nights sleep before any exam.


This approach does not help you deal with the line that will form before exams as your classmates seek you out so they can avoid the very wasteful practice of cramming. (After all you have been answering a lot of the teachers questions in class, and your classmates correctly surmise that you’re “getting it”).

In closing let me suggest the following: You can always find time to do the things you want to do, it takes self-discipline (the only real and best discipline there is) to do the things you need to do.

Any of the suggestions above and others that you may come across as you go through life will work when you understand that most, if not all, of your limitations are self-imposed. Some are worthy and keep you safe while others hold you back.  Wisdom will show you the ones that are holding you back and self-discipline will help you break through.

Best of luck this school year!

About the Author

Bill Woodman is a graduate of the Naval Academy and 30-year veteran serving in the Submarine Service and as well as a Professor of Naval Science in Troy, New York at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. In Seattle, he worked as the coordinator for the Applied Physics Laboratory at the University of Washington and taught Physics, Geometry and Basic Engineering at Seattle Academy of Arts and Sciences (SAAS). He is currently a Docent at the Museum Flight, Private Pilot, and member of the Ancient Mariners Rowing Club at the Pocock Rowing Center.

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