Getting Your Students To Use Their Study Time Wisely (and Other Miracles)

This column follows immediately on last week’s post about geek kits. Today, instead of materials, I want to talk about encouraging time management practices in our students. In my column about getting students to read, I discussed one aspect of this, that of setting expectations for the amount of reading they will need to accomplish in order to stay current with class lectures and discussions.  In this column, I want to get into the nitty-gritty details of how to keep them on track. I find that if I spend the time upfront, at the beginning of the quarter, getting my students settled, organized, giving them explicit sets of instructions and manageable expectations, I spend a lot less time managing crises throughout the rest of the instructional period. This advice is also primarily for introductory classes; upperclassmen I expect to have ‘gotten it’ by now. 

During the first day, while discussing reading, I ask them to do a couple of things that may seem counter-intuitive to them.  For one thing, I do a little song and dance about the classic tradition of locking oneself up on Sundays to ‘study’ for the week ahead. I ask athletes in class how often they practice and the answer is always, at least a couple of hours a day. I ask them what would happen if they were to try and accomplish a week’s worth of training on Sunday and most of them just laugh, because they know they would be broken and hurting if they tried such a stunt. Yet students regularly subject their brains to the type of overload they would never ask of their bodies!

So I ask them to consider reading just 30-60 minutes (maximum) for my class every day.  If they can commit to just one half hour per day, every day, they can probably manage a C in my course; and if they can commit to an hour, excellence is a distinct possibility.  As with fitness, extremes should be avoided in favor of regular, steady, progress.  Once they have completed their time, I then ask them to stop. Put away the book. Take a break. Go on and do something else. Pushing past that time is usually asking for trouble; and many folks have written on the decreased productivity that results (

Another area we can help students is distinguishing feelings of being overwhelmed from feelings of being unmotivated. Many students have a hard time getting started with studying, blaming it on under motivation. In fact, they are facing what seems like a mountain of unfamiliar work, and (at the outset of their college adventure) no end in sight. Egg timer to the rescue! I tell them, “Hey, no one likes tackling a tedious task,” but setting a timer gives one the sense that it will be done sometime before the crack of doom. Once they get started, they may be surprised at how quickly the half hour passes.

They need to get a calendar, preferably software-based like Outlook or Google Calendar, and begin programming in specific work-times. If they wait until they feel like studying, the aforementioned crack of doom will sound before that ever happens. It is new to them (keeping in mind how young many of them are) this idea of scheduling life.  We have likely forgotten all of the things we needed to learn along the way through our undergraduate years on into graduate school.  I know I really only got serious about time management the year I had to plan for fieldwork in another country, along with prelims, orals, a Smithsonian internship, and finding funding.

Finally, walking into the classroom five or ten minutes ahead of time to set up, have you ever noticed early-bird students sitting, nothing on their desks, arms down, staring into space, almost as if they have been powered down?  This is another potentially useful period of time. I remind them that, as adults, with multiple responsibilities including work, family, and social obligations on top of school, it is totally understandable that they get behind; but being adults also means finding slivers of space and time to get caught up in. If they just study those ten minutes before each class, three times a week, they have slipped an extra half an hour of reading in for each course they take. What kind of impact do they think that will have on their grade over the course of the semester?

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