Everybody has a maximum of 168 hours each week (yes, even you!). But how should you be filling that time each week if you’re a University student? It’s a question I’m often asked. And it’s a good one because University is usually the first time students have to study independently for significant periods of time. This new experience can sometimes lead to time management problems.
The two most common are:
1. Insufficient independent study, and
2. Incorrectly structured independent study.
How can you avoid these? I’ll dig into these problems in more depth before outlining some strategies and tactics to help you get the right balance and the results you desire.
Insufficient study time
University is often the first time you’ll have almost complete freedom to decide your weekly schedule. After the structure and rigour of school and college, it can come as a surprise to find yourself with a relatively small amount of direct contact with your tutors in lectures, seminars, and tutorials.
It may seem as though you have a high percentage of free time, and coupled with the myriad of opportunities for leisure and pleasure University offers, it’s easy to start to scrimp on study time. But you can’t squeeze a semester’s worth of study into the week before your assessment is due. It’s this behaviour that leads to last minute panic, all night study sessions and a large dose of stress! Over time, this boom and bust pattern of working will lead you to burn-out and get poor results.
Pro Tip #1: Simply adding your essay and exam deadlines to your calendar is a recipe for disaster. Make sure you actually block out time in your day/week for independent study.
Incorrectly structured study time
Even if you’re a diligent student who wants to engage in individual study, you may be at a loss as to how to structure your time appropriately. You may have created a timetable and allocated specific hours to study in the library or at home (like in Pro Tip #1). But within those blocks of time, you’re not sure whether you should be reading, writing or revising. You’re not sure what time you should allow for each activity or what order to do it in.
Despite your good intentions, you’re not certain whether you’ve done the required amount of study or used your time efficiently and effectively. The nagging doubt persists that you might still have a last minute scramble to complete your reading and research when your assessment deadline looms. Not good.
Pro Tip #2: Establish a regular timetable for independent study, then write it down or print it out. It’s far easier to maintain balance and self-discipline if you have a solid routine to your day and week.
Do you see yourself in either of those two pen portraits above?
Honestly, I know as an undergraduate I did both. *Awkward*
Okay, so if you DO recognise yourself in either of those descriptions, how do make sure you get the necessary amount of study completed?
Well, let’s start with the total number of hours you need to be working.
A good guide is you should undertake 100 hours of study in total for a 10 credit module, and 150 hours for a 15 credit module. This total study figure includes the contact hours you receive in lectures, tutorials, and seminars. These will typically count for around 20% of your total study time.
You don't need to be a whizz at statistics to realise that leaves a significant amount of time for self-directed study! But exactly how should that additional 80 or 120 hours be spent? Read on...
Lectures and tutorials
First a little diversion…
Although it may seem obvious, it still needs to be said – barring illness or injury ALWAYS attend your lectures and tutorials! While it may be tempting to miss one now and again, lectures and tutorials are the primary opportunities you have to engage with the academic expert teaching your course and hear the material explained and expanded in a way that’s easier to digest. Borrowing notes from a friend, flipping through the lecture slides at home, or watching a replay of the lecture online are all very poor substitutes for being present in body and mind.
Right, that’s my lecture over :)
Reading and researching material before and after lectures and tutorials
There are some elements of independent study that are required for every course. Reading and researching in preparation for lectures is one of these essentials. You’re highly unlikely to be successful or get the maximum value from your course unless you complete the required reading AND go beyond it. Primarily this involves reviewing the slides and learning objectives for each lecture in advance, and then sourcing and reading relevant books and journal articles. Reading in advance of a tutorial and preparing any questions or points that you’ve been asked to discuss is equally important.
If you complete any required and additional reading in advance of lectures and tutorials, then you are in a much stronger position than students who attend without any preparation.
You’ll be able to:
- Understand the topics being discussed,
- Fully engage in the lecture or tutorial,
- Ask thoughtful questions,
- Clarify points that confuse you,
- Contribute to group work, and
- Impress and inspire others (go on, you know you want to).
Substantial benefits, huh? My guide would be to schedule between two and a half to four hours of preparation for each lecture or tutorial. The exact amount of time will depend on the length of the lectures – for example, a 90-minute lecture requires less research and reading than a three-hour session.
Remember to bear this in mind: the work will still need to be done whether you prepare in advance or leave it until after your direct contact hours with your lecturer and peers.
Pro Tip #3: Get a bigger return on your investment of time by doing the same amount of research and reading BEFORE the lecture or tutorial instead of AFTER it. Trust me, it will pay off!
Preparing for assessments
The main influence on how the rest of your time should be structured will depend on how your course is being assessed. A module or course that’s being assessed by an exam will require a different approach to one where the majority of the marks depend on submitting an essay or report or an individual or group presentation.
How much time should you spend on assessments? For a ten credit course the MINIMUM you can get away with is around 30 hours and for a 15 credit course, it’ll look more like 45 hours.
Yikes! A whole working week? Really?
Yep. If you want to be hitting the high marks, then you should expect to allocate around an entire week or more to either essay research and writing or exam prep or revision depending upon the form of assessment for that particular module.
But don’t panic. You have around 10 or 11 weeks to get those hours under your belt. In fact, many modules have a specially designated ‘Reading Week’ to help you do just that.
Okay, so those 30-45 hours of assessment preparation. How exactly should you spend them?
If it’s an essay or report
Activities should include:
- Additional reading and research on the topic you’ve chosen,
- Searching for relevant books and articles beyond your reading list,
- Creating your first draft,
- Pulling together the references or citations,
- Proofreading and editing,
- Running the final version through plagiarism detection software *
- Printing and submitting, or
- Uploading to the University’s portal or submission site.
Pro Tip #4: Front-load your timetable so that you have completed your reading and final draft at least a week before the deadline. You will be amazed how many improvements you can make to your final assignment if you have time to put it to one side for a day or two and then reread and edit it.
*Many Universities provide access to plagiarism checking software. Run your final essay through it to detect places where you may have forgotten to include quotation marks or a citation/reference.
If it’s an exam
Activities should include:
- Additional reading and research on the major topics covered,
- Reviewing the lecture slides and notes,
- Reviewing and revising your notes,
- Identifying and filling gaps in your knowledge,
- Creating visual aids to aid your memory like diagrams and flowcharts,
- Practicing using previous exam papers, and finally
- Checking instructions, directions, and equipment for the exam itself.
Pro Tip #5: Find out what the format of the exam and the weighting of the questions. That way you’ll know exactly how many questions you will be expected to answer and what proportion of time to allocate to each.
Every course is different and you may have other types of assessments thrown into the mix as well such as individual or group presentations. Here it’s vital to look at the amount of marks allocated to each assessment and make sure the effort you put in is proportional. A well prepared and practiced individual or group presentation would probably require around ten hours of work.
Pro Tip #6: It’s not always possible for you to pick and choose who is a member of your group for group activities. If you do have a say, then consider people who have a similar timetable to yourself to make meeting up straightforward.
Hopefully, that’s helped shed some light on how you might structure your time. I’ll recap with a few different examples.
Example 1 – the 10 credit course with exams
11 Lectures = 22 hours
Reading = 48 hours
Exam prep = 30 hours
Total Study Time = 100 hours
Example 2 – the 10 credit course with essay
10 Lectures = 20 hours
1 Tutorial = 1 hour
Reading = 44 hours
Essay Prep = 35 hours
Total Study Time = 100 hours
Example 3 – the 15 credit course with multiple assessments
11 Lectures = 33 hours
2 Tutorials = 2 hours
Reading = 52 hours
Essay Prep = 48 hours
Presentation Prep and practice = 15 hours
Total Study time = 150 hours
Do you find yourself struggling to fit in enough study time? What areas of self-study do you find the most difficult? Please let me know in the comments below!