An undergraduate student's story...

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During my first week at University, I was having a drink with a group of new students when one of them, a rather laid back lad from Manchester, announced that he intended to get a first in Business Studies! To achieve this, he said, he'd work five hours a day on weekdays and leave the weekends free.

I was shocked! They'd told us at Induction that each year a small number of students had to do re-takes, and I was determined that this wouldn't happen to me. However, I also intended to enjoy my time at university. At some point, I guessed, I'd spend weeks studying intensively, suspending my social life and working into the early hours every night. Achieving a degree involved a lot of hard work. This lad had got it all wrong - or he was bluffing!

Three years later he got a first! Other friends struggled to more modest achievements.

As I discovered when I shared his house for a while, he worked more or less according to his plan. He slept late in the mornings, unless he had a lecture to attend. He sat chatting with the rest of us after lunch. Then he went to his desk and stayed there until around seven. His evenings were pretty wild - hence the late mornings! When I look back, though, I realise that he studied more than anyone else I knew.

He achieved a great deal by sticking to a modest but well defined, realistic plan, and he enjoyed his work! He always said it wasn't possible to work productively at intense intellectual tasks for more than a few hours at a time.

I aimed to do much more, but I was often distracted. Long stretches of the day would slip away, and then I'd feel so guilty that I'd blot my studies out of my mind, telling myself that I'd start in earnest the next day.

At school, the timetable was defined for us and teachers were responsible for fitting everything into the school year. University was completely different. Time came in great undifferentiated swathes. What should I do with it all? With 168 hours in a week - or 105, allowing nine a day for sleeping and eating - how many should I spend on study?

When I made it to the library, I'd sometimes spend the whole day drifting from one book to another. I didn't really know my purpose, so how could I know when I'd achieved it? And what about notes? Should I make them? What would I need them for?

I thought about these questions in a vague way for months, and was often anxious and uncertain about the amount I was studying. The anxiety meant that often I didn't really enjoy my 'relaxation time'. When I realised that it was affecting most of my weekends and evenings, I decided to do things differently!

I started by setting aside 40 hours a week to cover all my study, then divided the 40 into segments.

Now I had to decide what to do with my study time! What was I expected to do? What was I expected to read? I found the answers to these questions in my module handbooks and assignment briefs. They gave me, effectively, a list of tasks.

The trouble with big tasks is that their scope and shape is unclear, so you can keep putting them off. If you can define your work as small, discrete, concrete tasks, you have more control over it. The tasks become realistic targets, against which you can check your progress and gain a sense of achievement.

When would I do these tasks? Some needed intense concentration so I'd plan them for a prime time of day, when I was at my best and had time to spare. Others could be fitted in when I was tired, or as 'warm up' activities at the start of a session. Some had to be done straight away.

Now that I had a clear sense of what to do in the time available, I became more focussed. I discovered that I could achieve a great deal from close reading of selected sections of a text, and that taking notes could sometimes be very satisfying and at other times not necessary. The trick was to take control - to decide what I wanted to find out, and then work at it until I'd taken in enough for the time being.

I regularly checked my time management. Essentially I had to keep circling around a self-monitoring loop - plan an approach to a task, try it out, reflect on my success in achieving what I'd intended, then revise my strategy.

By thinking strategically, I took control of my studies rather than letting them swamp me. I discovered that the challenges of being a successful student aren't necessarily about being clever and original. As my high-achieving friend knew from the beginning, one of the central challenges of being a successful student is effective time management.

[Adapted from Northedge, A. (Sept 1991). Schedule for passing the test of time. The Guardian]

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