College Chronicles is a blog-based reality series that follows real students attempting to overhaul their study habits. Click here for the series archive.
Welton Wants to Study Earlier
Welton, the Harvard Linguistics major, wrote me recently asking for help. He was unhappy with his test preparation habits. Too often, he was leaving studying until the night before. He wanted to get it done earlier and with less stress.
As we learned last time — when I helped Leena inject some rationality into her chaotic MIT experience — my study philosophy dictates that the first step to improving academic performance is to add some structure to your schedule.
The Student Work Week
In the last episode of College Chronicles, I introduced the student work week. See that post for more details. The basic strategy, however, is simple:
- Count how many hours of regular classwork you need to accomplish during the typical week.
- Pick a cutoff time such that if between when you wake up and the cutoff, all you do is work in the library, eat meals, and attend classes, you will finish all the work counted in the previous step.
The strategy is straight-forward, but powerful. Each morning, you get up and work until your cutoff point. During this period you never return to your room or see friends. When you finish, you’re done for the day. As you might expect, this makes the student experience a lot less painful.
It’s time for Welton to jump on board the student work week wagon…
Welton’s Student Work Week
Welton estimates that he has 24 hours of regular work that he needs to complete each week. After analyzing his weekly schedule, we decided on a work cutoff time of 6 PM. This resulted in the following work week schedule:
Welton’s free hours before the 6 PM cutoff time are marked in orange. (Notice, I also added a half hour for lunch during the week days. Don’t forget this!)
Adding up the free hours bordered in orange, we find that this schedule provides the needed 24 hours of work. Here are the important details:
- Welton’s work day doesn’t start until after his 10 AM class. This means he can get up at a reasonable hour and have plenty of time for breakfast and getting ready for the day.
- A 6 PM cut-off time is quite reasonable. It leaves, more or less, the entire evening free for Welton to do whatever the hell he wants. Trust me, this is a wonderful thing.
- Saturdays are free. A good time to relax and to sleep off the damage inflicted Friday night. Also, as discussed, declaring a productivity-free day on a regular basis is an effective way to stay balanced and energized.
- Welton’s Sunday Ritual requires four hours. This is within the safe range of Sunday work hours. If this number grew larger than 5 hours, we might consider putting some work on Saturday or extending the work cutoff time. (Too much Sunday work makes it hard to recharge for the upcoming week.)
Some Rules for Scheduling Studying
Now that Welton has a student work week, we can address test preparation. The key rule to keep in mind: test prep should never kick regular work out of your student work week schedule.
If a class cancels its normal workload for the week because of an upcoming test, Welton can re-purpose the hours for this class within the student work week to study for that test. In addition, he should consider adding two evening work blocks (2 hours each) and one long Saturday work block (3-4 hours) for the last full week before a test. Combined, these three additional blocks, which exist outside of the student work week, provide an extra 7-8 hours of studying. This should be sufficient for most tests.
If multiple tests are coming up. Welton should consider studying for one test two weeks in advance and the other one week in advance. In general, the rule here is to try to confine all test preparation to these preselected extra studying blocks. This certainty in the schedule reduces stress and keeps the work spread out in intense, short blocks — therefore avoiding pseudo-work.
After Welton adjusts to the student work week, the next steps in his transformation include:
- Introduce more efficient note-taking and reading strategies to reduce the cutoff time for the student work week — freeing up more time for relaxation!
- Use instant-replay booths and on-the-fly quiz-and-recall to reduce the time required to prepare for tests.
- Introduce some regular study blocks within the student work week to reduce test prep to a non-exceptional activity.