Let’s get this out of the way: I am a planning nerd. I love making timetables, charts, and colour coding things. When I enter Officeworks I strut like Tobey McGuire in Spiderman 3.
Enjoying this planning business is fortuitous because, for me, it’s totally necessary. Alongside full-time uni, I have three casual jobs, a small army of children and a partner I enjoy spending time with. Alarmingly, my default setting is disorganisation, procrastination and a minuscule attention span – which is a wonderful recipe for a tangy batch of self-loathing.
For me, the only way I’ve found to counteract this is to furiously timetable, plan and organise my life in order to cajole, force and drag myself into productivity.
Hot tip: it works a treat.
I recently spent some time with Alison Hillier, from Academic Learning Support, to discuss the importance and practise of planning, and this little article is brought to you by our powers combined.
If you’re unfamiliar with the work of the Academic Learning Support team feel free to explore. The workshops are fun, informal and entertaining. I highly recommend them.
Back to the task at hand, planning your semester helps you evenly distribute your study load. Imagine this: instead of crying into an empty can of energy drink at 4am the day of submission, you have already handed in an assignment you’re happy with and are sound asleep; perhaps even spending time on yourself or with your friends free from background anxiety, creeping doom and the feeling that not only is the floor lava but the walls and ceiling are too.
So, how does one become this name-taking, arse-kicking planning monster?
Brainstorm your commitments
Firstly, make a list of your responsibilities. Sure, you’ve got lectures and tutorials to attend, as well as readings to do, notes to take and a whole gamut of various academic nasties to face, but do you have a to juggle a job? Volunteer work? Children? Elderly relatives you need to care for? Write down these and anything else you need to account for.
Prioritise and contain
Uni is what you’re doing, but it’s not the only thing in your life. Prioritise uni work, but make a list of things outside that are important to you. You need to make a time for exercise, sports, social engagements, volunteering, taking the kids to soccer, housework and your favourite TV show, otherwise you’re going to go insane. This is where you contain – make time for the outside world and while you’re there forget uni exists.
Make a semester or trimester timetable.
There are also templates available through Learning Support.
This gives a good visual on where you are, what is coming up, and how far away it is. Use this to craft your weekly timetable. Alison is adamant that the weighting of each assignment is included to give you an idea of how much time to put into it, “You don’t want to timetable in a huge chunk of hours for a 5% quiz, when you have a 40% essay coming up as well.” She also suggests using a weighting device that speaks to you, “some students prefer to put the percentage of their HECS fee each assignment is worth!”
Now we have our list of outside commitments – be they work, leisure, health, family or social – and we have identified when we’re at our best and worst in regards to study, we need to combine all this with our course guides and semester plan into a weekly timetable.
Firstly, aim to attend all lectures, tutorials and labs. Panopto and online components are great resources if you need them, but, Alison explains, “Lectures and tutorials provide structure and routine, as well as necessary boundaries for study.” Also, nothing replaces being there and soaking up the knowledge like a caffeinated sponge. Fill those times in.
Now fill in permanent commitments, like your gym routine, sports, work (if it’s regular shifts), also any TV shows you can’t skip or watch at a time of your choosing.
If you have a study group or a PASS session fill it in.
Now, let’s get ugly, the expectations from the academic staff at the university is that you do 3-5 hours of study outside of each face-to-face contact hour. Every course guide you get has something about the expectation of 10 hours per week for each subject. I’ll be honest, I don’t have that much time up my sleeve. If you can’t devote that much time you need to use the time you have wisely. This is where PASS can be a great asset and so can a few workshops from Learning Support to get you studying smarter and maximising your productivity in the hours you have.
Make time before each lecture to do the readings, leave time after the lecture to make notes and, likewise, time before each tutorial to nail any requirements your tutor might have. Devote some extra time for upcoming assignments you can see haunting you. If you have an essay due in six weeks, start reading around the topic. Make some notes. Download some journal articles – at least, choose a question. If you devote a few hours to an essay now, that’s a few less hours screaming into the void and slapping yourself later on.
Make sure you don’t just write ‘study’. Target your study, otherwise you’ll trick yourself into doing nothing.
Negotiate with your friends and family. Make time for them, but make sure they understand that you’re studying and plans might need to be made in advance. As Alison points out, “It’s important to be able to say no to a social engagement, but it’s equally important to be able to say yes.”
Commit to regular study times. Developing a routine is important. Alison advises to, “Treat university like a job. If you can, come at the same time each day, and stay for the whole day.”
You should now have something that looks like this horror show:
Once you have your semester plan and weekly timetable, save it as a separate document and make a time before each week commences to revisit it and make changes necessary. This is ‘micro-planning’. You may have a social engagement, or an assignment coming up, or your roster has changed – maybe you might want to do a few workshops with Learning Support if you’re struggling with a particular STAT assignment, presentation or essay. Alison calls this ’structured flexibility’, the best success comes from a strong routine that is also adaptable to the pressing concerns of the current week.
To recap, a key to successful planning is understanding how you study, what you need to survive mentally, and to be flexible within the structures you impose on yourself.
Don’t forget Alison and Academic Learning Support are there if you need help.