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Getting time on your side

Students can have a tough time during finals because they don’t manage time well. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
Tuesday, May 10, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 7:05 p.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008

If there two things any MU student would say they need more of, they would be time and money.

And during finals week, time becomes the more valuable commodity.

“The No. 1 reason students do not succeed is because they don’t use good time management,” said James Sharrock, director of Undergraduate Advising for International Business at MU.

Brandon Brown, an MU junior, had a 10- to 12-page paper due for his History of Reformation class based on the 350-page book “Salvation at Stake.” But the night before it was due, after 12 hours of frantic work, he had only four pages written.

He was still working when the library closed, so he moved to a friend’s room, and he seemed riveted in his seat. When his friend suggested sleep, Brown mumbled: “Yeah, that would help.”

But he was out of time.

John Robinson, past director of the Americans’ Use of Time Project at the University of Maryland, groups external factors affecting time use into four interacting groups: personal, role, environmental and resource.

Personal factors include things like age, sex and race. Role factors are the functions people serve such as student, parent and spouse. Environmental factors, also known as time constraints, include location and schedule. Resources are what allow for more ways to spend time, such as income and technology.

Add to those factors multiple competing expectations on students’ lives, said Kevin Payne, a sociology professor at MU. Consider: Each student has a different set of expectations from each professor. So someone taking 15 hours of three-credit courses would have five different sets to measure up to.

Now add the clubs that students join. It’s possible that a student could have a Missouri Students Association meeting right after — or during — a chapter meeting for a Greek Life house. Then layer on the expectations of parents.

Freshmen have an especially hard time adjusting to the college schedule. “Most freshmen have never had to use time management before,” Sharrock said. “In high school, you have bells to keep your schedule.”

High school typically offers a schedule that guides students through the day: class in the morning, sports or clubs after school, homework at night. But when students get to college, they “don’t have anyone looking over their back,” Sharrock said. And without that guidance, they have more freedom to do what they please with their time.

In other words, more opportunity to mismanage their time.

Young students often come to college with the wrong approach to studying, said Mary Bixby, a staff member at the MU Students Success Center.

“The mythology with freshman is that you are supposed to study at night and suffer (from it),” Bixby said.

Technology, a resource factor, is another external pressure. Transportation, TV, instant Internet communication have led to a more “fluid” sense of time — time that is not as “rigid” as it is when time is sectioned off.

Current communication “dislocates you from time by using different time streams at the same time,” Payne said. Online communication is a prime example.

“Students could be instant-messaging someone on a quick-time stream, while e-mailing someone else on a much slower time stream,” he said. “With multiple stream lines it becomes easier to lose track of real-time speed.”

Computers can draw students in for long stretches of time through what MIT psychologist Sherry Turkle identified as the “immersive” experience of technology in her book “Life on the Screen.” When a student uses a computer, Payne said, he or she sits close. That allows the computer to take up a large portion of the student’s field of vision.

And as users finger over the mouse and keyboard, they feel and interact with them. Payne noted the University of Chicago psychology professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s “Flow Experience” process that allows users to “get in the rhythm of (the computer).” After being drawn into the computer, the sense of time is lost on video games or interactive sites.

A more internal explanation of poor time skills is the “planning fallacy.” “As humans, we are naturally bad at understanding time accuracy,” said Payne, summarizing the research.

All of this plays out in students’ study habits. They start by planning how long it will take to study but often underestimate the time required. And they imagine studying for uninterrupted stretches of time.

This plan derails in several ways. If you study in your room, a roommate might have friends over and be distracting. If you settle in at the library, a friend will stop by to chat. Your computer might crash; your printer might run out of paper in the middle of the night.

“You tell yourself the story of your success,” Payne said. “Rarely does it go off as easily as the perfect success you imagined.”

This makes students spend much more time “studying” than they had planned.

That’s exactly what happened to Brown. While he was desperate to get his overdue paper written, friends kept poking their heads into the room. Each time he looked up and lost his place. As the night went on, his frustration and fatigue grew. Brown finished his marathon writing session at 5 a.m.– three hours before his class started.

So what’s the answer? Sharrock, who teaches “Learning Strategies for College Students” as part of the Student Success Center, has several tips.

“In my class, students keep a week-long diary of all their activities,” he said. “At the end of the week, the students can then see what their ‘time stealers’ are.”

TV is one of the most common.

Sharrock also asks them to record their free time: the amount of time each week not committed to class, study, work, practice, meetings and night sleep.

“The free time usually is between 60 and 70 hours each week,” he said. “Think about what could be done with that time.”

Small things add up, he said: “Take the little bits (of time) and use them.”

For example, instead of going back to your room between classes, the experts suggest better use of that time.

Bixby, the self-proclaimed mother of the Learning Strategies program that Sharrock teaches, urges students to study between classes. But even when they do, she said, they need to do it wisely.

“They make the emphasis the clock, not the task,” she said.

Students tend to pay more attention to the clock than to the material they need to study. Bixby suggests setting an alarm to signal when time is up, rather than constantly checking your clock.

Perhaps the biggest help: Make a to-do list of priorities. Bixby suggests making two lists — a long-term list with tests and work, and a short-term list with the day’s needs.

But Payne cautioned not to make the list too demanding lest frustration sets in.

“Frustration leads to a cascading effect where you waste more time and try to cut corners,” he said.

Bixby maintains that each list should include two personal items as rewards: perhaps a phone call to a friend, or a lunch break in the park.

Setting aside time for habitual behavior is not the same as a reward, she said.

“A habitual behavior, such as watching a soap opera, is not a reward,” Bixby said. “It would be better to tape it and watch it on the weekend with friends as a reward.”

Bixby also warned against the habit of students to “gun” for one exam at a time during finals’ week. Instead, she suggests that students cycle through each course, and spend larger portions of time on the tests most important to their grades.


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