Getting Better: Step Away from the Clock When You Study

The Jolly Librarian has been amongst students her entire working life, so she has probably heard this refrain several million times when there’s a bad grade: “But I worked on this for hours/days/weeks/months!” 

Now I sympathize with those students; it is natural to think of the time put in on any project. But time, while important, can be a most misleading indicator. For example, when I was an undergraduate, my friends and I would go to the library to study so that we could get away from the distractions of the dorm. Once there, it took time to find a table that would seat us all. Then we had to chat for awhile. Then we got down to studying, but there might be some interesting people to watch as they walked in the room. Soon, it was time for a snack. So we went downstairs to the vending machine. The break, which was supposed to be fifteen minutes, often stretched out to thirty minutes or even a hour. Then we returned to our table and got ourselves set up when one of us would surely remember something we’d meant to say on our break but forgot. . . 

If anyone asked, we said that we studied for five or six hours in the library, but a closer analysis would reveal that we were in the library for that time, but only 50% was spent in actual studying.

That’s why most experts recommend setting specific goals for each practice session instead of committing only to a specific amount of time. For example, if you are trying to learn the piano, you can say that you’ll practice for a hour or you can say that you will practice until you can move smoothly from the C to the F chord. (Or, in my case, I will play the tune with my right hand until someone in the house recognizes it as a song.)

This change in approach can be very helpful for reading/writing activities. Most of us know what it’s like for our eyes to move across page after page but to have no idea what a chapter was about after that hour of ‘reading.’ Better options might be these:

  • I will be able to answer the review questions at the end of the chapter.
  • I will be able to summarize each section in a sentence or two.

The same is true for writing assignments. Many folks say they spent hours on a writing assignment when they mean that they agonized over a blank page or screen for most of that time. Instead of saying that you’ll work on a paper for two hours, choose a better goal:

  • I will have a rough draft (no matter how bad) written by the end of this session.
  • I will outline my paper.
  • I will have five sources in hand to show my instructor.

It is true that to learn anything, you have to put in the time. But that’s only a partial truth. It also must be time wisely spent.



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