How students can make time their friend, not their enemy

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Learning takes time. The best education weaves an individual’s personal traits into the time schedule and process that suits them best. If it takes one month to fully understand what the French Revolution is all about, or to comprehend the inner workings of the respiratory system, then so be it. After all, learning is a lifelong process, no?

The downside to current assessment systems across modern universities is that they somewhat rush this learning process. Proponents may argue that exams and assignments spur students to apply what they’ve learnt or at the very least, have show they possess the basic information of what their field is all about. But critics continually argue against the effectiveness of textbook regurgitation, often tackled in large chunks in just two hours or less.

It can feel like time is working against you – but can we make it work for us?

Study guides, and to a large degree self-help books on how to be successful, often focus on one formula: do as many things as possible in as short a time as possible. It’s a formula set to backfire unless you possess superhuman powers that allow you to survive on little sleep, or you’re willing to sacrifice a whole lot of leisure.

But science is on our side. Multiple studies have sought to unearth the secret serum on how to use time to get the most out of your studyies. Here are some of our favourites:

1.The 90-minute attention span rule

Any attempt to be more productive ultimately starts with the question of how long your individual attention span is. The average lies between 50 to 90 minutes according to the United States Army research institute, before we should take a break.

The highest-performing 10 percent of employees in the US were found to have an attention span of 52 minutes, followed by 17-minute effective breaks (ie. away from the computer), according to data analysed by DeskTime – a productivity app that tracks employee computer use.

2. The Pomodoro Technique

One of the most popular techniques around, the Pomodoro Technique has been known since the late 1980s. Named after a tomato-shaped kitchen timer, it’s as simple as it is widely celebrated by the procrastinators and easily-distracted worldwide.

Also, how cute is this timer? Source: Shutterstock

Essentially, the learner sets a task to be accomplished, sets the timer to 25 minutes, works on said task until the timer rings, then ticks off the task as done. The learner then earns themselves a short break (five minutes is the recommended period), the length of which is increased every four rounds. For a more detailed explanation of the technique, Francisco Carrillo, the Pomodoro creator, explains it here.

3. Take breaks!

We love breaks. And praise be to the gods of science for suggesting we should be taking more of them. A study from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign studied four groups working on a brain-intensive task for 50 minutes. The more breaks each group took, the more mental stamina they had at the end of the 50 minutes.

So go ahead and book that spring break vacation! Source: Shutterstock

Long vacations help, too. In fact, they’ve been found to have long, serious and measurable benefits on productivity for returning office workers (and even US Presidents!).

4. Distractions can pump us up

A study from the University of Amsterdam asked two groups of students to choose which car they wanted to purchase from a set of specifications. The first group was allowed to study the document for four minutes, while the second group was asked to solve anagrams as an intentional distraction. The second group was found to have made the better decision because the “distractions” effectively rested their analytical processing skills. They were then re-energised to solve the problem.

5. Plan ahead

While the above gives us an idea on how to manage our time short-term, there are long-term measures we can use for smarter use of our time. Professor Robert A Hatch from the University of Florida advises that you study for a minimum of four to five hours each day. This may sound like a lot to university students, but it’s only slightly more than half what most high school students or office workers do in daily eight-hour shifts.

Your calendar app is your best friend. Source: Shutterstock

Your calendar app should be the “centerpiece” of your day, not left purely for last minute binging before the big day or deadline. Hatch also suggests keeping a “work calendar” for the entire semester, noting when all mid-terms, papers and final exams are.

6. Early bird or night owl?

The literature on this is a mixed bag. Vast amounts of research by University of Sussex Psychologist Dr Jane Oakhill conclude that morning is the best time for absorbing new information. On the other end of the spectrum, studying at night and sleeping straight after allows the information to sink in and settle in your brain. Neuroscientist William Klemm wrote for Psychology Today: “There is no longer any doubt. Sleep does improve the gelling or consolidation of memory for recently encoded information.”

Do night owls study better? Source: Shutterstock

Then there’s research from the University of Nevada, Reno and the UK’s Open University, which found that to learn the most, first and second-year college students should be going to classes that start after 11am as this is when they have maximum cognitive performance. Adolescents have a much later body clock, so the student learning process improves after 11am and peaks in the afternoon and evening.

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