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Efficiency Hacks from "You @ the U"

Posted: Tuesday, September 28, 2021

A photograph of the book You at the U with a teal blue notebook, both sitting on a silver laptop

As we near the end of September, many students may feel overwhelmed and unable to keep up with the demands of student life. Today on the blog, we're exploring a few of Dr. Janet Miller's efficiency hacks. This is an excerpt from chapter 8, “Time Machines and How to Use them,” from You @ the U: A Guided Tour through Your First Year of University. You @ the U is available as a free open access download or for purchase in paperback.


Efficiency Hacks – Ways to Find More Time

Remember the study by my colleagues Jung and Leung about smart students studying more effciently? Let’s talk about how to make that happen.

Take Notes

In university, you need to take notes during lectures. It’s proven that we remember better when we write things down with an actual pen on an actual piece of paper (compared to typing things out or just listening). The act of writing is better than the act of typing. Muscle memory is a real thing, and when you write, you’re engaging more of your mental capacity and sparking several kinds of memory:

  • Auditory memory: what you’re hearing.
  • Visual memory: what you see or the words or diagrams you put down on the page.
  • Muscle or kinesthetic memory: what your body remembers of the experience of writing (writing is more complex than typing, which adds richness to our memory). 
  • Semantic memory: your understanding of what the words, ideas, and concepts mean.

Together, these types of memory form an episodic memory of the class, and the richer this experience is, the more of a memory you’ll have of that episode of your life. When you’re trying to recall something during an exam – you’ll have visual, auditory, and kinesthetic cues to link to the meaning of the material.

Colour coding your notes is not required but, for many, it keeps it fun and lighthearted and helps them stay focused on the task. It also adds dimension to the episode, which might make it easier to remember later.

Other cues that students find helpful include having a particular book or binder for each class, sitting in the same seat, or using symbols to anchor their attention to important things. Carlos puts a star beside things he thinks will be on the exam, and he highlights the things he doesn’t quite understand – to look them up later. There are experts on your campus who can give you more tips. Recall that Donnie had two meetings with a learning strategist where he learned some tips for taking great notes. He also joined a peer-study group where he was mentored by upper-year students who gave him tips on what profs want and don’t want:

  • If a piece of information is presented in class and is also in the textbook, then it will likely show up on the exam.
  • If a piece of information is not in the textbook but is mentioned in class, then it will likely be on the exam.
  • Profs like to put their own spin on the material, and they like to test you about it too.

Taking notes will help you to see these overlaps and distinctions. I’m confident that these kinds of services are available at your school and most likely free. Go and find them.

Follow the Five-and-Dime Rule

I’ve been using the phrase five and dime for years, but I don’t mean it as an ode to the dollar-store equivalents of the 1920s. I mean that if you take five minutes in one place and ten minutes in another, your return on that studying investment will be astounding. The five-and-dime technique makes your studying more efficient, and because it’s so strong, I think it’s a rule all students should follow. Here’s how it works: You know those great notes you just took in your lecture? Reviewing them will help solidify your memory of that class, and it’s best to do that review right away. So, if you can, stay for ten minutes after class and reread your notes. Read them all the way through. Do this within an hour of the lecture if you can.

  • Correct your spelling mistakes on key terms.
  • Make sure everything is legible.
  • Underline what seems most important.
  • Highlight what you don’t understand.
  • Put a check beside what you have seen in the textbook. (Remember: if something appears in the lecture and the text, it is a strong candidate for an exam question.)

That ten minutes of review is the dime. Once you have read through the notes, put them away and head on to what is next on your schedule. Done. The five comes just before you have the next lecture in that class. Before the lecture starts, go in and spend five minutes reviewing the notes you took last class. This review will activate your memory, getting your brain ready to integrate new information. If you’re confused about something in your notes, or if it looks like your information is incomplete, ask the professor to explain that part again.

Combined with excellent note-taking skills, using five minutes before class and then ten minutes after each and every class to review your notes will cut your study time down by at least a third. For Alyssa, that could result in a savings of 15 hours every week. That’s 15 hours she’ll have back in her schedule to work, socialize, or slow down and relax. If you follow the five-and-dime rule, of course, you’ll still have some horribly hard school weeks that will eat up those extra hours, but most weeks you’ll have the ability to be on top of your workload. Bonus outcomes, when it comes time to study for an exam, are that:

  • Your notes will already be in great shape. They have been reviewed and corrected through the five-and-dime rule.
  • Your memory will be in great shape – you’ve already read each of your lecture notes at least three times (once when you wrote them, and twice through the fve-and-dime process).
  • As a result, it will take you less time to study for any exam based on these notes.

Do the Least Preferred Thing First

If it’s that journal entry you’re avoiding, get it done first and out of the way. If you’re dreading that email or really don’t want to go get those articles from the library, then that’s what you should start with. If you’ve got a sick feeling about a particular task, then getting it done will make you feel relief. If you postpone the pain of doing something, you’ll be stuck with the pain of thinking about it. That dread will weigh on you through the day and will interfere with your efficiency. Getting the least preferred thing out of the way first will give you space to feel better and get things done.

Don’t Multi-task, Single-Task

Multi-tasking was once promoted as a way to save time, but we now know that most of us are terrible at doing two things simultaneously. What we’re really doing when we’re multi-tasking is switching between two tasks. This kind of attention-switching actually causes stress and reduces efficiency. We do better when we stick to one thing (watching a video, reading a chapter, having a conversation). Retraining your attention to stay on one thing for more than twenty minutes might take some time, but you can do it.

Set False Deadlines

Mikael started setting false deadlines in his second semester, and he hopes you’ll start doing it right away. With one term under his belt, he vowed to stay more on top of his workload. During the first week of the new semester, he got all of his course outlines and began to figure out his plan. Two classes had big endings: Aviation History and Air Law had a research essay worth 40 percent (due April 4), and Advanced Aviation Meteorology had a final assignment worth 35 percent (due April 5). Altogether, he was taking five classes with seven assignments, five tests, three presentations, four papers, a mega-essay, a mega-assignment, and three group projects (not to mention final exams).

With the chaos of last term fresh in his mind, Mikael made himself a semester plan. He bought one of those large, reusable wall calendars, the kind that shows four months at a glance, and began to plot out deadlines. The hot spots were clear. Time would be pinched in February, just before reading break, but it was really the first three weeks of March that were loaded. Then, curiously, there was a bit of a breather (a full week with no deadlines) before those term papers came due and final exams arrived. Knowing what he knows now – Mikael resisted the temptation to think that the semester looked light through February. Clearly, he would need that time to prepare for March Madness. Thinking strategically, Mikael decided he had to put his weeks in January to work for him. This is how he approached it:

  1. Tackle small assignments first. He decided to get ahead on his Aviation Foundations course by drafting all six “refection” papers by mid-January (instead of leaving them peppered throughout the semester). He handed three of them in and impressed his teacher. He decided to hand in the other three closer to Reading Week.
  2. Find a group or group members eager to get things done. Mikael found group members who were interested in getting projects done early. This was a big relief and opened up a lot of time. They plotted out several meetings knowing their schedules would fill up fast.
  3. Break big things into small chunks. Mikael broke his large essays, especially those that were worth 30 percent or more of his final grade, into smaller pieces. He created deadlines for picking a topic and library research and aimed to have at least three good sources for each paper before the reading break. He set dates for when he needed to have his “messy first drafts” done and felt that once these deadlines were in place the term looked doable.
  4. Make realistic plans for Reading Week. Michael hoped to go away during Reading Week, but when he looked at his new schedule, he decided to schedule a four-day vacation (skiing with three close friends) instead. He’d leave just before Reading Week to hit the books steadily on the Tuesday of the break. The week after Reading Week would be a disaster if he didn’t focus.
  5. Schedule a reward to look forward to. Mikael’s birthday (April 3) fell at quite possibly the worst time in the term. He decided that if he was going to have a decent birthday bash, he’d have to have everything done. Feedback from his friends reminded him that everyone was in the same boat. He decided to do a family brunch on his birthday and to “celebrate proper” on April 9, once classes were over. Wicked.
Posted by Megan M.
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