I was in a student coffee bar during my first week at university soaking in the atmosphere when a lad from Oldham, of conspicuously cool and languid manner, announced calmly that he intended to get a first in classics. He would work 25 hours a week, study five hours a day on weekdays and leave the weekends free. That would be sufficient. I was vaguely committed to endless hours of work. I imagined that at some point I would spend weeks of intensive study. The vice-chancellor had told us in his address to freshers to look at the person on either side and note that in all probability one of us would not be around the following year. The message struck home: I would turn myself into a paragon of academic virtue. I could see that the classicist in the coffee bar had got it all wrong, or was bluffing.
Three years later he sailed to his first whilst other friends struggled to very modest achievements. As I discovered when sharing his lodgings, he worked more or less to the plan he had outlined. He slept late in the mornings, only stirring himself if there was a lecture to attend. He played cards with the rest of us after lunch. Then he moved to his desk and stayed there till around seven. The evenings he spent more wildly than most hence the late mornings. Nevertheless, when I came to look back I realised he had studied more than anyone else I knew. Through sticking assiduously to a modest but well-defined, realistic plan, he had achieved a great deal. He had enjoyed work much more, too. He argued that it was not possible to work productively at intensive intellectual tasks for more than a few hours at a time. I aimed to do much more. But I was easily distracted. By the time it was apparent that stretches of a day had slipped away, I felt so guilty that I blotted studies out of my mind, comforting myself with the thought of all the days which lay ahead. I was too inexperienced at looking after my own affairs to realise I was already failing one of the major tests of studenthood, the organisation of time. I thought that success in studying was to do with how brilliantly clever and original you were; I had yet to discover that one of the central challenges of adult life is time management.
At school the work timetable was defined for us and teachers made sure we fitted all that was required into the school year. At university I was at sea. Time came in great undifferentiated swathes. What to do with it all? With 168 hours in a week or 105, allowing nine a day for sleeping and eating how many was it reasonable to spend on study? Individuals vary and different subjects make different demands. Nevertheless with a target you can plan your studies, not just stumble ahead in hope. The sketchiest of weekly timetables, setting aside 40 hours to cover all study, is an invaluable aid in defining time. Then you can divide it into segments and use it strategically, rather than let it dribble away. Defining what to do is harder. Take the booklists. How many books are students expected to read? How long should a book take? It took me so long to read just a few pages that I felt defeated when I looked ahead. Should I take notes? How many? What would I need them for? I would sit in the library for a whole day, dipping into one book after another, often with glazed over eyes. What was my purpose? How would I know when I had achieved it? By comparison I went to lectures gratefully -at least I knew when they started and finished. Although my lecture notes weren`t up too much, I could tell myself I had accomplished something, which would bring down my anxiety level.
Much later I discovered I could learn a great deal from a close reading of selected sections; that taking notes could sometimes be very satisfying and at other times was not necessary. The trick was to take control; to decide what I wanted to find out something specific and then work at it until I had taken in enough to think about for the time being. Dividing big jobs into smaller subtasks helps to bring work under control, allows you to set targets and check your progress. There is so much pressure to be ambitious to go for the long dissertation, to read the huge tomes. Yet achievement arises out of quite modest activities undertaken on a small scale. The trouble with the big tasks is that you keep putting them off. Their scope and shape is unclear and we all flee from uncertainty. The more you can define your work as small, discrete, concrete tasks, the more control you have over it. Organising tasks into the time available can itself be divided into strategy and application. It is useful to think of yourself as `investing` time. Some tasks require intense concentration and need to be done at a prime time of day, when you are at your best and have time to spare. Others can be fitted in when you are tired, or as `warm-up` activities at the start of a session. Some, such as essay writing, may best be spread over several days. Some need to be done straight away.
There are few reliable guidelines. Essentially you have to keep circling round a self-monitoring loop: plan an approach to a task, try it out, reflect afterwards on your success in achieving what you intended and then revise your strategy. Once you start to think strategically, you begin to take control of your studies rather than letting them swamp you.
Choose the word or phrase which best completes each sentence:
1. The vice-chancellor`s speech ________ the writer.
a) amused b)failed to convince c)frightened d)terrified
2. The lad from Oldham`s time at university was _______ than the writer`s.
a) less successful b)more fun c)more intellectual d)more strenuous
3. While he was in the university library the writer _______ .
a) couldn`t concentrate b)dozed off c)read books from cover to cover
d) worked hard
4. Towards the end of his time at university the writer _________ .
a) gave up hope b)organised himself better c)worked harder
d) wrote a long dissertation
5. The writer recommends _______ .
a) studying for a short time every day b) finishing one task before starting another
c) studying only when you are alert d) deciding when each kind of task is best done
Explain in English what is meant by:
1. circling round a self-monitoring loop
4. blotted out
5. at sea
8. dribble away
9. dipping into
10. glazed over
Answer the following questions:
1. Which of the advice given in the passage do you agree with?
2. Which do you already follow? Which ought you to follow?
3. How does life at a British university, as described in the passage, differ from university life in your country?