It’s the start of the second term. How did you do academically in the first term? Not as well as you would have expected? Me too. I would spare the ‘don’t worry, it will get better’, since I, for one, do not believe things improve simply by waiting it out. As much as it pains me to say, I do recognise the need for active change in order to not only improve your grades, studying, but also to appreciate the full university experience.
The first important reflection to make is whether you are enjoying studying for your degree. In recent years, rates of attrition – leaving university early – have steadily increased. Though this may be a result of various factors, the question remains whether students have chosen degree courses that they do not necessarily have a passion for. If you have discovered that your degree is not the right fit for you, do not be discouraged from attempting to transfer. It is better to sort out tedious administrative matters now rather than remaining in a course you do not care about. If this is not possible, seek sections of your course that you have some semblance of interest in. It’s hard, I know, but the least we can do is try.
My initial picturesque vision of engaging in scholarly conversations has been proved as simply a lofty ideal
For the majority of first years, studying is not an enjoyable process, especially when you find yourself not comprehending the concepts presented, or more fundamentally, not understanding the reasons for learning a particular topic. Furthermore, residual burnout from A-Levels, IB, or equivalent exams can be a significant aspect of the lack of motivation to immerse yourself into the subjects you are meant to love. Personally, my interaction with academic material has not been the most positive. My initial picturesque vision of engaging in scholarly conversations has been proved as simply a lofty ideal. On the contrary, I spent my first term attempting, and for the most part, failing to read dry academic textbooks, struggling to grasp the most basic concepts due to unfamiliarity with phrasing and vocabulary.
To get to grips with university and the independent learning involved, we need to hold ourselves accountable for our degrees. Self-discipline, although unpleasant and sometimes even painful, is a valuable characteristic to cultivate. By self-discipline, I do not mean adopting an ascetic, controlling attitude towards life. This certainly would be too much to expect from ourselves, and failure of commitment would just lead to a whole lot of unnecessary disappointment. On the other hand, we need to start recognising that we do have control of our time. For me, this was a daunting realisation. Having stuck to school timetables all my life, the ability of choosing what to do with my time spooked me – bad choices ensued.
Since then, I have discovered some tips to improve productivity in a fairly realistic manner:
- Wake up earlier
By no means am I an early riser. If I had it completely my way, I would wake up just in time for lunch. But on the days I’ve woke up at 6.30am, I realised that I have much more time on my hands to dedicate to activities I enjoy doing. Multiple studies have proven that waking up early frees up more time in your day in comparison to waking up later and sleeping late. Independent of the scientific explanation, waking up early simply gives you a sense of accomplishment which propels you to achieve more in the day! Early mornings begin the night before. In order to wake up in time for your 9ams, and spare some time for personal projects, having a slow morning coffee, or studying, if you fancy, you need to sleep earlier. Perhaps cut down on the late-night Instagram scrolling in exchange for more sleep. Your body will thank you for it.
- (Don’t) fake it til you make it
If you are not naturally inclined to enjoy studying, it can be really tough to start. I’ve heard of people being successful in getting motivated by simply pretending to be, but an important distinction must first be made between ‘surface acting’ and ‘deep acting’.
Surface acting involves the change of external emotional display without changing the feelings inside, such as smiling through tightly concealed anger. On the contrary, deep acting requires us to empathise with the subject at hand: really putting oneself in another’s shoes. This involves a rigorous understanding of the mindset of someone who is interested in studying, which is certainly not easy, but can reap immense benefits as our true mindset begins to shift in response.
- Create a ‘to-do’ list and a ‘have-done’ list
The benefits of to-do lists are widely recognised. They allow you to keep track of your tasks for the day, schedule your day around your tasks, and ultimately give you a sense of satisfaction when you tick them off the list. However, on many occasions, unexpected events spruce up, some tasks take more time than initially expected, and you’re left with an incomplete to-do list. This might drive you to think that you were unproductive, but this is far from the truth. To-do lists can be incredibly unrealistic, especially if you, like me, are a time optimist.
Breaking down your tasks is a simple way of setting more realistic goals. For instance, instead of jotting down ‘complete essay’ in your to-do list, separate each step of the essay-writing process: deciding on a hypothesis, finding appropriate books and academic journals, reading your sources and taking notes down, planning your structure, and finally writing the essay. Immediately, the task seems less intimidating.
There is no one-size-fits-all formula to productivity
Another tip is to reflect on the tasks you have completed for the day. This does not have to be academic: doing your laundry, cooking meals, and tidying your room all contribute to learning to live independently, which is a crucial aspect of university. Noting down your achievements on paper, no matter how menial they may seem, helps you practice gratitude and self-love. I believe that these kinds of positive actions would eventually lead to improving confidence in understanding academic matters.
There is no one-size-fits-all formula to productivity. The fact that for most degrees, first year do not count precisely accounts for this concern. This is our time to discover new learning methods suited for us. It’s a personal process of self-reflection and growth, but if any of these tips resonate with you, feel free to try them out!