Teaching Hub

Teaching how to do college: helping students schedule for success

A desk with a laptop, pen, glasses, and an open daytimer.
Photo by Volodymyr Hryshchenko on Unsplash

By Xabier Granja, Modern Languages

Over the past fifteen years teaching higher education, I have been struck by the same recurrent issue coming up with new students arriving at university: the great majority of them struggle to organize time efficiently. Here is what I tell my students…

It is an undeniable reality that once you start your college studies, your life makes a massive change from high school years:

  1. Your time is no longer as rigidly scheduled
  2. The requirements of your degree will expose you to interdisciplinary areas of interest
  3. The flexibility inherent to higher education will test your planning abilities

This pronounced degree of newfound flexibility once you begin studying at UA requires careful organizational self-discipline for students to succeed. Does anyone teach how to use time effectively at the high school level? Rarely, the curricula at this level tend to be heavily scheduled and students often just need to “follow the path” laid out in front of them. Do universities teach how to use time effectively? This is also uncommon, although there are certainly opportunities for first-year students at UA to attend workshops, 100-level courses and other events that try to prepare them for life as undergraduate students. Despite these opportunities, year after year, I keep encountering students who face similar issues:

  1. Difficulty with managing to submit work on time
  2. Sensation of being overwhelming by the breadth and quantity of semester work
  3. Delaying work as a coping method to avoid a growing to-do list
  4. Burnout from doing too many things in too little time repeatedly over semesters

These are real problems that professors encounter every semester, but they don’t have to keep happening. These are solvable problems with negative outcomes that are entirely avoidable, and it all comes down to one primary skill: scheduling your time effectively.

Sounds simple enough, but many students have not been asked to do so earlier in life, so they don’t know where to even start.

Over the past 25 years I have found it tremendously helpful to follow a deductive process: start from big picture items, then move onto smaller details. If you don’t already, start with using a calendar. It can be a paper one or a digital one from your favorite service provider – I find Google’s GCal the most flexible given that it works on all my MacOS/iOS/Windows devices.

Consider color coding your calendar, so that a zoomed out view will give you a good idea of what types of tasks you need to accomplish any given week. For me, any UA related work is crimson, my journal editorial activities are blue, one-time/exceptional workloads are purple, and my personal time is green. Pick colors that work for you, and you’ll soon realize how even just a brief glance can give you lots of information. Follow these 4 steps:

  1. At the beginning of every semester, populate your courses in your calendar: something simple will do, just the class name (for example: SP 437), the location, and the duration.
  2. With your classes now visible on your calendar, schedule when you plan to have lunch each workday. Your schedule will be similar every week, so your lunch break should be as predictable as your classes. Of course, life will happen, and you’ll have to adapt every now and then, but having clear expectations will prove immensely helpful: it’s a lot easier to skip a time slot when needed, it’s a lot harder to schedule everything as you go.
  3. With class and meal time slots occupied, turn your attention to homework/study hours. Slow and steady wins the race: it is much more manageable to schedule your work in smaller but repeated chunks than attempting to complete tasks at the last minute. Is that 1 hour, 2 hours of work per day? That depends on your schedule, but whatever it is, block that time in your calendar at the very beginning of the semester so you’re less likely to fill it with other distractions (and, when you do, at least you will be aware that you’ll need to make up for some lost work time).
  4. Finally, an important element most people never consider: schedule your fun time. This will also change depending on what life throws at you, but it’s a lot easier to get into healthy scheduling habits if you program when you expect to NOT be working. For instance, 7.30pm is when my leisure time begins on workdays. There is an important psychological effect to knowing when you will stop working for the day: it allows you to not crumble under the pressure of work yet to be completed, providing a predictable end in sight for that day and a time to look forward to. There will always exceptions that force you to occasionally work late, but %99 of the time you’ll know when you’ll be done, helping you establish healthy boundaries between work and fun.

You don’t need to schedule everything in your life, forever. Try doing this for one or two semesters. Many parts of your day are repeatable and predictable, they will become second nature and no longer need to be scheduled. In my case, that 7.30pm work cutoff is followed by an 11pm bedtime, these 2 times have become second nature over years. Other tasks (such as classes, lunchtime, and studying; which in my life as a UA professor are teaching, lunchtime, and research/administrative work) change and vary every semester, so those benefit the most from scheduling them each semester.

This way schedule your time effectively is frankly 90% of what you need to do to succeed in college. When you effectively organize your schedule, your work becomes predictable: there are no surprises such as forgotten deadlines or work that piles up at the end of a deadline. A predictable and repeatable class/lunch/study/fun schedule allows you to not end up in high-stress, burnout inducing all-nighters by scheduling manageable chunks of work every week, it allows you to not end up turning work late because you’ve been working on it already days or weeks before the deadline.

Treat your effectively scheduled time as a starting point: life will throw curve balls at you, you’ll need to change, adapt, even cancel things every now and then. But having a predictable schedule set, so you only need to follow what’s pre-planned, will help you succeed at completing your higher education studies with a lot less stress and a lot more success. If your calendar starts to look like a DNA barcode, you’re doing it right! Here’s a sample of a regular scheduled week for me:

Example of a filled-in calendar.