Learning is itself a learning process

2 Jul 2019

It’s exam time – lots of stuff to review, and far too little time. The Head of LMU’s Center for Leadership and People Management, an expert in time management and organization, has tips on how to survive the crucial phase of the semester.

At the end of the semester, the demands on students reach a new peak. What can one do to avoid being crushed by the accumulation of exams and learning assignments?

PD Dr. Silke Weisweiler:  That’s not an easy question to answer. Each individual reacts to such a prospect in a subtly different way. So simply advising students to begin revising the course material at an early stage is not a cure-all. Some people need the pressure of deadlines to get them started at all. But it is a good idea to develop a plan early on. That helps to make one to consider what’s at stake and to discover how one should best go about the business of learning. Perhaps there are times and surroundings that make the task easier, or one finds a regular schedule that works best. You know yourself best, but learning is itself a learning process.

What use are last-minute tips, when one has the feeling that it’s already too late?

The worst thing that can happen is to have the feeling that one has lost all control over one’s own time. The question then is how one re-establishes that sense of control? One way of doing so is to set specific goals for oneself each day. According to the SMART principle, these goals should be both ambitious and realistic, and be achievable within a specific, measurable and reasonable time. When one is under pressure, there is a tendency to bite off more than one can chew, and that is likely to lead to disappointment. Instead of deciding to work through three stacks of files in a week, it’s a much better idea to set priorities and concentrate on areas in which one feels less secure.

How can I learn to love the task of learning?

One way is to award oneself prizes for achieving one’s learning goals. As in the case of setting goals, these rewards should also be attractive and commensurate, in other words realistic. I’m hardly going to buy a new car just because I have successfully digested 5 pages of text. But I could go for a drink with a friend that evening. One study has shown that people are more likely to sit down and tackle the assignment if they actually verbalize the nature of the reward rather than simply picturing it to themselves. For example, one might explicitly enunciate the following promise once or twice: “If I manage to grasp the sense of this passage, then I will go out this evening.“

What should I do when smartphones and Netflix demand their tribute?

If one wants to work in a concentrated fashion – and by that I mean working continuously for three-quarters of an hour or a full hour – it is a very good idea to set the smartphone aside. That is a period of time which most people should be able to devote to a single task, even those who make frequent use of their phones. And if that’s too much to take, then it’s OK to have a look. Here again, it’s a matter of being in control of one’s own time. But one shouldn’t overdo it. Research has shown that the more often one is distracted, the longer it takes to redirect one’s attention to the task at hand.

Can one usefully integrate digital devices into the learning progress?

Certainly. That is self-evidently the case if the course material has been prepared in digital form by the lecturer and, for example, can be reviewed by taking a quiz on the Moodle platform. There are a number of apps available that help one to structure one’s work with aid of to-do lists. But the app should be easy both to get used to and to use. Otherwise what should be a help can quickly become a hindrance.

Is there one tip above all others that you would like to give every student who is about to embark on a period of intensive revision?

Learning in a group can be a great help. The common goal – to do well in the exam – is a powerful source of motivation. In addition, the level of learning success is generally higher because individual weaknesses can be more effectively compensated. Basically, one should simply try out different forms and strategies of learning. Even in the most taxing stage of the semester, the old adage is still valid: You learn from your mistakes.

PD Dr. Silke Weisweiler heads the Center for Leadership and People Management at LMU. She advises and coaches faculty members, as well as student mentors in the P2P Mentoring Program, in aspects of career development, time management and organizational skills.

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