A number of skill problems are listed below to support you when thinking about your personal development. Click on your skill problem and find more detailed information how to deal more effectively with this skill problem related to managing yourself and make it a skill advantage instead. The Skill Sheets book gives you even more detailed information on subjects related to self-management.
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Learning Style Inventory (LSI) research (Kolb, 1984) has identified four dominant dynamic learning approaches: diverging, assimilating, converging and accommodating.
1. Diverging style: CE and RO are dominant. The style is divergent because people with these learning abilities perform better in situations that call for the generation of ideas, such as in brainstorming sessions. However, as regards studying, this particular style creates considerable tensions, because the person will find it more difficult to concentrate on concrete texts and learn them for an exam. These people often adopt an undirected learning style (Vermunt, 1998), which relates to their general ambivalence to engaging in advanced scientific studies. In studies people with the diverging style prefer to work in groups, listening with an open mind and receiving personalized feedback. Studying for an exam probably requires external coaching.
2. Assimilating style: AC and RO are dominant. People with these capabilities are good at understanding a large variety of information, which they can put into concise logical form. This type of people is more interested in ideas than in practical value. For study situations, they prefer reading, lectures and exploring analytical models. Their learning style is often ‘meaning-directed’ (Vermunt, 1998). This makes them often rather critical as regards multiple-choice exams which do not do justice to the complexities of the literature. Studying for an exam is best organized individually.
3. Converging style: AC and AT are dominant. People with these abilities are best at finding practical uses for ideas and theories. They are solution oriented and aimed at answering questions of others. A converging learning style is often found with people that prefer technical tasks and problems rather than social and interpersonal issues and therefore can be often found in natural sciences and the medical studies. This type of person is inclined to prefer a reproduction-directed learning style, which makes them the perfect candidate for big exams, but also for experimentation situations which require – often under controlled conditions – testing new ideas, simulations, laboratory assignments and practical application. Studying for an exam, can best be organized in a laboratory-like setting.
4. Accomodating style: CE and AT are dominant. People with these learning style learn easiest from ‘hands-on’ experience. The enjoy carrying out plans, act on ‘gut’ feelings and rely on people for their information rather on their own analysis. As a learning style, this type adopts an application-directed approach to studying. The accommodating style is particularly equipped for action-oriented careers such as marketing or sales. In study, people with the accommodating learning style prefer to work with other to get assignments done. Studying for an exam is best therefore best organized in a study group. In summary, Table B6, lists the most important characteristics of each learning style and gives you an advice how best to approach an exam, if you have one of these learning styles.
Time, topic and performance
Figure B.7 shows the correlation between concentration performance and time. Until you reach time T, investing in an activity can lead to an acceptable performance. After passing T, the performance drops quickly. The ‘timing’ of time T is affected by the following factors:
- In the case of a difficult text or a new a text or topic, the T moves further to the left
- The more limited the knowledge of a topic, the further T moves to the left.
- If a text is clearly structured, the T moves further to the right.
- The more experience you have with a topic, the further T moves to the right.
Once you pass time T your efforts are no longer in relation to your performance. A break is necessary. Do not use your brain during the break. Do not enter into a difficult debate or have a ‘heavy’ telephone conversations. The same also applies to tv-zapping. This is not a very relaxing activity. They require the same or comparable amounts of concentration as you need when studying. You can eat an apple or any other type of food that contains ‘slow sugars’ (your brain uses a relatively high amount of sugar), do some shopping, go for a run, clean up your room, listen to music on your I-pod. If you are functioning well and well-fed, a break of fifteen minutes should be enough for you to begin concentrating again.
Beginners (starting a new course) can manage this pattern for three times one hour in a row (B14). After that a longer break is necessary. So, when you begin a new course, starting to study intensely shortly before an exam will not work. When compared to your High School performance, time T is located much further to the left, this is also because most study material has not yet been covered in class. Many students realize this only after their first exam period (if ever).
Assume responsibility for your own learning
Awareness of learning gaps is only relevant if you assume responsibility for your own learning (Cf. Payne, Whittaker, 2006) and are able to work on them systematically in a more or less ‘professional’ style. The following dimensions are relevant:
- The importance of motivation - Ask yourself why you want to study this subject. Without clear intrinsic motivation, i.e. based on your own wishes and interests, all your activities will become much more laborious. If your motivation for studying is primarily extrinsic (wish of parents, job perspective), it will be more difficult to remain motivated.
- The need for an active attitude - Motivation is necessary, but this alone is not sufficient for you to be able to study successfully. Your attitude is also important (B*). Adopt an active and continuous learning attitude. Aim at collecting and producing material and interpretations yourself. But know at the same time that trying to further develop the work of others (A1) and revealing your sources (E1) are two of the most important scientific attitudes. Go through the reflective circle systematically (A3) when you diagnose your own problems. Be active when you attend lectures (D*).
- Awareness of automatisms. Most human behaviour is based on (unaware) automatisms that are conditioned by past experiences and genetic factors (Tiggelaar, 2005). Most of your habits – whether good or bad, whether intelligent or non-sensical - are the result of these automatisms. In order to change anything, you should become aware of these automatisms.
- The challenges of the hyperkinetic society. Multi-tasking, an abundance of information sources, rapid media, all have increased the risk of superficial and chaotic thinking (Hallowell, 2005). This so called ‘hyperkinetic society’ (The Challenge, part I) affects the brain. In order to take up responsibility of your own learning, you have to develop a solid awareness of the challenges of this type of society.
- Plan backwards - Developing skills requires long term planning. You should be capable of analysing your progress in (combinations of) the different skills, by defining the skill profile that you want to achieve by the end of an activity – for instance a course. Look at the study guide for clues. Then, plan backwards. Aim at an annual mission definition for your skill development. Make an agreement with yourself which also leaves room for flexible time management in the short term (B11). Realise that skill priorities will change over time. Learning reports - Systematically analyse your progress in the development of skills (B6). Set new goals for each year. Organise feedback on your learning report either from peers in a self-managed study group, the course advisor, or from one of the teachers (B*).
Immediate Exam Preparation
Many students use their MTM incorrectly in the immediate period preceding an exam. This happens in particular when they want to study new material. This information is automatically stored in your MTM, which might saturated and can not be used for repetition of already studied material. For instance, in case you have already digested (studied and repeated) 80% of the material, studying the remaining 20% one day before the exam, might substitute that information for the 80%. What can you do, then? Primarily repetition and understanding.
A few days prior to an exam you can use your MTM to learn by heart particular kinds of detailed information which are tested regularly, but which you yourself might not find particularly relevant. What you consider relevant depends on your learning style (B7). You might for instance find it much more important to know where you can find the information than to reproduce it. For an exam this attitude contains considerable risks, since you are supposed to reproduce substantial amounts of information and are not sure what level of detail the teacher might ask (B5). Under these circumstances you make more actively use of your MTM. As long as you know where to find those details in your memory while you do the exam, you do not have to store them permanently in your memory.
For example, when you are studying tax law it might be useful to know that there are different types of taxes, the amount and the approximate applicability of those taxes to different income levels. A few days before the exam you should memorise the exact data on all the different income levels by repeating the figures a number of times. The more you have been able to figure out a system for the material that you have been studying – for instance in the form of a Mind Map - the more knowledge can be transferred to other parts of your memory. Therefore, there will be more unoccupied space left in your MTM for details like names, technical terms, figures, exact historical dates.
Moreover, a large number of exams in a short period of time (the practice at many universities) present the student with a substantial assault on the physical condition; Especially in the case of studying from early in the morning to late at night for a number of weeks consecutively. The more time you have during the exam period to do short repetition exercises and get a good night’s sleep, the bigger the chance that you will keep fit, even for the last exam.
Self-management and study skills are the most individual skills to develop. It is your responsibility to develop them, which does not mean that you should forgo the support of tutors or peers. The most important yardstick for measuring your performance in self-management and study skills is their effect on the other skills in the Skill Circle. It takes considerable time and critical self-diagnosis to develop self-management and study skills. They are a mixture of input and output categories. Also, your aims and priorities change over time, as you reach higher levels of understanding and skill proficiency (The Format, part I). The challenge of lifelong (self-managed) learning is to continuously trigger cycles of so-called generative or ‘double-loop’ learning (Parker with Stone, 2003). This requires that you are prepared to go through the following reflective sequence:
(1) Problem definition: what is the learning phase you are in, and what are the related problems of developing skills. You try to become aware of your ‘learning gap’ by identifying the difference between were you are (zero measurement) and where you or your tutors/teachers want you to be (in a particular period of time). It also requires that you are able to question old models of learning and self-management.
(2) Diagnosis and design: define the skills that you want to develop in particular (Decision) and try to identify different perspectives (advantages and disadvantages) of the available approaches. Set realistic goals. Write a learning contract and updates on a regular basis.
(3) Implementation: translate your goals into realistic action (Action). Make realistic plans per week and per semester. Test the development of your skills by looking at your output: the way that you give a presentation, attend an exam, write, reach decisions, and - most importantly - the way that you carry out research and deal with relevant problems.
(4) Evaluation: Search for different types of feedback at different stages in your personal development.
Five basic principles apply that you should always take into account when you want to make your study activities part of a continuous and virtuous learning cycle.
- Assume responsibility for your own learning
- Be active and entrepreneurial
- Dare to put yourself in the discomfort zone
- Create your own learning environment – participate in extra-curricular activities
- Generate as much relevant feedback as possible
Drafting a (rough) plan for a semester is much more difficult than drafting a week plan. It is needed, however, for at least two reasons:
- it prevents an accumulation of activities at the wrong time, which can lessen the time available for important courses and other activities;
- it enables you to include feedback sessions at the right times, and to adjust your priorities.
Identify your portfolio of major activities
- 1.1 List all of the courses that you plan to attend in the semester. Try to find out at the beginning of the semester what the requirements for each course look like: reading requirements (literature: number of pages), exam dates and contents (multiple-choice, open book), writing requirements (case/essay), other requirements. See the example on the next page. Try to assign a priority ranking to the courses on the basis of two criteria: (1) your own interests in this semester, (2) your interests in the next semester which might prompt you to do a preparatory course this semester. Take into account, in your priority ranking, the consequences on financing your education and the other external requirements that you have to keep track of.
- 1.2 List the extra activities (if desirable), in particular self-study groups and major extra curricular activities (for example, student assistant job or organisation of a study trip) (B1). Try to ascertain what their impact could be on your time management and the kind of feedback that you would like to create time for.
- 1.3 Always add a list of your personal activities that you already know will probably have a major impact on your planning: holidays, big celebrations.
Identify your most important ‘time wasters’
Bad time management occurs when you cannot handle a number of ‘time wasters’. Time wasters are related and are often cumulative. Identification should create the precondition under which you can work on tackling your time wasters in the most effective way possible. The box helps you to identify your main ‘time wasters’.
2. Plan your time in steps
Take the whole period into consideration. List the months in the semester (probably five) and start planning backwards from the deadlines that will appear. There are a number of different deadlines which have different consequences for your planning: related to exams, papers and extra-curricular activities.
2.1 The consequences of exam deadlines are easiest to take into account:
- As a rule: one week before the exam period you should have studied all of the required literature for an exam and repeated the material at least once. Remember that if exams are all together in one period (mostly in the last weeks of the semester), it is almost impossible to study new material. Reserve the exam period for short repetition, in order to keep fit during the exam period and use your memory in the correct manner (B8).
- Acquire all the required literature as soon as possible at the start of the semester. Assess the literature for all of the courses: the nature of the books and other literature (heavy, easy to read, link to what you already know) (C*).
If the course has not changed much, ask other students who have already attended the course for their experience, in particular on courses that are considered hard to pass. Test your reading speed with regards to the literature used: take a section of the book at random and check the time it takes you to read and understand the argumentation. Calculate, approximately, the total amount of hours you personally (not anyone else) will need to read, understand and repeat the literature. Do not take the official calculations for granted, because they are aimed at an ’average’ student, and you are not ‘average’!
2.2 The consequences of deadlines for papers and essays are more difficult to assess, because writing a paper always requires several skills at the same time, often including mastering group dynamics, which can easily lead to general time management problems (B10, B11).
- As a rule: try to have your paper finished a couple of days before the official hand-in date. The last few days are vital for editing, rewriting (A*), and coping with ‘unhealthy’ group dynamics (G*).
- Make a general calculation of the amount of time that you will have to spend finishing the paper or essay. Plan deadlines for intermediate versions of your papers which you would like to generate feedback on and specify whether you would like that from other group members or a tutor.
2.3 The consequences of deadlines for self-study groups and extra-curricular activities are the most difficult to assess. The result then often becomes that these activities are squeezed and are not organised at all. For that reason you should also set clear intermediate deadlines for them. Plan deadlines when you want to generate feedback. Self-study groups - if they run parallel to a course - are easier to plan (see point 2.1).
If you have carried out the instructions included in points 2.1-2.3, you can try to spread the hours required for each activity over the whole semester. Plan to work on many parallel activities each week (but with varying intensities, and never at the same time). Do not plan to spend a whole week on one course.