Starting a new academic year
It can take time to get back into studying after the summer break or resume studying after having a job. It may feel daunting to get back into a routine of lectures and organising the workload, which is likely to include listening to pre-recorded material in preparation for tutorials.
As the term gets underway, you will be given assignments and have deadlines to meet. You may notice that it is harder to concentrate on written assignments. They require time and a lot of patience to tolerate the challenges of this type of work. It may be tempting to delay getting started until inspiration comes to focus on the task. The delay in getting started may be due to worry about making mistakes or being unclear about what is expected.
As time goes by and the work accumulates, it can cause tension and worry that there is not enough time to finish the task. The paradox is that we intend to study and complete the assignments, but we may not trust that the result will be good enough. So we procrastinate, which exacerbates the tension, and we may have doubts about our ability to do well academically.
We can build our confidence in our ability to learn by focusing on our experience of learning new things. We can learn complex things, such as learning to read and write. It required consistent practice and dedicated time and effort to develop the knowledge and skills (Duckworth, 2016)..
Similarly, we can develop study habits to enable us to get our work done and meet deadlines. Creating habits help us to adapt to new situations, manage our time and our energy. Often, we delay getting started not because we do not want to complete the assignment but because we are unsure what we have to do or are unclear about what is expected. Also, we need to manage our expectations that we should get the work done to a high standard in the first attempt.
A good strategy is to develop a beginner’s mindset where we are open to new things and trust that we can learn, just like when we learned to ride a bicycle or read and write. It is viewing learning as an opportunity to learn about the world and expand our knowledge and skills. When we connect with our curiosity, and we are willing to take the initiative and try something. Developing our belief in our capacity to learn strengthens our ability to persevere when the material is challenging (Bandura, 1997).
To strengthen our self-efficacy, we can remind ourselves of our experience of academic work in the past. There were difficult things to do, and we had to tolerate not knowing the outcome. Academic work is particularly challenging because we have to deal with the uncertainty that results are not certain. Instead, when we can rely on our curiosity and focus on what we are learning – it will increase our understanding of the material. And as we practise the skills (e.g., writing an essay or a lab report), we develop our confidence in the subject, increasing our potential to achieve the good standards we expect of ourselves.
To get back into study mode, we benefit from creating an environment that supports our studies. We can set up cues that will remind us of what we want to do. For example, if we want to start going outdoors for walks or a run, we can increase the likelihood of doing it when we decide beforehand. Instead of thinking whether we will go out for a walk or run each day, we can support our decision by viewing ourselves as an active person who wants to keep well. We can leave the trainers by the front door to remember what we want to do when we see them. We make it easier for ourselves to achieve what matters to us. Identifying the cues that will remind us of the work we want to do will make getting started more manageable.
We need to be consistent with our effort so that the new behaviour becomes a routine.
It will take a bit of time to establish consistency, so it is essential to be alert, and when we notice we are distracted, we can remind ourselves of what is important to us. For example, we may decide or think about writing an essay, but we realise we feel tired and would like to talk to a friend or watch Netflix. These other activities can seem more interesting and less effort, so it will make it harder to focus on our work. First, we need to become aware of what is happening. Next, reminding ourselves that we want to do well in our work and focus on the benefits of understanding the subject and completing the assignment. Working on academic assignments develops professional skills – we learn to analyse information, develop our ideas and communicate them to others.
Strategies to develop the mindset to study effectively
As we become aware of what prevents us from getting started with our work, we can develop strategies to manage the obstacles or distractions. As we learn to recognise and understand our emotions and identify what works best for us, we can gradually develop a work routine that enables us to get things done.
Make the most of brief periods: We often think we need a block of time to get a piece of work done. However, if you have half an hour between lectures, make a few notes of the key ideas mentioned in the previous class. It will help to remember the content and can be good notes for revision later.
Focus on the process, not on the results: Focusing on what we are doing now will help us problem-solve and complete the task to do well academically and at work. When we get distracted, we need to notice it, and without judgment, bring our attention back to the task. When we focus on results, our thoughts go to the future, preventing us from focusing on what we need to do. The result is important, and we are more likely to achieve it if we do something right now. When we train ourselves to focus on learning, our work will be better, and we can surprise ourselves with what we can achieve.
Focus on your values: Seeing ourselves as people who want to do well and derive a sense of achievement can support our commitment to persevere with our efforts. Focusing on what matters to us help us to understand and manage frustration and disappointment when we make mistakes. And as we develop our belief in our ability to learn, we can increase our potential to persevere with our efforts and be more open to learning from our mistakes.
Maintain an optimistic attitude: When we focus on our ability to learn, we can maintain our hope that we will be able to make progress with our efforts. We develop our skills with practice, and as we see we are making progress, we will notice we are learning, boosting our motivation and sense of achievement (David, 2016).
Create cues or prompts: find things that remind us of what we have decided to do will serve as memory aids so that when we see them, it will trigger us to take action. For example, putting Post-it notes in places associated with our work will remind us of what we need to do.
Take small steps: Breaking down the tasks into small steps helps manage our energy level and our expectations of what we can achieve in a time. For example, instead of thinking, “I need to work on my essay or dissertation”, we can divide the assignment into smaller steps to do in short study periods of half an hour or under an hour. It can be challenging, especially if we feel we have a lot of work and not enough time. However, it is more effective to work in short periods, with short breaks, as it helps to renew our energy and our focus.
Prepare for setbacks: The learning process is not linear. We make mistakes, and things may take longer than we expect. Grades are essential to pass and do well; however, when we focus on learning, results will be better because of our work to understand the material and our flexibility to adjust to the learning process (David, 2016).
Develop a sense of self-efficacy: It is our belief in our capacity to learn and that we can persevere with our efforts. We can do this by identifying what matters to us and focusing on our previous experiences of learning. We develop trust in ourselves by taking the initiative, reflecting on our experiences, and applying what we learn from our mistakes and achievements. We also learn from others by asking questions, and we gain perspective from their input.
Look after yourself: It is essential to maintain our energy level to manage distractions and emotions while doing hard work. Learning is challenging because we are putting ourselves outside of our comfort zone. Incorporating healthy habits in daily life provide us with the resources we need to do well and keep well.
Bandura, A. (1997) Self-Efficacy. The exercise of control. New York: W.H. Freeman and Company.
Ben-Shahar, T. (2009) The pursuit of perfect. How to stop chasing perfection and start living a richer, happier life. New York: MacGraw-Hill Books.
Brown, P.C., Roediger, H.L. & McDaniel, M.A. (2014) Make it stick: The science of successsful learning. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard Business Press.
David, S. (2016) “Emotional agility. Get unstuck, embrace change, and thrive in work and life.” London: Penguin
Duckworth, A. (2016) Grit. The Power of Passion and Perseverance. London: Vermillion.