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5 Time Management Tips for STEM Students

Cramming is never a good study technique—especially for STEM courses, where the information is complex. We’re calling time-out! Here’s a better plan.

It’s Sunday afternoon, and you’re enjoying a lazy late lunch with friends. Suddenly you remember you’ve got chem class at 9 a.m. tomorrow morning … and you’re 3 chapters behind in your reading. Your plan is to buckle down that evening and plow through it. Half an hour in, you can barely keep your eyes open—or remember what you just read.

Yeah, yeah, you get it: Cramming for class or an exam is never a good idea. But it’s especially true for STEM courses. All the unfamiliar terminology and complex concepts take time to wrap your head around and digest. Plus, you need to fully grasp each chapter before moving on to the next, since the information builds from chapter to chapter. Rush jobs just won’t cut it.

So how do you stay on top of the material? And how do you not become overwhelmed and fall behind? Actively managing your study time are the keys to the kingdom. Here are 5 tips to help you take charge.

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The tips were culled from a guidebook funded as part of a National Science Foundation project from the Research in Disabilities Education program. The project’s goal was to develop methods to help all students succeed in STEM courses.

Tip #1: Figure out your peak productivity hours.

The best time to read your STEM text is when you’re most alert. And right now you’re rolling your eyes, thinking, really? That’s kind of obvious. But when was the last time you actively planned your study time, rather than just grabbing some reading time on the fly?

Everyone’s peak hours are different. Some people are larks, really sharp first thing in the morning. For night owls it might be more like 9 p.m. Once you figure out when you’re most energized and clear-headed, think about setting aside some of that time at least a few days a week.

Tip #2: Schedule your reading time.

The best way to approach your STEM class reading is to develop a reading schedule and—of course this is the hard part—stick to it.

There’s no one right (or wrong) type of schedule. Maybe reviewing the information right after class helps it sink in. Alternatively, you may find that reading a little bit every day keeps the material fresh in your mind. Or you might plan your reading a few times per week to keep up. (For what it’s worth, most successful STEM students say that reading a small amount every day helps keep the material fresh, keeps them from falling behind, and red-flags the concepts they don’t fully understand in real time.)

The best schedule is the one that works for you. Whichever you choose, block it out on your calendar or write it down on a piece of paper tacked to your bulletin board. Though at first it might feel like mission impossible, as with any habit, the more you stick to it, the easier it gets.

Tip #3: Pick a quiet reading spot.

Sure, you’re used to doing a bunch of things at once, but your brain on multitasking isn’t nearly as efficient as you think it is. In fact, our brains are only capable of doing one thing at a time. So while you might think you’re multitasking, you’re actually just diverting attention from one part of your brain to another. When this happens, some of your bandwidth gets left behind.

The info in your STEM textbooks is dense, and a noisy environment, or one where there are lots of distractions or potential interruptions, will draw your focus away from the work. Pick a place to read that’s conducive to concentration—the library, or a quiet room at home. On the other hand, don’t flop onto your bed; get too comfy and you’ll soon be sound asleep. Once you’ve figured out a good place to read, you can make a plan for how to go about it.

Tip #4: Work in manageable chunks of time.

Reading for long stretches will rarely, if ever, be productive, especially when it comes to technical STEM material. Most sections (even paragraphs) in your STEM texts contain at least one concept you’ll be learning for the first time, or material that’s pretty complicated. This requires that you slow your roll to focus on important points.

Pacing yourself is critical for maximizing efficiency. So think about tackling a few pages at a time. Reading in shorter intervals will help you stay alert and improve your concentration. When you try to read too much at once, you’ll hit a wall. Don’t be that person! Only read until you’ve stopped understanding—not to the point of confusion. Plan to take a stretch or snack break every 30 minutes or so, or however often you need to.

Note: Time-management experts have varying thoughts about how long to hit the books before taking a break. But they all agree: You’ll retain more if you study more frequently, for shorter periods of time. One method, the Pomodoro Technique, uses a timer to break down work into 25-minute intervals (called … pomodoros) followed by a 5-minute break. After every four pomodoros, you take a longer break. Other experts recommend studying in 20- or 30-minute spurts, or for 30 to 60 minutes, with a 5- to 10-minute break.

Probably the smartest choice is to experiment. Figure out how long you can stay focused before losing your concentration (or your mind), then take a breather.

Tip #5: Plan some study time with classmates.

Studying with other STEM students can be really useful. One reason is that when you’re part of a group, chances are you’re not just going to sit around together reading in silence. You’ll likely end up talking about the work (among other things). Explaining a concept out loud, in your own words, requires a thorough understanding of the material, which of course encourages deeper learning.

Also, people in the group may have different questions or points they don’t understand, and hearing those encourages thinking about a concept in a way you might not have considered.

A productive study group can increase every member’s confidence and help everyone do better in class. It might take a couple of meetings until you figure out how to work together, but it will be worth it if the group ends up being effective.

Having said that, a study group shouldn’t replace time spent studying on your own, but rather supplement it. And if you prefer to work alone, that’s fine too. Just make sure you stay accountable to your schedule and don’t procrastinate by scrolling through your social media feeds.

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