How long should you take to prepare for class?


Last week, I talked about deadlines.

Deadlines are usually reserved for coursework. But it helps to think about the smaller projects and preparation you need to do before class.

The deadline for seminar preparation is the day of that class. Pretty simple. But not always obvious. If you haven’t thought of it as a deadline until now, maybe that’s enough to see it in a new light.

Lectures and seminars usually rely on you having done some work beforehand. It could be some reading, a small quiz, a survey, an experiment, an exercise, or something similar.

I remember it being standard to fit prep in at the last minute. The same day was no surprise. And some people would even do the work as they walked to campus, moments before class started. A frenzy of reading and walking.

That’s not enough time to do the work. Glancing isn’t engaging.

At such a basic level, there’s not much chance to ask relevant questions and properly interact in seminars.

It doesn’t feel like so much rests on doing this work. “I can always catch up and do it in my own time,” you could say.

Problem is, the idea of preparation is to bring out the best in our abilities when the more important work does come along.

So while last-minute preparation for class is clearly a less important version of the all-nighter, it could still leave you worse off than you should be in the long run.

The way to combat this is to prepare for preparation.

What does that mean!? Essentially, it means that when you know what’s expected of you before you attend, do these 3 things:

  1. Plan what you’re going to do (if it isn’t already explicit);
  2. Estimate roughly how long it will take (and leave room for extra time just in case);
  3. Schedule when you’re going to do it.

It’s amazing how free you’ll feel when you prepare for preparation. All it takes is making that solid schedule and having a full understanding of what’s expected of you.


You don’t need to schedule it all in one go either. Let’s say your course is heavy on the reading. You have 100 pages to read before next week’s session. Why not find four slots in your schedule to read 25 pages each time? Or five 20-page sittings?

The more you’re in control of your plan, the better you can engage with your learning.

My worst experiences have been the times when I put off the inevitable. My best experiences have been when I have all the preparation laid out in readiness.

Think of your own best experiences. When you enjoy the work and get stuck in, the learning feels easier. The preparation seems to fall into place without effort.

Why does it feel so effortless? Put simply, your enthusiasm allows you to naturally prepare the groundwork.

And since we can’t feel as enthusiastic about everything we do, we need to be a bit more considered in our approach.

The execution is always the same. Set out what you’ll do, prepare for everything, and make it happen.

You can’t fake the excitement, but you can always stay ahead with your prep.

Obvious Advice Is (Not Always) Obvious

Some advice is ace. You know it’s going to change your life for the better. Even if the change saves you one second a day, or helps you do an easy task easier still, you know you’re onto a winner.

Some advice is awful. It goes against everything you want, everything you know, and everything you feel. You don’t care if it works for some people, it won’t work for you.

photo by dvs

photo by dvs (CC BY 2.0)

And some advice is obvious. You struggle to see how you can benefit from something the whole world should be doing.

At that point, you realise that a lot of obvious advice may be coming at you loud and clear, but that doesn’t mean you take it up and action it.

Be honest with yourself. You’re told to have five or more fruit and vegetables a day. It’s not a mystery, but do you follow the advice?

You’re constantly reminded to exercise every day. Just a brisk walk or a short workout to start your day. How often do you do this?

Tutors tell you to start working on your assignments straight away. Don’t wait until the last minute. Despite this, have you got another all-nighter on the way?

For all the quick fixes and life hacks that give us a warm and fuzzy feeling, there is a bunch of clear and actionable advice that falls by the wayside. You’ve heard it all before, but you’re resistant to such a change.

The first step is to ask yourself why you find it so hard to alter your ways. What stops you from making a positive move toward a potentially huge change in your behaviour?

For some, the goal isn’t being broken down to manageable chunks. For others, there isn’t enough commitment in whatever is trying to be sorted in the first place. To make any change, you need good reason, clear goals, and some sense of enthusiasm. That boost of energy can come from what happens AFTER you’ve dealt with the not so awesome stuff. No matter, you need to find a way through that you’ll actually adhere to. Any less than that and you’ll hit a brick wall.

The biggest changes in life are rarely the result of a magic bullet. However hard you look for an easy solution to a big problem, you’re unlikely to find it.

The essay won’t write itself (cheating isn’t a magic bullet, it’s cheating). The exercise can’t be delegated to someone else. You’re responsible for managing your life as a whole and any little hacks are a nice bonus, not a suitable alternative to effort.

When you next hear obvious advice, don’t dismiss it straight away. Before you discount it, make sure you’re using that advice or have an even better approach to hand. If you know it, but don’t do it, obvious advice isn’t quite as obvious as you first think.

Make Your Work Compelling

The difference between compulsory and compelling is huge.

Compulsory sounds negative. You must do something, whether you like it or not.

That’s enough to put you off most compulsory stuff. The psychology is all wrong.

Compelling sounds great. You must do something, because you’re excited to keep going. You’d hate to stop.

Zen at work

University involves a lot of work, so it helps when you want to do it. But when you have deadlines to fulfill and the need to submit thousands of words, it’s easy to switch your attention to what’s compulsory.

Do yourself a favour and concentrate on the reasons why you’re interested in your work. The more compelling you make it, the easier you’ll find the less savoury points.

Terry Anderson sees possibility in this through self-paced learning, especially through “sophisticated social networking contexts” that let students discover each other and interact in realtime as well as through past comments and artifacts from previous students on a course.

You may not have this luxury on your degree for most, if not all of your assignments. But there are other ways to turn your attitude from plodding to probing.

Regain Your Enthusiasm

  • Start with an interesting question – What makes you tick? What would you like to know? Where do you want to explore today?
    Thinking about word counts and submission dates will only fill your mind with stress points. Bring your focus to the assignment itself, not the logistics.
  • Don’t overthink it – Once you’ve asked interesting questions, keep working on them until you start to grow tired of it. When you feel things dragging, stop right there. Pack up. Do something else. Even the most fun activities get boring when you don’t stop. So learn to let go.
  • Team up with others – Deconstruct, discuss, debate. Five minutes may be all it takes to uncover talking points that get you enthused about the task at hand. Whether or not you like to work in a group, an academic chat can get the creative juices flowing. If you’d prefer to do the actual work on your own, that’s fine. Once the urge is there, your mission is to stay in the mood to work with a spring in your step.
  • Space things out – The nearer you get to the deadlines, the more you focus on the compulsory aspect of your work. You avoid this by starting early and doing the work bit by bit. Not too much in one go, and certainly not all at once at the last minute.
  • Make it a habit – The longer you procrastinate, the more likely you’ll see the compulsory over the compelling. As well as spacing things out, as I mention above, find ways to develop habits to ease into the work. Habits can be different for everyone and is enough to be the subject of many texts, including Charles Duhigg’s recent book, The Power of Habit.
    Duhigg says that you should identify current routines for habits you would like to change. What is the cue that leads to your habit taking over? Next, choose different outcomes (it doesn’t really matter what they are) to work out what cravings are truly driving the routine. Then isolate the cue. Are you reacting to your location, the time of day, how you feel, what happened just beforehand? In time, you’ll find a pattern will emerge. Finally, have a plan. Commit to a new habit that you feel is better placed for what you want to change. From first-hand experience, Duhigg found embedding a new habit to be a challenge, but it was worth persevering.

Let the subject excite you and stop the admin from getting you down. So much of the change from compulsory to compelling is in the attitude. Set things up for an activity you don’t want to stop doing. And when you do stop, you’ll miss it.

That will make a change from never wanting to see it again, eh?