How to Be a Dean’s Lister – Part 3

This is the last part of my 3-part series on how to be a dean’s lister.

How to Be a Dean's Lister

7. Optimize your time

Some students may feel bogged down by work, lamenting about the heavy workload and lack of time. Honestly speaking, it’s not about the workload nor is it about lack of time. It’s about how you manage yourself.

Even though I participated in a lot more things in university than in JC or high school years, I felt much freer during university than ever. I had engagements like my graphic design business, my core-curricular activities, case competition and teaching tuition. Studies-wise, Business modules are project intensive. There is usually a group project and 2 individual assignment per module. Group projects often take up a lot of coordination and discussion. Some modules even have 2 group projects.

Yet, I had no problem getting things done and still have lots of time for myself. I remember online games were a daily staple. I was playing games like Gunbound (a Worms Armageddon-like game, it was really popular game during those years), Ragnarok Online, Maple Story or Warcraft 3 almost every day with friends. I also had lots of time to go shopping with my girlfriends. (my favorite pastime back then).

So is it really about the time then? I beg to differ. All students have the same amount of time. All students of a particular module have the same workload, have the same teachers and are evaluated on the same criteria. All students have their personal commitments and responsibilities. There’s nothing so special about you as a student that makes you busier than another. It’s all about how you manage your own schedule. The plus side of being a university student is you have full flexibility and full rein over how you want to map out your timetable (see Tip #2: Plan your modules in advance).

Some of my personal tips on how I optimized my time in university:

  1. Don’t attend classes if they don’t add value. There were several modules where I didn’t attend any lectures at all (save for the first lecture). If I didn’t see any value behind the lecture, I wouldn’t attend. For example, if the lecturers spent a lot of time talking about irrelevant content or if the materials taught were generally extractable from the books, I would stop attending. Sometimes if the lecture looks like it’s going south, I’ll get out of the lecture hall and go to the computer lab to do my stuff. The time I freed up from not attending the lectures was spent doing other more valuable activities to me (whether resting, playing, doing project work, getting assignments done).
  2. Make use of pockets of time. My bus ride to school was about 45 minutes. Multiply it by 2 and it’s about 1.5 hours. I usually used the time to read my books, study my notes or even do my assignments. Similarly when waiting for the next class to start, I would use the time to work on projects or catch up on past materials. Hence, I never had to spend much time studying during my free time.
  3. Understand the content the first time its taught. This minimizes rework later on. See Tip #5.
  4. Maximize webcast lectures. If modules have webcast lectures, I would skip the actual lectures. Webcast lectures are just as good, if not better, than the real thing. You can just forward past a segment if it is irrelevant or replay sections where needed. You can also catch up on multiple lectures at one go, which is more effective.
  5. Do your tutorials during the same lectures. Tutorials on a topic usually commence 1-2 weeks after the lecture is taught. By doing the tutorials immediately during the lectures (of the same topic), you (1) get the most out of the lectures as you are testing your understanding of the concepts (2) save yourself from having to recollect what you learned before (3) don’t have to take out time to do the tutorials later on.
  6. Use study techniques to speed up learning. See Tip #8 (below).

8. Use study techniques to speed up learning

The normal way of studying is to read the textbooks from cover to cover and do questions to test your understand. Then over time, you reread to strengthen your understanding. When exams come, you repeat the cycle as way of revision. This method takes up a lot of time and is hardly effective.

There are study techniques which can help you learn faster, with the same or better outputs. Below are some of them:

  • Speed reading. It’s inevitable to do a lot of reading in an academic course. Hence, learning to read faster will make the learning process a lot faster. Some resources on how to speed up your reading: Double Your Reading Rate and Speed Reading.
  • Mind maps. Mindmaps was my trusty ally during the varsity years –  it helped me to grasp a big picture and see interlinking concepts easily. I usually draw a mind map for the important or very information intensive chapters. My mind map also doubled up as an index – I would list the textbook page numbers where each information is introduced.
  • Pick the 80/20. 80% of the value in your book can be found in 20% of the content (usually the formulas, summary notes, definitions). Pick out the 20% highlights and spend your time understanding them. Read the other 80% if you need to understand something, but don’t read for the sake of reading. You don’t learn much that way.
  • Writing notes. I only read my textbooks once – after that, I would refer to my mind maps, since the information is laid out in a much more understandable and intuitive manner. I refer to the textbooks only when I want specific details after reading my mind map.
  • Active learning through participation. See Tip #9.
  • Association. Linking similar ideas in your mind, so it strengthens your understanding of the new concept. I often looked for common themes across my different modules and mentally linked them together. This had a synergistic effect in my learning.
  • Start with questions first. Read with an objective. If you start off doing questions first (whether in tutorial or in the textbook), it gives you an idea of what you should be learning. It’s learning with a purpose.
  • Photo reading is a reading technique that helps you increase reading speed and value extraction. It’s a skill taught via courses by Learning Strategies. I personally haven’t tried it before, but I have a friend who tried it and said it really works. Based on what I’ve read about photoreading, it sounds similar to certain things I do intuitively (over the years) to maximize my reading, so I’m not surprised to hear of its effectiveness. Learn more about photo reading here.

More resources for your reading:

9. Speak up. Ask questions.

In NUS Business, participation is frequently a component in the grades, often contributing to 5~15% of the final grade. It was the professors’ way of getting students to speak up. Asian students tend to clam up in group settings. I reckon this isn’t a problem in Western cultures.

However, the reason why you should speak up in class is beyond getting participation points. Speaking up is a great way to clarify your thoughts on the subject. It also lets you know whether you know your stuff or you have your concepts wrong. It gets you thinking and increases your take away of the class. Research has shown that we only take away 10% of what is taught if we just listen, but we take away 70% and above if we listen and participate. I had a module where I participated actively during the classes, but didn’t read the textbook. I only read the text for the first time the night before the exams. I eventually scored an A+ for the module. (The exams were 40% of the final grade). Active learning is more powerful than passive learning.

Speaking up also makes the class a more interesting experience. I can’t imagine just sitting in a class and listening the whole time. That’ll be really boring.

So speak more. Share your thoughts. Expand your mind. Ask questions. But don’t talk so much that you dominate the class. I had a classmate who had a tendency to turn the class into a dialogue session between him and the tutor. That isn’t being polite to the other students. Contribute to the class in a meaningful manner that also help all other students learn too.

10. Leverage on your professors

Your professors are there to help you. After all, they have been teaching the subject for years and they are the ones evaluating your performance, so they are the best people to help you in your studies. If you don’t understand a particular concept or you need help, approach them. Whenever I had questions, I would directly email my professors to clarify the questions. If I have more things to discuss, I would set up consultation sessions with them. It saved me a lot of time than just trying to figure things out and not being sure whether the answer was right. It was a great way to know them on a personal level too.

11. Get good project mates

This is applicable if you have group projects in your modules. I’m not sure about other faculties, but it’s a common staple in business courses. It’s important to get good team mates, because this affects the group dynamics and subsequently the output. Ever watched The Apprentice before? The type of team members you have directly affects your team’s results. The best team is one where the total output is more than the sum of what the individual members can achieve.

A common woe back among students is the project work hell due to bad team mates. What determines a good team mate then? Generally (1) Attitude (2) Knowledge, where (1) is more important than (2). During my early years, I had project mates who were less than committed. They saw project work as a liability, and only did the bare minimal that was required. Some produced shoddy work and it made the project development process painful. Most of the times, the stronger members in the team would step in to fill in the gaps so as not to affect the final grade. While this solves the problem, it’s hardly a long-term solution.

The best way is to grab good team mates you have worked with, then arrange with them to take the same modules and be in the same project group for the next semester. If you have been a strong team member, they would want to work with you as well. If you are a freshman, that would be hard, but it shouldn’t matter much as everyone is starting on the same ground. Always be on the lookout for the best people to form your dream project team.

After my first year, I had a network of friends who were strong project mates. We would make it a point to take the same modules and be in the same project groups. Subsequently, we always scored A or A+ in all our projects. It was always a great experience working together, and this was part of what made university so fun too too. 😀

12. Consult people who took the class before

It doesn’t hurt to get advice from people who took the same class before. Since you pick when you want to complete individual modules, sometimes your peers may take the module before you do. That’s a great chance to consult them on what to expect, how the class is like, how you can better prepare and do well in the module. If it’s possible, you can get their materials and notes too. Of course in return, help them out in other modules which they are taking too. As in the golden rule, treat others as you would like to be treated.

13. Consistency pays off

As with everything in life, don’t leave things to the last minute. Getting the best grades is like running a marathon. Plan out your resources carefully and pace yourself. No one finishes a marathon in 10 minutes, just like you shouldn’t expect to ace your exams with 1 day of studying IF you have never studied the materials, done a single tutorial or attended any lectures.

Do your tutorials on a timely basis (see Tip #6 – Prepare for your tutorials), participate actively in class (Tip #9) , consult your professors regularly whenever you have questions (Tip #10), among the other tips. Because I was consistent in my work, when the exams came I never have to spend much time revising. Whereas friends would become very fearful when exams come and spend the pre-exam weeks mugging away, I continued by my gaming, leisure and giving tuition. The day before my exams, I would be playing Gunbound or Warcraft with friends. I just needed to quick review my materials, and I was ready to go.

A lot of students fear the exams. To be honest, I don’t think it’s the exams they are fearing. What they really fear is what the exams represent – a moment of truth which reveals their performance in the semester. If you have always understood the content as they are taught and prepared for your tutorials, there isn’t anything to fear at all. The ones who fear the exams are those who subconsciously know they have not been consistent and are afraid this lapse will return to bite them in the ass. Be consistent, and you will reap the fruits of your labor come exams and when you get your results.

Final note

For all students out there, I hope you find these tips useful for your schooling years. Even if you are working now, you might return to school in the future for further studies (never an end to learning after all), and this Dean’s List series will come in handy. 😀 Feel free to pass it on to your friends in school so they can benefit this too.

Get the manifesto version of this series: [Manifesto] How to Be a Dean’s Lister