Skills for Learning

Independent Learning & Time Management

Overview

One of the main challenges of university study is becoming an independent learner. This means taking responsibility for your learning. You need to organise and manage your workload, be proactive, and seek help when required. 

Time management

To manage your time effectively, you will need to balance a number of different priorities, both academic and personal.

Academic

Personal

Attending lectures and seminars

Practical learning, such as labs, rehearsals
and placements

Completing set reading

Meeting with your tutor

Working to assignment deadlines

Attending Skills for Learning workshops

Group work projects

Finding and using library resources

Socialising

Societies

Hobbies

Part-time work

Volunteering

Exercise

Family commitments

Relaxation

Household tasks, such as cooking and cleaning

Consider which of the above apply to you. You will probably find you have a number of priorities to consider.

To manage your time effectively, reflect on previous approaches you have taken. What time-management strategies have worked for you before? What challenges do you think you might face?

Discover some strategies for organising your time below. What do you think would work for you? Remember that different approaches may work well at certain times or for different projects.

 

Time management strategies

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Your university timetable shows scheduled lectures, seminars and practical sessions.

However, creating your own study timetable will help you to manage your free time effectively. Without a plan for the day, it’s easy to lose focus and procrastinate.

Find a timetable format that works for you. You may want to create your own daily schedules on paper or in a bullet journal (see below).You could try an online timetable template or use your Outlook calendar to plan your time.

Set yourself realistic work timeframes and factor in time for regular breaks.

Download the Pomodoro Timetable worksheet from our Resources & Worksheets to help you use the Pomodoro time-management approach.

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A time log works like a timetable, except you complete it after you have finished a task. You can also colour code your time log to see how you are spending your time. This will help you make plans in future. Download the Time Log from our Resources & Worksheets to help you.

Our Assignment calculator can help you break your work down into different stages. You can then work out how long you need to spend on each part of your assignment. The assignment calculator will provide you with a schedule to enable you to meet your deadline.

A Gantt chart is a planning tool commonly used for project management. You may find them useful if you are undertaking a group project with multiple deadlines. Gantt charts are also helpful when managing research projects or dissertations.

To create a Gantt chart, begin by breaking down your project into separate tasks. Then:

  • Work out what order you need to do the tasks in, and how long they will take.
  • Determine your final deadline by setting yourself a number of manageable, smaller deadlines.
  • Organise your tasks within a Gantt chart template to help you gain an overview and track your progress.

A Gantt chart is supposed to be flexible. You can change your plan if you encounter any hold ups or complete a task more quickly than expected. You can also share the chart with other group members or colleagues. This way, everyone involved can track the project’s progress. See an example of Gantt charts for managing final-year projects.

A bullet journal is a system for organising your life in one place. This flexible tool can help you plan your time, take notes and stay motivated. Draw charts, timelines, spider diagrams, doodles and bulleted lists, depending on the task at hand. Bullet journal paper is often dotted, which means you can be creative with how you use it. However, a lined or blank notebook will also do. You can record what you have done, set short-term objectives, track habits and plan ahead. 

Many tasks or assessments seem overwhelming when you’re getting started. To make your work seem more manageable, break it down into chunks. For the best chance of success, when setting yourself objectives, try to make them SMART. A SMART objective is:

  • Specific. The objective will be quite narrow and precise.
  • Measurable. It will be possible for you to judge when the objective is completed.
  • Achievable. You must have the time and resources available to complete your objective.
  • Relevant and Realistic. The objective should be meaningful, valuable and possible for you to complete at this time.
  • Time-bound. A good objective has a specific time frame: you know exactly when you want to complete it by.

An example of a SMART objective on a to-do list could be “Read chapter 2 of […] by the end today”. A SMART objective for a research project might be “Complete 10 interviews by 01/10/20”. These goals are very specific. We can assume that the student has the time and resources available to complete them. Furthermore, the objectives are given a specific time frame and the student will be able to measure if they have met the objectives. Whenever you’re writing a to-do list, timetable or project plan, always ask yourself if your objectives are SMART. This ensures you are setting yourself realistic aims. Download the SMART Technique worksheet from our Resources & Worksheets to help you.

To-do lists are simple but very effective. You may find it useful to write a to-do list at the start of every day. This means making reasonable decisions about what tasks you need to prioritise. By writing a to-do list, you can allow yourself to focus on one task at a time, rather than worrying about everything at once. It can also be very satisfying to tick off tasks when they’re complete!
 

One of the key skills of time management is prioritising. There will be tasks that are urgent and need to be done immediately. However, you will also have long-term goals, such as assignment deadlines to meet. Use the matrix to categorise tasks according to their urgency and importance. This will make it easier for you to identify which tasks to complete first. Find out more about the prioritisation matrix.

The Pomodoro technique is a powerful method for organising your time. It can help you focus and avoid procrastination. Work is completed in 25-minute chunks (or ‘pomodoros’). You could use a timer or web app such as pomodoro-tracker.com to keep time. During each chunk, keep your phone out of sight and focus on one specific task. Chunks of work are followed by short 5-minute breaks or longer 30-minute breaks. These give your brain a rest and time to process information. During your breaks, do something completely non-work related. Plan your chunks and breaks using pomodoro-tracker.com, keep it simple with pen and paper, or use a timetable. Download the Pomodoro Timetable Worksheet from our Resources & Worksheets to help you. Find out more about the Pomodoro technique.

Many students find that social media and other websites can be a distraction from work. App blockers such as Cold Turkey and StayFocusd can be used to block distracting apps.

Being an active learner

The difference between making notes and taking notes is subtle but important.

Taking notes is a passive process of recording what you see and hear in lectures in a descriptive way. This means that your own thoughts and interpretations are generally not included. This is not a bad thing in itself, especially as it can be a way to remind yourself of key facts, concepts or things you need to look up. But it is not an active process.

To make notes, you need to engage in an active, creative process. This means you must work with a task in mind. For example, this might be an assignment or a learning aim for a module.

Thinking about a specific task makes your reading or lecture notes more focussed. You will be able to pick out key words and information more easily. This streamlines your studying, speeding up the process of planning for an assignment or class. It also enables to you ‘think on your feet’, making instant connections between different aspects of your learning, rather than copying down what you hear ‘word for word’.

There are many ways to structure your notes. Download the Note Making Worksheet from our Resources & Worksheets to help you.

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Your lecturers will provide detailed feedback both in class and when returning assessments. It is important to read feedback carefully and act on it. Studying at university is a process of continual personal development. Acting on feedback enables you to take responsibility for your learning. It can lead to increased confidence when you see your work improve.

University feedback can take many forms. You might receive it in seminars during discussions with your classmates and tutors. The most common form is written feedback provided by your course tutor when an assignment is marked. You should expect such feedback to be constructive and supportive. It ought to highlight the best bits of your work, while pointing out what to improve.

Feedback provides a really helpful roadmap to success in future assignments. If you don’t understand a comment or you disagree, be proactive in contacting your tutor. Consider asking for a one-to-one tutorial to discuss your work. Responding actively and positively to feedback is an opportunity to take ownership of your work.

Being an independent learner does not mean that you always work alone. Independent learners seek out help when they need it. It means not being too downhearted if an assignment or exam mark is not what you expected. You may have worked hard on an essay and expected a stronger result. However, you can use feedback to your advantage to improve next time. There are also services on hand to help with academic skills and communication. The Leeds Beckett Skills for Learning team offers a range of workshops and resources.

Communication is key to your academic development. Discuss your experiences and ideas with tutors and peers. This process will help you become a more confident independent learner.

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