Time Management and Scheduling

Learning Objectives

  • Explore time management and scheduling strategies

How You Use Your Time

As most students discover, time in college is not the same as it was in high school. There are many more “unscripted” hours of the day. Fewer hours are devoted to sitting in a classroom, but more hours are expected to be devoted to classwork on your own time. While this can be liberating, you may find that social opportunities conflict with academic expectations. For example, a free day before an exam, if not wisely spent, can spell trouble for doing well on the exam. It is easy to fall behind when there are so many choices and opportunities.

Watch It

In the following Alleyoop Advice video, Alleyoop (Angel Aquino) discusses what many students discover about college: there is a lot of free time—and many challenges to effectively balance free time with study time.

Click here to download a transcript for this video

Fixed Time vs. Free Time

Sometimes it helps to take a look at your time and divide it into two areas: fixed time and free time. Fixed time is time that you have committed to a certain area—it might be school, work, religion, recreation or family. There is no right or wrong to fixed time and everyone’s is different. Free time is just that—it is free. It can be used however you want to use it; it’s time you have available for activities you enjoy. Someone might work 9 am-2 pm, then have class 3 pm-4:30 pm, then have dinner with family 5 pm-6 pm, study 6 pm-7 pm and then have free time from 7 pm-9 pm. Take a look at a typical week for yourself. How much fixed time do you have? How much free time? How much fixed and free time would you like to have?

We all have exactly 168 hours per week. How do you spend yours? How much time will you and can you devote to your studies?

Especially for students new to college, there are additional demands on your time. There is also the time it takes to adjust to college culture, college terminology, and college policies. Students may need to learn or relearn how to learn and some students may need to learn what they need to know. What a student in their first college semester needs to know may be different than what a student in their last college semester needs to know. First semester students may be learning basic expectations and the location of classrooms or other campus resources. Students in their last semester may be learning about applying for their degree, how to confirm they have all of their requirements completed for their goal, commencement information, or how to find a job. Whatever it is students may need to learn, it takes time.

Creating a Schedule

Given how difficult it can be to balance free time with the academic demands of college (along with all the other demands on your time), you should think about how you might create a schedule for managing your time. The best schedules have some flexibility built into them, as unexpected situations will always pop up along the way.

Your schedule will be unique to you, depending on the level of detail you find helpful. There are some things—due dates and exam dates, for example—that should be included in your schedule no matter what. But you also might find it helpful to break down assignments into steps (or milestones) that you can schedule, as well.

Again, this is all about what works best for you. Do you want to keep a record of only the major deadlines you need to keep in mind? Or does it help you to plan out every day so you stay on track? Your answers to these questions will vary depending on the course, the complexity of your schedule, and your own personal preferences.

Your schedule will also vary depending on the course you’re taking. So pull out your syllabus and try to determine the rhythm of the class by looking at the following factors:

  • Will you have tests or exams in this course? When are those scheduled?
  • Are there assignments and papers? When are those due?
  • Are there any group or collaborative assignments? You’ll want to pay particular attention to the timing of any assignment that requires you to work with others.

You can find many useful resources online that will help you keep track of your schedule. Some are basic, cloud-based calendars (like Google calendar, iCal, Outlook), and some (like iHomework) are specialized for students.

Create a Long-Term Schedule

With a long-term planner, you can eliminate a lot of unpleasant surprises. Long-term planning allows you to avoid scheduling conflicts—the kind that obligate you to be in two places at the same time three weeks from now. You can also anticipate busy periods, such as finals week, and start preparing for them now. Goodbye, all-night cram sessions. Hello, serenity.

First, find a long-term planner, or make your own. Many office supply stores sell academic planners that cover an entire school year. You can also create your own planner. A big roll of newsprint pinned to a bulletin board or taped to a wall will do nicely. Also, search online stores for free or cheap software or smartphone apps designed for long-term planning.

The long-term plan should include information from your class syllabi, along with test dates, lab and study sessions, no-class days or holidays, and planned and other events for the current and next terms. Include the due dates for all of the assignments in all of your courses. This step can be a powerful reality check, but remember that the purpose of using a planner is not to make you feel overwhelmed by all of the things you have to do, rather, its aim is to help you take a first step toward recognizing the demands on your time. Armed with the truth about how you use your time, you can make more accurate plans.

Weekly schedule showing a few important deadlines, such as an English quiz and Chemistry test, as well as a planned ski trip.

Figure 1. Long-term planners like this allow you to visualize upcoming deadlines and prepare accordingly.

Once you know the major deadlines and demands on your schedule, you can break down big assignments and projects into smaller assignments and subprojects, each with its own due date. When planning to write a paper, for example, enter the final due date in your long-term planner. Then, set individual deadlines for each milestone in the writing process—creating an outline, completing the research, finishing the first draft, editing the draft, and preparing the final copy. By meeting these interim due dates, you make steady progress toward completing the assignment throughout the term. That sure beats trying to crank out all those pages at the last minute.

Create a Daily Schedule

Using your long-term schedule as a reference, you can make a daily schedule or checklist to get you through the important tasks of the day. Sometimes this is helpful to plan the night before, so you can start your day with intention.

Start by brainstorming tasks of everything you want to get done. Then estimate the amount of time you need for each task, and rank each task by priority. Then schedule in time on your calendar to complete the tasks, starting with the most important. Don’t be discouraged if you don’t accomplish everything in one day, but praise yourself for every right step in moving toward accomplishing your goals.

Questions and Answers About Schedules

Student 1: Do I really need to create a study schedule? I can honestly keep track of all of this in my head.

Answer: Yes, you really should create a study schedule. Your instructors may give you reminders about what you need to do when, but if you have multiple classes and other events and activities to fit in, it’s easy to lose track. A study schedule helps you carve out sufficient time—and stick to it.

Here is a tool to create a printable class study schedule to help you plan your time during the week from the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office.

You not only want to plan your days in a week, you’ll also want to plan by the month and by the term. You may need to adapt your schedule to reflect your academic needs by whether you are on a quarter or semester system. Most colleges have resources for students to plan by the term so check your college’s website.

Student 2: Realistically, how much time should I spend studying for class?

Answer: This is a good question and a tough one to answer. Generally speaking, for each hour of class, you should spend a minimum of two to three hours studying. Thus, a typical three-hour class would require a minimum of six to nine hours of studying per week. If you are registered for 15 credits a semester, then you would need to spend 30 to 45 hours each week studying for your classes, which can be as much time needed for a full-time job.  If you think of college as a “job,” you will understand that it takes work to succeed.

One important college success skill is learning how to interact with the course materials.  Think about learning a sport or playing a game. How do you learn how to play it? With lots of practice and engagement. The more you play, the better you get. The same applies to learning. You need to engage with the course material and concentrate on learning.

Access an interactive called The 168-Hour Exercise from the University of Manitoba. It can help you understand how you use your time now and decide if you need to make changes.

Student 3: Aside from class time requirements, should I account for anything else as I draw up my schedule?

Answer: This depends on how detailed you want your schedule to be. Is it a calendar of important dates, or do you need a clear picture of how to organize your entire day? The latter is more successful, so long as you stick with it. This is also where it will be helpful to determine when you are most productive and efficient. When are you the most focused and ready to learn new things? In the morning, afternoon, or evening?

Student 4: My life and school requirements change on a week-to-week basis. How can I possibly account for this when making a schedule?

Answer: Try creating a variable schedule in case an event comes up or you need to take a day or two off.

Student 5: I’m beginning to think that scheduling and time management are good ideas, but on the other hand they seem unrealistic. What’s wrong with cramming? It’s what I’ll probably end up doing anyway . . .

Answer: Cramming, or studying immediately before an exam without much other preparation, has many disadvantages. Trying to learn any subject or memorize facts in a brief but intense period of time is basically fruitless. You simply forget what you have learned much faster when you cram. Instead, study in smaller increments on a regular basis: your brain will absorb complex course material in a more profound and lasting way because it’s how the brain functions.

Making the Best Use of Your Study Time

Regardless of your schedule, you want to make the best use of your study time. The following strategies are designed to help. Don’t feel pressured to use all of these or to tackle them in order. As you read, note the suggestions you think will be helpful, but pick one to use now. When that strategy becomes a habit, select another one to practice. Repeat this cycle for maximum success.

  • Study difficult (or boring) subjects first. If your chemistry problems put you to sleep, then get to them first—while you are fresh. We tend to give top priority to what we enjoy studying, yet the courses that we find most difficult often require the most creative energy. Save your favorite subjects for later. If you find yourself avoiding a particular subject, get up an hour earlier to study it before breakfast. With that chore out of the way, the rest of the day can be a breeze.
  • Be aware of your best time of day. Many people learn best in daylight hours. If this is true for you, then schedule study time for your most difficult subjects (or face time for the most difficult people) before nightfall.
  • Use waiting time. Five minutes waiting for a subway, 20 minutes waiting for the dentist, 10 minutes in between classes. Waiting times add up fast. Have short study tasks ready to do during these periods, and keep your study materials handy. For example, carry 3 × 5 cards with facts, formulas, or definitions and pull them out anywhere. A cell phone with an audio recorder can help you use commuting time to your advantage. Make a recording of yourself reading your notes. Play it back during your drive or bus or subway ride.
  • Study two hours for every hour you’re in class. Students in higher education are regularly advised to allow two hours of study time for every hour spent in class. If you are taking 15 credit hours, then plan to spend 30 hours a week studying. That adds up to 45 hours each week for school—more than a full-time job. The benefits of thinking in these terms will be apparent at exam time. Keep in mind that the 2-hours-for-1 rule doesn’t distinguish between focused time and unfocused time. In one 4-hour block of study time, it’s possible to use up two of those hours with texting, breaks, daydreaming, or doodling. With study time, quality counts as much as quantity.

Try It

Here is a time management calculator where you can enter the credits you are taking. This calculator auto-populates the three hours you’ll need to study for every credit taken. You can also fill in the hours of your personal life, the time you sleep, and other commitments. Seeing the time broken down may help you organize and prioritize.