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UG CamGuides: What skills will I develop as an undergraduate?

Generic academic skills useful to all students

 

With thanks to:

Jessica (Human, Social, and Political Sciences)

Vamsi (Economics)

Zadie (Classics)

Shameera (English)

Many Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences students will discover that they have fewer contact hours at university than at school or college and are expected to plan their work so that they can meet deadlines. Conversely, a lot of STEMM students will have a very full timetable, which doesn't require them to organise their time to the same extent, but might mean that they are limited by what they can achieve beyond their course.

Trying to fit everything into a day, week or term at Cambridge can be a challenge to start with. The key to good time management is prioritisation. Click on the boxes below to find out more to help you decide what is most important to work on and when:

Prioritising - click on the box title to find out more

It is important to define why you are doing something. It may seem clear e.g. read a book. However, what are you trying get from that book? Information, an argument, a case-study, one particular quote? Make sure that you are clear what your supervisor wants you to do. For example, they may give you a sheet of problems, but not expect you to finish them all. Once you are clear what is expected of you, define your task clearly by breaking it down into multiple tasks (e.g. we hardly ever write an essay from start to end in one sitting) and that will help you develop a to-do list.
Before attending to the first thing on your list of tasks, ask yourself: what has to be done now and what can wait? Prioritise deadlines and then work back from that date in manageable chunks. So rather than having a single item on a to-do list, instead divide tasks into a number of different timescales:
  • short term (morning, afternoon, daily)
  • medium term (week)
  • long term (monthly, termly or longer if dealing with a dissertation, project or thesis).
Rank your lists or colour-code them so you can easily see what needs to be done first. Be strict and stick to it. Input the activities into your diary (paper or online) to block out time in the day to get them done or, for long-term goals, so that you know when they are due.Try to complete one task at a time. It is more satisfying to have one thing ticked off than several, half-finished jobs.
Break your tasks down into manageable chunks. Putting ‘Write essay’ or ‘Complete problems’ on a to-do list isn’t very helpful. Instead, make your objectives SMART:
  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Achievable
  • Realistic
  • Timely
By taking this approach, the above tasks become: ‘Draft essay introduction on Monday between 9 and 11am in Wolfson Library’ or ‘Work on problems for 2 hours. Spend a maximum of 30 minutes on each problem. Write down my reasoning at the end of that time, even if I haven't got the answer.’. That way, you know exactly what needs doing, are more likely to be able to get the job done and know what remains to be done if you run out of time.
Think about your study space. Will you be more productive at your desk in your room so that everything is to hand? Or are there too many distractions at home and will you benefit from working in the library, with others? Wherever you are based, make sure it is comfy, well-lit and organised. arrow If you need inspiration have a look at our section on learning independently for more information about study spaces.
lightbulb iconGet planning!
There are links to templates below to help you plan your week and term. They begin on a Thursday which is when the teaching week begins in Cambridge. However, we completely understand that you may prefer your week to begin on a Monday! Just adapt the template according to your needs.
Try and fill in a weekly planner for one of the weeks before you go to university. See if it helps you achieve your goals. If not, how could you refine it?
 

But.. stay flexible

man breakdancing The information here represents a perfect scenario. In practice, however, there is variation: a supervision might be rescheduled or a book that you wanted to read might be on loan, or you might not have achieved as much as you wanted to that day.

If you have a lot of unscheduled time, you can complete tasks according to how motivated you feel. In fact, varying your routine and doing something spontaneous might help you return to your work with renewed interest.

We recommend that you take control of your time by knowing in advance your extra-curricular commitments, contact hours, and deadlines, and planning your independent work around them. But leave gaps in your week so that you can respond flexibly to changes or unforeseen opportunities. That way you should feel able to make the most of all that Cambridge has to offer.

Tools

Once you have a plan in place you need to consider which tools you will use to help you keep to those deadlines and tick off items on a to-do list. Post-its (sticky notes) work well to remind you to do things but they do rely on you being in one place to see them. You may wish to consider using technology to help you, wherever you are. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Most importantly, get a planner, calendar or diary to ensure you know what is coming up in the way of contact time or deadlines and then you can work out what to do in the time leading up to those events. Your life will become full of academic and extra-curricular commitments and a diary will help you be where you need to be at the right time!
  • If you are particularly attached to post-its (sticky notes) to remind you to do things, you could try an online version such as Googlekeep. As well as taking notes free-hand you can attach images and audio. It syncs with Google Calendar to remind you to do something
  • Any.do and Trello are examples of project-based tools and work especially well for longer-term goals
  • Microsoft To-Do has very useful sub-list options
  • Note making software such as OneNote and Evernote let you set up alerts from their notebook-approach for ‘to-do’ lists.

Here some of our students talk about how they use their calendars to manage their time.

 

With thanks to:

Eloise (English)

Vamsi (Economics)

Sean (Computer Science)

Anna (Human, Social, and Political Sciences)

Organise your files, both online and physically

You will save yourself lots of time if you can find things straight away.

If you work on paper, label and number your notes, include titles and dates. Use colour or different notebooks to demarcate different topics. File loose handouts in an orderly fashion in A4 wallets, box files or ring binders. It sounds like common sense but things can quickly get out of hand if you don't start with a method.

Your computer needs even more attention. Don’t use your desktop as a dumping ground for everything you download! Create a clear file structure and anticipate what you might create. Having an empty folder is less of an issue than putting everything in one long list and planning to put it in order later. Rename downloaded files straight away and use dates where practicable to divide up work. Nest folders to keep each level of storage to a minimum; having 50 folders on your desktop is just as confusing as having 50 documents.

Try and create new versions of documents if you plan to edit them drastically, that way you can always go back to the original if you don't like what you've changed.

  • Within a folder consider a file naming convention such as this:
    prefix (for document type e.g. report, notes, essay)_meaningful document title_version_yymmdd

Reward Yourself

Time management is as much about resting as working and you should take breaks whether you have completed your task or not. It is important for your eyes and back, and it will help you stay focused so that you can return with renewed interest and energy. For short breaks set up EyeLeo or Stretchly to force you to look away from the screen. Every hour, you should timetable in a cup of tea, the chance to check your phone or take a 5 minute walk.

During longer breaks, make sure you are still doing things you enjoy; find time to socialise, exercise and relax. If you have timetabled these into your week then you don’t need to feel guilty when taking a break; instead, look forward to them! Find out more about extra-curricular activities in the How will I learn at Cambridge? section.

Sources of support

However, there will be times when you are uninspired or struggle with work; it will not always be easy to maintain momentum. To maintain motivation think about:

  • Reasons for studying
  • Manageable goals
  • Successes

There are many sources of help and support for times such as these. Informally, they can be family and friends or peers from your course. More formally, you can speak to your Director of Studies and Tutor; if they cannot help you directly, they will know of  alternative sources of support across the university such as the Counselling Service.

Image credits

CC0 by Jon Tyson via Unsplash; CC0 by Samuel Zeller via Unsplash

Film credits

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