Parallel processing and multi-tasking are essentials of life, not just for the job market.
It’s getting close to the end of the semester and students are feeling the heat. If it’s any consolation, you might want to know that professors feel it too. We too have papers to grade, syllabi to complete, reports to submit — all by the end of term. Some of the heat we feel is reflected off students; many complain that there is too much work to do in too short a time. Another repeated grumble is about assignments from different courses around the same time. Okay, you already know all about managing time and pacing the semester. You’re familiar with the course expectations and understand the assignments. You have pretty much figured out how your professors think and what they want. Correct?
Unfortunately, technicalities are just that. They’re for the books. The fine print of course outlines are meant to remain unread; that is their destiny.
The reality is that week 15 of the semester is underway and you have a ton of work. Examinations are around the corner and you have four (sometimes more) teachers breathing down your neck asking for that final paper or project. You have to compile your notes for classes missed or misunderstood. This means you have to make sure you have the right connections in your class. (Who has attended all the classes? Who has collected all the presentations made? Who knows the “portion” to be included in the final exam?) And (most important of all) you have to plan your semester break—where’s the time for that in all this studying you’re expected to do?
Many students find it difficult to plan their semesters or terms in a way that allows them to efficiently handle the requirements of concurrent courses. Some courses require a lot of hands-on activity — group assignments, fieldwork, or practicals. Others require one to spend hours reading and making notes, from books in the library or on the Internet, and assimilating large amounts of information. Sometimes this is complicated by the different ways in which teachers organise the workload in their courses — some distribute the assignments through the term while others prefer to take stock of learning toward the end. Some courses therefore call for short bursts of activity throughout, while others demand that you walk through the term and sprint at the end.
However, these expectations are generally laid out at the start of the semester, and it is possible to anticipate how the term will proceed. Besides, you have seniors to draw on for wisdom! More often than not, when students find themselves staring at truckloads of work at the end of the semester, it is because they have failed to look carefully at course plans and schedule their work accordingly. Of course, it may happen occasionally that several deadlines do come together and create some pressure, but hey, you have to learn to deal with it — believe me, it’s going to get much worse when you get to the “real world”.
No short cuts here
There’s a lot of talk these days of parallel processing and multitasking. It’s a skill (or more correctly, a set of skills) that appears to be highly valued in the marketplace of jobs. But more importantly, it is something that life demands. We almost always have a variety of things to take care of at the same time, each requiring a different kind and amount of attention. Some things need more time, some need more physical energy and others need more intellectual input. The trick to efficient multitasking is to understand where you need to spend what kind of effort. If you have a project that is mainly about learning to master a procedure or an instrument, then you need to give it enough time to allow for repetitive activity or practice. If you need to write a term paper then you must allow for the thinking time that follows the reading time and then of course the writing time — good papers do not get done overnight, even by the best of us! Yet other tasks are about putting in a short but intensive burst of energy —physical and mental — into studying hard. No short cuts here.
Balancing your work through the semester is about figuring out what you need to do and when. It means spending some time at the beginning looking over all the courses and mapping the coming weeks methodically — to some extent. Follow periods of intensive reading with activities that require less mental energy and more “doing.” Space out your library research during the slow periods in a semester so that you have more time to spend on the physically demanding tasks (such as laboratory work or studio work) at the end. When you are feeling a bit low, focus on the subjects you enjoy and that come easily to you. Try to get a sense of which assignments have “prerequisites” in terms of research/preparation and complete those early on. And all the while, keep thinking about what you are studying and learning. Keeping your mind on course (literally) helps you pull together everything at the end.
Yes, of course, we are already at the end of the semester and perhaps it is too late to change the way this one has gone. But maybe you can work on a master plan for the next one?
The writer teaches in the Department of Communication, University of Hyderabad, and is the editor of Teacher Plus.
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