They sometimes receive an email out of the blue from a recently graduated student three years after they last spoke, thanking them for their tips and tricks. Kim Pril, Robin Eijsermans and Hedwich van Engelen are the people behind Study Management, which falls under ESA’s CAPS (short for Career & Professional Skills) program.
“We offer training sessions and individual coaching, and students can also take part in working and intervision groups,” Pril says. They recently added walking & coaching, Van Engelen says: “That works well with study management, because it’s important for students to get moving, and that’s what they do during these sessions, both literally and figuratively.”
As stated above, Pril, Eijsermans and Van Engelen are keen to bring Study Management to the attention of a broader group of students. Pril: “Many students haven’t even heard of it, which is unfortunate, because it could really help them. Students are often referred to us by an academic advisor, but only after they’ve already suffered a study delay.” In other words: the study management advisors would love to help students before that happens.
First and second year students often seek help with planning and setting goals, while graduates would like the support of their peers as they try to complete their BEP or master’s thesis. Putting aside your phone when you sit down to study is easier when your fellow students do so too. It’s a good way for students to organize their own incentive while studying.
In fact, the coaches prefer it when they’re no longer needed at all, which they try to achieve by giving students the confidence that will allow them to adjust their unproductive habits by themselves. And that always starts with giving them the feeling that someone takes them seriously. Eijsermans: “we tell them that it’s fine the way things are going, even though it doesn’t always work out. It’s amazing how much effect that simple observation can have. Stimulating and activating them to make changes in a stepwise fashion follows later.” Van Engelen adds: “What are you good at already, and what do you need to proceed on your own?”
Eat the frog
What advice do the study management advisors have for students who don’t know how to study effectively? ‘Pomodoro’ and ‘eat the frog’ are some frequently used phrases that will probably sound familiar to anyone who did some reading on time management.
The pomodoro technique is a time management method that uses a (tomato shaped) kitchen timer to break down work into intervals of 25 minutes, followed by a 5-minute break. Eat the Frog is a book that dictates that you should start your day with your most difficult and challenging task. Once you swallowed that ‘frog,’ you’ll feel good about yourself and you’ll be ready to complete the other tasks on your list.
But preparing for your study sessions is equally important, Eijssermans stresses. “Choose a good place to study, and that’s not necessarily the same place where you play videogames or watch Netflix. Don’t take on too much work: it’s better to study for three hours twice a day than to study all day from early in the morning until late at night. And always plan a buffer, so that you won’t feel stressed when it takes a bit longer.”
But your biggest enemy while studying is your smartphone, obviously. “Each ‘ping’ is enough to distract you from your books for ten minutes – even if you don’t respond to it,” Van Engelen warns. That’s why it’s important to make an agreement with yourself to put your phone away – in silent mode – for a certain period of time. And to prepare your study moment in advance – what information do I need? – so that you don’t need to Google after all, only to realize later that you’ve spent the last 45 minutes on WhatsApp or Instagram.
“Learn how to become your own incentive, and how to use the help of friends. Or ask us, or join one of our groups for a while,” the study management advisors say in conclusion. “It’s okay to have pitfalls, that’s what makes us human. What matters is that you learn how to become resilient so that you can find your way out of those pitfalls.”
Moving into student accommodation and joining the board of a student team were two changes in Marco's (21) life last year. “I got really busy doing fun things and responsible jobs, and I found it hard to ‘get back into’ studying.” As a result, he didn't pass a couple of his courses. “I had a chat with the academic advisor and was referred to Study Management.”
Now, together with another student, the third-year student of Electrical Engineering is having weekly training on how to plan and set goals. “Even though it's just the two of us, it's good to realize that other people also have things they are struggling with. Everyone has courses that trip them up and you just have to find a way through them.”
“And because the meetings are every week, you have to get things done. You can't keep saying week after week, I'll do that next week.”
The mother of all distractions is the smartphone, of course. For Marco, like everyone else. “The student team – I'm on four committees – uses WhatsApp to communicate. Last year I was reading messages all day long, and my focus was shot to pieces.”
“Now I've got all the notifications on my cellphone switched off, and I do everything that's study-related on my laptop. When I need to concentrate on my studies, I use the Forest app to lock my phone for an hour.” In the app a tree ‘grows’ on your screen, as long as you leave your phone alone. “If I don't, one of the trees in my forest dies. If I leave my phone untouched for longer than an hour, an especially cute-looking tree grows.”
Does it work? “Oh yes, it really works for me. The stupid thing is I've had the app for ages, but I've only been using it since I started the training sessions. Before that I felt I should be able to manage without it.”
“Now I know that even things that are useful or important to the team can wait half an hour. I save up these tasks – sending a mail, creating a budget – and I do a bunch of them in one go when it suits me, instead of doing each one as it appears in WhatsApp. It's a much better way of working, you get more done than if you're constantly switching back and forth between studying and other tasks.”
What tip would Marco like to pass on? “Make a schedule that's realistic. Don't go thinking: tomorrow I'm going to spend four hours deep in concentration working on that really difficult course I'm doing. You know that's never going to happen – except in a fantasy world. Realistic also means scheduling nothing for the morning after a party. Instead, plan to watch that morning's lecture ahead of time or catch up on the work later.”
Looking back, he thinks his ego used to be an obstacle. “I was pretty sure that I could combine my board work, four committees, parties and visits to my parents with my academic work. Now I know that I need a schedule. If I don't make choices – because I think I'll take things as they come – they'll be made for me.”
Marco has now caught up on several of the courses he didn't pass first time round. “And another good thing is that now when I've got free time, it really feels like free time. Last year it never felt like that. I'd be at a party thinking about everything I needed to get done.”