Most parents, students, and teachers are familiar with the terms “study skills” and “time management.” These nonacademic skills have often been touted as the keys to improved academic performance. However, not all study strategies are built alike, and there may be more benefits to time management than simply academic performance. This review of two studies published this year summarizes new insights to these familiar terms and may help students and parents use the summer time to prepare and plan for a more effective and balanced school year.
Meaningful study engagement, not total study time, garners better performance
Walck-Shannon, Rowell, & Frey (2021) refer to the “desirable difficulties framework” from Bjork and Bjork (2011), who propose that more challenging studying strategies promote improved long-term knowledge retention. Walck-Shannon et al. hypothesize that the use of more active studying methods would result in higher performance on exams. The researchers emphasized a technique they refer to as “self-quizzing,” or self-explanation. This learning strategy involves students asking themselves “how” and “why” questions as they learn material, building their own connections between previously learned knowledge and new information.
Within Walck-Shannon’s et al.’s introductory Biology class, students used 12 strategies most frequently. Six of these strategies were classified as active, five were classified as passive, and one was mixed. Active strategies included activities such as completing old exams, self-quizzing, paraphrasing class notes, and creating diagrams. Passive strategies included rereading notes, watching lecture videos, and rereading the course textbook. Of the top five most frequently reported study strategies, four were active, while only one was passive.
Walck-Shannon et al. received feedback on study techniques from 424 students and compared their study habits with their exam results. Unsurprisingly, the most common study strategy was to read over notes or lecture slides, a passive strategy. Four main strategies stood out: completing problem sets, self-quizzing, explaining concepts, and attending review sessions or office hours. The researchers categorized the latter as a mixed strategy, since student engagement can range from actively asking questions to passively taking notes on teacher responses to others’ questions.
They found that the number of active strategies used by students positively predicted their exam scores. Students who used all six of the main active strategies scored anywhere from 11.1-16.1% higher than students who used no active strategies at all. In short, the more active strategies students employed, the higher their grades were.
Walck et al. also inspected Bjork and Bjork’s (2011) proposal that spacing out study sessions (as opposed to “cramming”) would improve storage strength, a commonly held concept. Interestingly, however, Walck et al. found no significant effect from the total amount of time students spent studying or any significantly better performance from students who started to study the furthest in advance of the exams. No student in their sample studied fewer than two days in the week leading up to the exams, and 64% of students began studying six or fewer days in advance of the exam.
Less surprisingly, Walck et al.’s study confirmed the hypothesis that the more time students studied while distracted—for example, study time in which students multitasked, like scrolling through social media—the worse students would perform. Their students reported distractions during 20% of their total studying time.
These findings suggest that practicing problems, quizzing yourself while learning, and explaining the concept to yourself or others are key study skills to hone for better exam performance, especially for math and science classes. These strategies may still be viable for English and language classes, especially with regard to grammar or vocabulary. Students could also use self-quizzing and explaining concepts for history or social science courses. Walck et al.’s results reinforce the importance of asking further questions, taking full advantage of office hours or review sessions, or even taking the initiative to contact a teacher or professor directly to clarify challenging concepts.
Less-considered benefits to time management practices
In their 2021 meta-analysis, Aeon, Faber, and Panaccio review the results of 158 studies on time management—from the 1980s to 2019—to discern not just whether or not time management works, but also whether these techniques are productive and helpful. Concerns that time management mindsets can emphasize a “profit-oriented view of time that perpetuates social [and global] inequalities” and “an inability to enjoy the moment” have been raised by more than just academics, especially in the past decade.
Aeon et al. found that time management had a moderate impact on both academic and work performance, though it seemed to be slightly more effective in academic settings. In an academic setting, time management had a greater impact on behavior-based performance than results-based performance. In other words, time management skills more strongly affect productive behaviors like motivation and procrastination reduction rather than directly improving GPA. Good use of time management can help students organize their time to better study and complete tasks to better perform on homework and exams, for instance.
The most unexpected result from the meta-analysis found that time management had a more significant effect on wellbeing than performance, either academic or professional. Aeon et al. record that the effect of time management on life satisfaction is more statistically significant than that of job satisfaction. From their review, the researchers have found that time management has most significantly affected previous studies’ participants’ sense of positive mental health and sense of purpose. These findings suggest that time management skills—like setting work-life boundaries, breaking up tasks into smaller goals, scheduling time to complete certain tasks, and deliberately integrating breaks and downtime into one’s schedule—can alleviate stress and improve mental health overall, not just improve work efficacy.
A possible interpretation of the meta-analysis results could be that the purpose for which one utilizes time management strategies matters, especially when used for improving well-being as opposed to maximizing profit or optimizing the “grind.” However, concerns about a societal trend towards viewing time as money, and thus using time management as a tool for greater profit or its use to balance an increasingly (and even unfairly) complex workload in the digital world, are still founded and deserving of further evaluation.
From Walck-Shannon et al.’s results, students might take the summer to consider what study strategies they currently rely on most and replace passive strategies with more active ones. Distractions and use of social media while studying produce clearly detrimental effects on academic performance: thus, summer poses a practical time to find ways to minimize distractions while studying, like scheduling study sessions only for as long as students can remain focused or including dedicated breaks, before the school year begins anew.
Based on Aeon et al.’s review, encouraging students to decide on time management strategies that will help them organize their time could improve their mental wellbeing during the hectic school year. These time management strategies could include: buying a planner, setting and keeping to a consistent sleep schedule, strategizing the removal of study distractions, and setting goals for the academic school year and strategies to help achieve them in advance (perhaps making a note to set aside more time to study for more challenging subjects, and/or looking into a tutor for that specific subject, for instance).
However, please do not spend all summer planning! Use those time management skills to also set aside time to enjoy being outdoors, spend time with loved ones, and relax before the fall semester.