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Semester plan
2006-09-24: I've a pearl of wisdom from someone who got a first to anyone about to start uni. Here's how I see the semester:
John Allsopp's view of how a semester works
From left to right is time, the first week starts as the curve starts to rise on the left hand side, and ends as it falls through the solid blue line on the right hand side. The vertical axis is workload, the higher the curve, the more workload there is. The solid blue line represents your average workload.
I'm saying that the start of a semester seems easy enough, but as you are taught things, so you must be assessed. I once challenged a lecturer on an essay she gave us that I thought we could have written on week one, thinking that what she was assessing was our critical thinking skills perhaps, or our ability to find stuff out. No, she said, she hadn't taught us anything yet. So the assessment (exam, project, essay) is about testing whether you've internalised what you've been taught. Inevitably, then, assessments come later in the semester when you have been taught something.
But lectures don't stop, they carry on throughout, and whatever system you have in place for learning (I recommend Buzan's Use Your Head) has to press on to the end of term, especially if there's an exam at the end.
So, a module is, what, 10 hours per credit and maybe 20 credits so 200 hours of study over however many weeks. OK, let's get detailed. Taking a typical semester for me in 2002, it started 23 Sept 2002 and teaching stopped on the 13 December. Then we had exams from the 6th Jan to 24th. So, 12 weeks of lectures, 3 weeks 'off' over Christmas, and 3 weeks of possible exams. We had three modules per term.
We were given an hours plan, for example: for a 20 credit module I was given: 30 hours in lectures, 15 hours in labs, 15 hours preparing for labs, 48 hours reading course texts, 40 hours on assessment project, 50 hours revising for exam, 2 hours sitting the exam, total 200 hours.
Now. The point about my diagram is that the workload increases a lot towards the end of term and that has a tendency to surprise you because you've gotten used to a certain amount of work, and then you find you've got three time-consuming assessment projects to complete and exams to take. If you're not prepared for that, it's more than the hours in the week. The green dashed line (are you proud of me for handling colour blind readers by making that line a different style too?) represents the most work you can muster in a week, given the catshit you have to clean up, the shopping you must do, the hours you spend non-productively yacking with your mates in the hour-slot between lectures, and the drinks you must consume in the bar of an evening.
It's almost a law: The workload at the end of any university semester is more than can be humanly done. The Health and Safety Executive would condemn it if it were a workplace. But you bought it, and here's where you lose marks. Here's where you have to give twenty hours to a thirty hour project because you run out of time, and for that, the most you can expect, even if everything you did was right, is 67%.
You might think you'd be dead chuffed to get 67%. That's a 2:1 after all. But that's your upper limit. And don't believe those who say, and they do, that having a first class degree marks you as somehow maladjusted or socially inept. That's bullshit jealousy, frankly. The people who got firsts on my course all have a sense of power and control about them. They are suns around whom planets orbit. You may think a first isn't worth getting. But take the long view. If you're twenty years old now, you've maybe another sixty years to live. Do you think you'll regret getting a first when you're forty or fifty? I'm saying you'll still be proud of it. So do your older self a favour and prove yourself now. When you feel the burn for a digital camera or a new CD and realise you can't quite afford it, think of that for the rest of your life. A first will give you more earning power. It will help to get you the things you want. You'll feel fantastic putting it on your CV. So don't carp about your student loan, take the positive view and make the most of what you're buying. A degree is only three years, it's not a lifetime, so get stuck in. It's not about your ability, it's just application and organisation, and anyone can do that.
Remember too that what looks like a well resourced department now will be hell when the peak time comes. The computer labs are full, all the books have been taken out of the library, there's nowhere to sit, and everyone's ragged. So get the books out early so it's done.
So, and here really is the whole point, you have to find a way of taking that peak of workload in the second half of the semester, and putting it into that slack time at the start of the semester.
There are two key rules. The first is to only give a task its allotted hours. No more. If you fail it, that's a badly designed module, assuming you've applied yourself intelligently and are capable. If you give a bad module more than its fair share of hours, you're stealing from the modules you are good at, and from the ones the lecturers have properly designed. There's an underlying (business) rule supporting this which is "do what you're good at (and buy in the skills you are not good at)", by which I don't mean pay a graduate to write your essays, I just mean if you're going to make a difference, you have to concentrate on your strengths, which means don't give time to what you're not good at. Obviously you have to pass the course though, so if you find yourself with a module you're struggling with, try hard, do your best, get help from your tutor and colleagues, don't give up .. all that. But cut it off after the hours are done, and if you fail it, so be it. It's a very calming thought, this. When others are losing their rag, if you've done your hours, you're done, you can sleep soundly.
The second key rule, and perhaps the overriding one, is to do things early. Never ever leave anything to the last minute. So when a lecturer gives you a project for assessment, or an essay to write, start work on it. Spread the time over the weeks to hand-in. Don't, however, do it all up front because often you are yet to learn things you need, and the lecturers will often give you clues along the way, but don't leave it either. Do what you can. If you don't, you'll think "there's plenty of time" and then as hand-in draws closer you'll realise that not only is there that to hand-in but a couple of other major projects too.
So. The plan. Our 20 credit module required 200 hours over a maximum of 18 weeks. That last 3-week exam period's difficult to plan for because all your exams could come in the first week, so I used to plan for them all to come in the middle, so might as well plan for 16 weeks of study. 200/16 = 12.5 hours per week.
1.5 of those hours is spent in lectures, and most of the time 2 hours on preparing for and being in the labs, so that leaves 9 hours of discretionary time in the week. Later, those will be taken up with assessment projects and exam revision, so the only thing you can do in the first weeks in those 9 hours is reading course texts. So that's my advice. Just make sure you're reading what you need to read (talk to your lecturer). A spreadsheet's good for working all this out. If you can't afford Microsoft Office, download Open Office, it's free.
So reading the texts, at 9 hours a week, would probably take you through the first five weeks if that's all you did, but you still need to be doing that after the lectures of the last week, so, yes, in week 1 and maybe 2 you'd read for 9 hours, but after that it starts to drop off and give way to other things you have to do .. someone may give you an early project for instance. If that happens, and in all sorts of other instances, you don't (obviously) have to stick with your 12.5 hours per week for every module. If one module needs all the time one week, then just trade hours across the week boundaries. It's all flexible, just so long as you've done the right hours at the end, and so long as you remember that you're trying to balance your workload across the weeks.
For me, however, I worked long-term on getting things into my head. Revising, in other words. Once you've had a lecture and taken notes and worked out, in conjunction with the books, what it all means and written up your notes, I then worked on getting them into my head. Slowly at first, but more as the exams neared. So reading gives way slowly to that and towards the end of teaching, almost completely to assessment work.
Oh, and when they say there are two assessment projects, one worth 40% and the other 60%, allocate that percentage of the 40 hours for assessment projects and no more. They are telling you where the points are, so put your time in the same places.
I'd add a final rule. I thought going to university and taking a degree course was about exploring a subject in your own way, bringing your own views to bear, being adult. That's a mistake. The lecturers teach, you learn, they test you, you tell them what they told you. Now matter how much they tell you it isn't, it's school.
And finally finally, when they give you an assessment criterion for a project, eg. 20% of the marks are for planning, 20% for presentation, or whatever, make sure you allocate that time properly and write it up.
So, yes, it's a lot of planning, you have to keep control of all that. But that is how I got my first, not because I'm particularly clever, but because I worked hard and I managed myself well. Anyone can do it. Good luck.

By John Allsopp
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