Managing Time in the First Year: Time to Burn or Time to Learn?

One of the biggest challenges first-year college students face is learning to manage time.  How well they do this significantly impacts their academic success during the year.

First-year students are often surprised at how little time they spend in the classroom.  They expect a high school schedule of six or more classroom hours a day, but may be in class here just three hours a day.  They often have more discretionary time than they are used to and a host of options competing for that time. While students need to balance school work with social, spiritual and extra-curricular activities, they also need to make a conscious effort to manage time well in order to succeed academically.

The problem is that most incoming students don’t grasp early on how much they need to work outside of class to do well in their studies.  Students need to spend at least two hours on course-related work (reading, studying notes, working in the lab/studio/practice room, writing papers, etc.) outside of class for every hour of class-time in order to learn successfully.  For a minimum full-time credit load of 12 hours, that's at least 24 hours of work outside of class.   Students are told this often during the first few weeks on campus, but many don’t take it as seriously as they should.  They know they need to study more than they did in high school (and they do), but most don’t increase their efforts enough—especially early in the semester when those efforts are critical for making a good start. Students who study the recommended number of hours consistently say they worked harder academically than they thought they could.

Why the gap?

Most BYU students have been very successful academically.  The average first-year student has an ACT score close to 30 and a high school GPA around 3.9.  Most are confident in their academic ability, even though they might be anxious about doing well here.  While that confidence is great, it can blind them to the need to fully apply themselves to the more rigorous coursework they find here.  Because BYU attracts high-caliber students, many who stood out in high school find they are “average” here.  That realization can be overwhelming and paralyze students who are used to being top dog.  It can be especially overwhelming to those who have not developed good study and learning skills, or learned to adapt their study practices when they need to (more on that in a future article!). 

It is also true that most freshmen spend more time gaming, media-binging and cruising social media than they think they will at the beginning of the year. These time-traps are especially alluring for students who get homesick or develop emotional health problems. The self-reinforcing escape/failure cycle is a real threat that a disciplined time-management plan can help students avoid. 

The bottom line is that students need to manage their time well and spend adequate time focused on their academic work in order to make the most of their first year. And there are a lot of campus resources available to help students learn these skills.  First-year Mentors, Resident Assistants and professionals at the Counseling Center are all eager to help students. The beginning of the new school year is the perfect time for students to hear this message repeatedly, both from us on campus and from you at home.

Steve Wygant earned his PhD in Psychology from BYU in 1993. He taught Psychology at Fort Hays State University, Eastern Oregon University and BYU before joining the BYU Office of Institutional Assessment and Analysis in 1998. He enjoys time with his family, photography, and a good jazz band.