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The #1 Secret to Coasting Through College

bookhead.jpgStudents sometimes ask me if I can suggest any time management techniques to help them cope with hectic academic schedules.  The way I respond to these inquiries depends upon the student’s specific situation, but the technique I want to share with you today is my #1 academic time management secret.

The secret is simple: Working hard for the first few weeks (to establish yourself as a rock star student) is the easiest way to coast through your classes.This will not work for every class (more on that later), but it’s a real time saver in any class where it’s viable.

First, let’s discuss the 3 main reasons why it works: 

Reason 1: Teachers, like all humans, have selective retention.
The principle of selective retention states that people more easily remember messages that correspond with their beliefs.  If you work really hard to establish yourself as a gung-ho student who knows her stuff and fights for every point, your teacher will form a belief that you are a top student. From that point forward, your teacher will be less likely to consider messages that indicate you are slacking, whether those messages come from sloppy papers, poorly written essay questions on tests, or whatever. This doesn’t mean your teachers suddenly become stupid after the 8th week of class, but it does mean that your hard-earned reputation may afford you leeway.

Reason 2: All that hard work makes the remaining weeks easier.
If you work hard during the first weeks, you will develop a familiarity with the teacher’s style of instruction and the textbook, familiarities that will make future assignments easier.  In other words, you may be able to generate work of similar quality with less effort.  Plus, the more points you earn during the first few weeks of class, the fewer you will need later.

Reason 3: The 80/20 Rule.
There are many variations of the 80/20 rule. The variation I’m referring to suggests 80% of the quality of something can be achieved with 20% of the effort. During the first several weeks of class, you’re putting in 100% of the effort to establish yourself as a rock star. Once your reputation is solidified, you can throttle back and continue to produce a respectable product.

Wait a minute, isn’t this deceptive?
My nature is to knock every class out of the park, from the opening day to the final exam. That’s just the way I am.  In fact, I never consciously set out to implement this model at all. But my knowledge of how the model works allowed me to effectively prioritize during crunch time, when my obligations exceeded my capacities. I knew some classes would allow me to coast, while others wouldn’t. It was good information to have, and it helped me graduate first in my class.

I suggest you utilize this information as I did.  Make it a habit to put your best foot forward at the beginning of every class.  Be genuine. Be a hard worker who respects the teacher. You want to stand out in a positive way. Be pleasant. Smile.  Unless your teacher has asked you to call him by his first name, refer to him by social title and surname. If you come up with intelligent questions while reading the textbook or reviewing notes, go to your teacher’s desk after class and politely ask if he has time to review.   

Do your very best work, even if it means staying up late or missing a night on the town. Study hard; show that first test no mercy. Once the test is graded, if you feel one of your answers has been unjustly marked wrong, politely dispute your grade, using facts from the book as support.  

If you’ve done these things effectively, your teacher will know and respect you.  And your good reputation may come in handy if you need to coast a bit.

As a final note, coasting may not be the best choice in overly demanding classes or those where grading is based on objective measures, such as multiple-choice or mathematics.  It’s also difficult to coast in classes where all the points are bundled up at the end of the semester. But I cannot think of any class where working hard in the beginning cannot help you later on.

Coasting is not the goal of academic life; that’s learning.  But knowing when you can get by with coasting is powerful information when you need it. 

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