Make me a better student with lower blood pressure
August 13, 2009 10:04 PM   Subscribe

Help me handle/reduce assignment stress while doing uni by correspondence.

I finished school 8 years ago, and am now attempting university studies by correspondence. Studying, writing essays etc is a whole new world for me, and while I am very disciplined with other areas of my life, it's been very easy to just pretend university doesn't exist when I don't feel like it. Except now, I have 3 assignments due in 4 days. This is my second round of assignments, the same thing happened with the first round, and while I promised myself I'd do things differently this time, I actually tried doing them earlier but found it really hard to "get started" - I sat in front of my computer for 5 hours last Saturday and only wrote a paragraph so I got frustrated and avoided it for the rest of the week. I know I work best under pressure and last time I ended up with really good marks, but I also don't want to spend the next 4 days feeling incredibly stressed out and horrible and procrastinating etc cos at the end of the day I know that I have to do the assignments and I can only do what I can do. I am incredibly tempted to just go out and pretend this isn't happening - instead I keep looking for anything to distract me to justify not dealing with it.

So my question is fourfold:
1) What can I do to retrain myself to have better study habits going forward?
2) What do you do when you feel mentally blocked when you're trying to write an essay?
3) How do you motivate yourself to learn when you're disinterested by the topic?
3) What do you tell yourself when you get so stressed out that you start trying to avoid the thing that's stressing you out? (which of course makes it worse) <---- this is the biggest issue for me right now

Help me help myself! (okay, now back to this essay...)
posted by Chrysalis to Education (9 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Someone else may supply the magic bullet, but I suspect there isn't one. I haven't done (classic) correspondence, but I have done classes online (no on campus component) and realise it takes some self-motivation. What it really boils down to for me is setting aside blocks of time to work on coursework -- and getting out of the house to do so. It is too easy for me to get distracted or indulge my aches to clean whatever unrelated surface presents itself rather than do my damn homework. I bought a second hand laptop (because it was all online work and reading) and got myself to the local coffee shop which, happily, had free wifi. You could also try a local library.
Scheduling your days so you have not only work time but not-work time helps with the sanity. I found online courses to be sometimes overwhelming because the forums never sleep, and the profs would post new bits of assignment during the "week" and expect we were online every day. So, I got online everyday. But when your weeks start to blur into one long course it's important to say, "I work on this from 10-2 today, and then I'm done."

It doesn't sound like you have the time, and I don't want to provide more distractions, but David Allen's GTD methodology helps too with breaking down these behemoth tasks into small actionable tasks. However, Merlin Mann has a tidy podcast with David Allen that gives some inspiring GTD in a nutshell.
posted by tamarack at 10:21 PM on August 13, 2009

I've studied by distance and it was really hard. The easiest way for me to keep up and not let everything build up into a massive chunk was to participate in the online forums for the class, if there are any for yours. This forces you to read the material each week and comment on it.

What worked for me was being ridiculously detailed and overplanned in my weekly schedule. I made a huge chart detailing all the topics for my units that week, when I needed to log into the discussion board, when to start an assignment and what stage I should be at each week (week 1: read literature, week 2: start writing, etc). I did slip a little here and there, but this was much better than keeping what I needed to do each week in my head.

When I feel mentally blocked while writing an essay I just write any old thing that comes to mind and clean it up later. Or, at least I try to uphold this principle.

Motivation - I hated one of my units, and dreaded the materials. I told myself that if I did the bare minimum and kept at it every week, it would be much less painful than trying to cram it in at the end, and it was.

When you are stressed - you have to remind yourself this won't last forever, no one cares about your grades but you. If you can, find someone to have coffee with to talk about the materials, even if they are not studying themselves.

Good luck! I managed to complete my Masters and another course by distance while I was working full time. It can be done!
posted by wingless_angel at 12:32 AM on August 14, 2009

I've never done distance learning, but I do have a lot of experience dealing with academic anxiety. This is what's helped me:

(I'm going to assume you're in the liberal arts or humanities, since you mention essays.)

- Just do the most minimal thing you can. Open your word processor, get the book out, whatever. Reduce the superficial barriers. Half the time when I do this I end up starting to work anyway.
- I find a lot of my trouble writing essays comes from the feeling that I need to know exactly what I want to say, in maximally eloquent prose. Give yourself permission to write something rough and messy and bad. Then go back later and fix it. I find having a glass of wine or a bottle of beer helps relax the inner perfectionist, but the point is not to get drunk, just to relax a little. Meditation or a quick run or something else might work for you too.
- If your paper requires a critical component or an original thesis (that is, if it's not merely expository), don't delay writing until you think of one. Write all the expository parts first - the stuff that summarizes the main points of all the reading you've done. This is the easiest part of the paper, but it often takes up a pretty big chunk of the final product. When you think of a thesis, you can just copy and paste your exposition in. (Sometimes you'll have to make slight changes.) Also, doing this forces you to think more carefully about the material, and you might just end up finding a problem you can explore in the critical part of your paper.
- I know I said I'm assuming you're in the liberal arts or humanities, but the following applies for problem sets too, actually: I find that when I'm, for example, writing a proof, I will get stuck trying to solve it in my head before I ever write anything down. This rarely works. But if I just write down the easy, obvious, first few lines, the solution will come to me, bit by bit, more often than not.
- I've also had good luck with two tricks I learned on AskMeFi: Work in 20 minute units, and then take a 5-10 minute break, and then work for another 20 minutes. That allows you to break everything into manageable pieces. (The break is obligatory.) Usually doing 20 minutes of work doesn't feel all that onerous. Or, tell yourself you'll work for 5 minutes, and if you hate it, you'll stop. You have to really mean it for this trick to work. You'll do 5 minutes and you'll probably find it much more bearable than you thought.
- Are you noticing a theme? Just start. It doesn't matter if you feel ideally and completely ready, just start.
- Think about your studies even when you're not doing them. When you're talking a walk or on the bus or in the grocery check-out line, consider the material. Do you understand it fully? Pretend you're explaining it to someone else. How could you attack the argument? What does it assume? You would not believe how much more effective this makes you as a student.
- What's allowed me to study things I'm disinterested in is knowing that I am studying them in the pursuit of a goal that really matters to me. If you don't have anything like that motivating your present studies, maybe you should study something else? But you trick yourself into delaying gratification sometimes, not merely "exercise will." Leave your home and go to a coffee shop or library with no internet. Bring only what you need to study. Schedule this. Say you will do it every other day from 12-6, for example.

Hope this helps.
posted by mellifluous at 1:57 AM on August 14, 2009 [1 favorite]

But you have to trick yourself, that is.
posted by mellifluous at 1:59 AM on August 14, 2009

Work in 20 minute units, and then take a 5-10 minute break, and then work for another 20 minutes.
The one thing I miss about smoking. 5~10 minute breaks every 30~40 minutes came naturally...

I know know all about this, BTW - I did the same thing with all my take-home exams at the end of last semester (although I kid myself that I couldn't help but do that because I had 3 large assignments all due in the week before exams). Told myself I'd never do it again, to remember how stressed I was when doing them and how I burnt out I was after (I could barely function for the next two weeks), etc.

And I've just quite literally now finished an assignment that I started this morning and was due ~4 hours ago...
posted by Pinback at 4:24 AM on August 14, 2009

I have studied on campus, and I currently study by correspondence and I know a number of people who also study by correspondence as well as a number of people that study on campus, and overwhelmingly the distance students report this stuff much more than the on campus students. So you should know that you're not alone, and your difficulties have more to do with the inherent drawbacks of distance study than anything to do with you personally.

I think for me and most people I know the major difficulty is that you're less regularly "accountable" - as you said in your question, it's .. very easy to just pretend university doesn't exist when I don't feel like it. This is definitely much more a feature of distance study - you don't have lectures to turn up to or people to work with, and most likely you're working from home with all its attendant distractions, in your pyjamas checking out Metafilter every 5 minutes (ok, maybe it's just me...)

That said, here's what I changed that brought me from a ~C average in my first semester of distance study to the A average that I got in my second:

- Forming a study group. You can support each other and the social interaction might help you feel more positive. This might not be easy depending on your institution - do they allow people to make their contact details available for such a purpose? Are there forums available for student discussion? If you come back and tell us your institution someone might be able to help you with this (or you might find fellow distance students) - I couldn't tell from your profile where you live although your answering history implies Australia, are you studying through OUA?
If you can't form a study group, enlist a friend or family member to be your motivator. When I'm beating myself up about being a sack of uselessness because I haven't started my essay yet, my boyfriend has the job of grabbing my shoulders and saying very firmly "Go. Write. Something. You'll. Feel. Better." And I do. Your optimal strategy may vary!

- GO SOMEWHERE ELSE TO STUDY. I can't stress this enough. I seriously cannot study efficiently from home, and neither can any of the other distance students I know. Libraries are good places - many have wifi access, though I wouldn't take your computer unless you actually need it for study purposes. The internet can be a terrible curse if you're already struggling with concentration and attention span.

Also, I note you mention not being interested in the topic. If this is something that's true across all your studies (rather than just that annoying compulsory unit spoiling an otherwise enjoyable course), perhaps you're studying the wrong thing?

As for what to tell yourself... I doubt anyone will be able to tell you what self-talk will work best for you. I typically remind myself that doing ANYTHING is better than doing nothing (because uni doesn't award negative marks on assignments, and not doing an assignment nets a zero in every case) and then I just PUT SOME WORDS DOWN no matter how bad I think they are, because blank screens/paper are very discouraging and I can always rework them later. Motivation follows action, unfortunately. I have a terrible perfectionist streak that tends to result in me doing nothing because OMG IT WON'T BE PERFECT I AM AWFUL, so I have to tell myself this quite a lot.

Good luck!
posted by lwb at 4:29 AM on August 14, 2009

Recognize that doing distance learning, especially for an entire degree, is an epic self-motivation challenge. Not many people do it, in part, because of what you've run into. Even the few self-paced classes at took when I was at university, which in retrospect were almost trivially easy, failed huge numbers of people for this exact reason.

My advice would be to treat it as a job. Seriously. Find some fixed blocks of time when you can put everything aside and focus on academic work exclusively. Make it a regular thing so that it become natural to think "Oh, I'd love to do xxx but I've got class from 2-4" even if "class" means that you're spending some quality time at a desk in the library.

Good luck!
posted by LastOfHisKind at 5:58 AM on August 14, 2009

1) What can I do to retrain myself to have better study habits going forward?

I've been doing online courses for the past year and a half, and I've found the most important part of getting me to do the work is committing to deadlines right from the start. The first day I have my materials, I go over the syllabus and the lesson plan and I figure out how long I have to do each assignment and still finish within the semester. Then I mark each assignment deadline on my calendar in pen. Somehow this works way better than just "knowing" I need to finish an assignment every 8 days, or whatever.

I tend to schedule my assignment deadlines for every Friday, because I know I can work hard all week and then have my weekends free. Giving myself the mental room to enjoy the weekend, rather than feeling guilty that every fun minute should have been spent studying, helps a TON in keeping my motivation up during the week. I'm motivated to finish my stuff on time, because if I don't then I'll lose my weekend worrying about it and working on it. It's way easier to just get it done by Friday.

An important part of this is, if there's an assignment that will take more than a week, I give myself sub-assignments with firm due dates. If it's a huge paper, then maybe one week I have to find at least 5 sources, the next week I have to come up with a thesis and an introductory paragraph for it, the week after that I have to have a rough draft, and the 4th week I have to finish it.

The absolute best motivator is if there are exams along the way that I have to take in person with a proctor, and can schedule in advance. I figure out when I need to have those exams done according to my schedule, and I call the testing center during the very first week of class to schedule all the midterms, quizzes, final exam or whatever. I suppose I could call them and reschedule if I fall behind, but once I've promised somebody with authority that I'll be at a certain point in the course by a certain date, I have a lot more motivation.

2) What do you do when you feel mentally blocked when you're trying to write an essay?

I write single sentences/phrases, scattershot ideas, or whatever comes to mind when I think about the topic. Eventually I end up with sort of a list of the topics that I know should be covered in the essay, and I can shuffle them around into an order I like. By that point I've usually come up with a better way to say something I wrote previously, so I change it. And then I get a flash of extra thought about another point I had noted earlier, so I add some more info there. Eventually my random brainstorm turns into a kind of shoddy outline, and then paragraphs, and finally I realize I just need to tweak some transitions to make it flow to have it done.

3) How do you motivate yourself to learn when you're disinterested by the topic?

Presumably you're taking these classes for some reason? Either because you want to work in this field, or because these tangential classes are required towards the program you need to work in your field of choice. So focus on the fact that this class is getting you where you want to be. And if it isn't, maybe you shouldn't be in that class.

3) What do you tell yourself when you get so stressed out that you start trying to avoid the thing that's stressing you out?

Like others have said: I only have to work for 5 minutes. Even better, I'm only allowed to work for 5 minutes. Somehow the thing you're not allowed to do, suddenly becomes more appealing. Work 5 minutes, then go clean the bathroom mirror. If you feel like it, work 5 more minutes and then go clean the tub. With any luck you'll eventually find yourself in the middle of a thought at 5 minute and want to keep going, at which point you have permission to do so.
posted by vytae at 7:52 AM on August 14, 2009

You can try Cal Newport's blog. He has tons of tips for people in your situation. Also, if you like his blog, he has books, too.
posted by qmechanic at 5:48 PM on August 14, 2009

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