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Before each term begins, colleges ask students to sign up for classes. If you are a student who wants to routinely set and achieve your academic goals, your scheduling decisions are crucial to your long-term success. Unfortunately, schools seldom provide useful guidance on how to think about this high-impact decision. In this post, I break down a subtle aspect of making a class schedule. Specifically, I highlight the concept of a fudge ratio which quantifies the difference between how much time you budget for a task and how much time the task actually takes. We will use this work in later posts on scheduling traps, creating academic calendars, and making your institution work for you.
Learning Takes Time
A nuanced aspect of college-student life is your ability to create your own schedule. You decide which classes to take, what times to attend, when to study, and how much time to dedicate to your learning. This is an awesome level of autonomy. However, with great power comes great responsibility. Whenever possible, I encourage you to make scheduling decisions based on your learning needs. This entire post is grounded in a simple yet profound principle of learning, stated below.
|LEARNING PRINCIPLE: Learning takes more time than you think you need.|
You get the most out of your learning when you engage in slow, healthy struggle. To optimize your learning, make deliberate reaches, embrace deep practice, build connections between new ideas and your previous understanding, think flexibly and creatively, interpret ideas from multiple perspectives, and attentively repeat these steps.
Another way to state this principle is: when learning something new, make a conscious effort to go slow (much slower than you think you need to). Ample evidence in neuroscience indicates that when we focus on short-term strategies and try to increase the speed at which we think, we can actually impede our ability to learn something new. Instead, the more deeply you want to learn something, the slower you should study. This learning principle has profound implications for students making scheduling decisions.
Each time you choose your courses, you are literally projecting into your future to impose time constraints on your learning. The problem is that for most students, the act of signing up for classes is like agreeing to marry someone that you’ve never met. This is not a perfect comparison since each class only lasts 3 – 6 months while some marriages can last a lifetime. But the point of this analogy is to highlight that when you sign up for a class, you are making a substantial commitment with limited insights into the actual demands that will be imposed by the pledge you are making.
In this way, the act of scheduling is an estimation game, a high-stakes gamble (just like getting engaged). When you choose classes, you are implicitly asking yourself: how much time will I need to spend learning each week during the next academic term. You place your chips on the table the day you hit that “Register for this class” button. My recommendation to you is to think about how errors in your estimations will affect your learning before you cross the Rubicon and officially register for classes.
The Fudge Ratio
Put another way, a fudge ratio is a way to quantify the accuracy of your estimations. Let’s take a look at three important scenarios for fudge ratios by running through a semi-realistic thought experiment.
Suppose you are planning to “learn” a new concept covered during lecture in week three of the next academic term. Of course, it’s not possible to deeply learn a new concept in one sitting, but we’ll ignore that fact for a minute. Suppose you estimate it will take you four hours to complete this task and you schedule this time accordingly. When you actually sit down to learn, there are really only three different possibilities for the fudge ratio.
Advantage Scenario : Fudge ratio < 1
This circumstance results when the actual time it takes you to complete your task is less than the amount of time you budgeted. In our thought experiment, you might land in this scenario if you complete your task in two hours even though you originally budgeted four. That situation would lead to a fudge ratio of 2/4 = 0.5 < 1.
Any time you create a schedule that leads to fudge ratios that are less than one, you put yourself at an advantage (hence the name : advantage scenario). When you are in this position, you complete tasks more quickly than expected and end up with a bunch of extra time. This is wonderful! You can fill that time with anything you’d like: exercise, socializing, Netflix, romance, sleep, cooking, leisure, etc.
Let’s be clear: the advantage scenario represents an error in judgement. A fudge ratio less than one implies that you inaccurately predicted the amount of time you needed to finish a task. However, the consequences of this error put you at an advantage.
Errors of this type can happen in a few different ways. First, you can overestimate the difficulty level of a task and budget way more time than the task requires. Second, you might underestimate your level of preparation and specifically budget extra time to make up for your perceived deficiencies. Or third, you might get lucky and find unexpected resources that help you complete the task more quickly.
Accurate-Prediction Scenario : Fudge ratio = 1
Another possibility results when the actual time it takes you to finish a task is exactly the same as the amount of time that you budgeted. You’d find yourself in this scenario if you actually completed your task in exactly four hours and matched your original prediction, leading to a fudge ratio of 4/4 = 1.
A life filled with fudge ratios equal to one is just about as hard as you expect. You don’t have a ton of extra free time but you are routinely able to hit the due-dates for your commitments. Activities that lead to fudge ratios equal to one are quite convenient since they leave you with the ability to plan your life. These allow you to put nice time constraints around your tasks and move from one task to another with relative ease.
Suffering Scenario : Fudge ratio > 1
This last case results when the actual task duration is larger than the amount of time you budgeted. In our thought experiment, this would occur if you needed six hours to finish a task that you originally thought would take you four hours. Such an error leads to a fudge ratio of 6/4 = 1.5 > 1.
I refer to any set of events that leads to a fudge ratio great than one as a suffering scenario. This language relates to one of my favorite ways to think about suffering. That is, suffering is the sense of pain or loss that we endure when there is a difference between what we expected to happen and what actually occurred.
When I complete a task with a fudge ratio greater than one, I experience a definite loss in my life. Specifically, if I only budget 4 hours to complete a task that actually requires 6 hours of my time to finish, I lose time from somewhere else in my life. This might mean that I cancel plans with a friend, miss a scheduled workout, loose sleep, eat processed food, or compromise some other aspects of my week in order to finish the task.
Just like the advantage scenario, the suffering scenario represents an error in judgement. These two types of errors result from the same issue: you inaccurately predict the amount of time it takes you to finish a task. However, this second type of error puts you at a disadvantage (at least compared to your previous vision for how you spend your time). In order to make up for this error in judgement, you have to find time from elsewhere in your life which involves compromise, sacrifice, and struggle.
The suffering scenario is particularly pernicious in the life of a student. Deep learning is a complex process that does not happen on a predetermined time frame. However, most college classes are blind to your individual learning needs. The average instructors will push through large quantities of material, regardless of whether or not you’ve made progress on your previous learning. And, unlike in the working world, it’s very hard to re-negotiate due dates and time scales with average instructors.
Decide your class schedule : plan to fudge it up
When it comes to achieving your academic goals, one of the single most important days of any academic term is the day you choose your class schedule. Many students fail to realize how big an impact their scheduling decisions have on their learning. Or, more accurately stated, students seldom plan to find themselves in the suffering scenario. To counter act this tendency, I propose the following practice.
|LEARNING PRACTICE (Learning takes more time than you think you need)|
In order to create a class schedule that empowers you to achieve your academic goals, hold the following three thoughts in your mind as you choose your classes:
1. Next term is going to be way harder than I think it will be
2. I am likely not as prepared as I should be to do well in my classes
3. I need to create time to work hard, think deeply, and be flexible
I’m not proposing that you should believe these things about yourself. Instead, do your best to make scheduling decisions as if these assumptions are true. It is pretty much a guarantee that the amount of time you think you need will not be exactly equal to the amount of time that you actually need. The question is: what type of errors do you want to set yourself up for?
The point of centering this learning practice is to err on the side of caution. Once you have these thoughts squarely in your consciousness, ask yourself the following questions: What class schedule can I create that will give me ample time to study and learn? How much flexible time do I have in my proposed schedule to deal with fudge ratios that are greater than one? What can I do now, before I actually sign up for classes, to create extra flexible time to learn, study, and focus on my academic goals?
In later posts, I’ll address many strategies you can use to answer these questions. For example, we’ll talk about common scheduling traps, long-term academic planning, finding ways to save money on tuition, making money using scholarships, and other mechanisms you can use to increase the amount of flexibility you build into your schedules. Hopefully this will help you decrease the amount of pain and suffering you experience when you hit fudge ratios greater than one.
A great way to sum up this entire post is as follows: When scheduling your college classes, plan to fudge it. Do your best to make the fudge taste sweet.