09/04/2012 05:49 EDT | Updated 11/04/2012 05:12 EST

Taking the long road: Set study schedule early to avoid cramming, procrastination

TORONTO - Whether it's due to juggling multiple deadlines or simply leaving studying to the last minute, many students find themselves caught in a crunch as they prep for tests.

"From my own undergrad experience, I did a lot of procrastinating, too," admits recent Ryerson University graduate Sarah Gaikwad, who now works as a peer development facilitator with Ryerson's Learning Success Centre.

"You feel like you have a lot of time to do it, and you kind of know that you will get it done at the end of the day. I don't know why we choose to do that, but I know that it happens — a lot."

She enrolled in the Facilitation Study Sessions (FA-ST) program, which targets courses that have low retention rates or in which a high portion of students perform poorly.

Students who have successfully completed those same courses are trained as facilitators and lead sessions which take a collaborative approach to helping students review and understand the material.

Since Supplemental Instruction originated in the U.S. in the 1970s, the academic support model has been steadily establishing a presence in Canada, with comparable programs in place at schools across the country.

SI covers study skills and strategies like time management, effective note taking and critical reading, says Krista Bianco, manager of the Supported Learning Groups Program at the University of Guelph.

Gaikwad says she found attending FA-ST sessions helpful, allowing her to take an active role in learning and observing how facilitators overcame their own difficulties in the course. Later, as a session leader herself, Gaikwad started to see patterns emerge among participants.

She noticed those who regularly kept on top of their work and attended sessions were fairly confident when it came to test preparedness — even if they were still nervous to write them. For those who weren't as diligent in their preparations, it was a different story.

"We'd get all the people who, at the last minute, realized that, 'Shoot, I haven't really paid much attention to the course and I really need help,'" recalls Gaikwad, noting they would see a dramatic spike in session attendance prior to tests.

"It's more nerve-racking right before the exam because you know you haven't done what you were supposed to all semester long," she adds.

Test-taking likely isn't front of mind for students just getting settled back into school routines following the summer vacation. But it's not too soon to start plotting plans to hit the books well before the first quiz or midterm pops up on the calendar.

Bianco says some students likely grew accustomed in high school to studying the night before a test and performing OK. They may be applying the same approach now that they've reached the post-secondary level, not yet aware they'll need to change.

For many students heading to college or university straight from high school, they'll likely be balancing a heavier workload in a compressed semester. It will be the first time away from home for many, and with that, their first test at managing their own time without having teachers checking up on them to ensure they've attended classes or submitted homework, she notes.

"I think for a lot of reasons that overwhelmed feeling comes along and they just don't yet have an understanding of what it is they need to do and how they need to change to meet the demands of university or college-level learning."

University of British Columbia psychology instructor Catherine Rawn leads a course featuring topics she's handpicked in hopes of helping students become improved and lifelong learners. Goal-setting, motivation and self-control are among the subjects the class covers.

Students have also teamed up on assignments that explore learning challenges, like test anxiety. Procrastination is a topic that has arisen in discussions, she says.

"This conversation comes up when we look at self-control and the fact that we have a limited supply of (it). As you use more effort, and try to get yourself to do things like sit and study and focus, you have a diminishing supply," says Rawn.

"You get worse at deep thinking in any one sitting, so trying to study for six or eight or 12 hours at a time isn't going to work. We just don't have the ability as humans to be able to do that. So if that's their study strategy — to rely on their bodies and minds to be alert for 12 hours — that's not going to work."

Rawn suggests students create schedules which allow them to space out their studies and review course material during designated times. They should also be building their study notes as they go through their courses and making sure they're doing the readings well in advance of exams, she notes.

As if coping with the rigours of readings, tests and essays weren't tough enough, students are likely also juggling a host of other demands on their time, such as part-time jobs or extracurricular activities.

It may be challenging for some to see how to squeeze more study time into an already stacked day — but Rawn says this is the precise reason a schedule is so crucial.

"When 3 o'clock comes around it's not, 'Hmm, what do I do now? I really want to take a nap' or 'I really want to check my email.' Nope, it's already decided this is what I'm doing. 'I'm going to read this chapter.' And then it gets done."

While dedicating minutes for study is key in the pursuit of better preparedness, finding and making time doesn't have be onerous.

"I know students who will pull out their class notes that they took in lecture when they're riding to and from school on the bus, and they're reviewing them, they're marking down questions for themselves, something they need to follow up on or they didn't understand," says Bianco.

"There are lots of small, little things you can do in small, little pockets of time. You don't necessarily need to have an entire evening or an entire afternoon to do effective studying."