Planning and organising your time

When making the change to studying at university, it is important to be aware that most of your study time will need to be self-managed. This may be different from your prior learning experiences, where you may have been advised on, or received a timetable, for your study time.

Independent learning and living

Although the University will provide you with a timetable outlining your scheduled sessions, you will be expected to study outside of these hours. Central to this is the expectation that as a student you will be an ‘independent learner’.

This means taking the responsibility to make decisions about what you will focus on and how much time you will spend on each task. It does not mean learning on your own, and there are various ways you will benefit from learning with others both formally (for example, working on group assignments) and informally (for example, forming study groups).

Life at university is not all about study. Other considerations such as managing independent living, social activities and looking after yourself are commitments that need to be in your schedule. You may have been doing some (or even all) of these already, but at university you will need to balance life alongside your simultaneous module commitments, all of which will require independent study time beyond the taught, timetabled aspects.

You will need to balance some or all of the following:

Independent study

  • Reading for all modules
  • Managing multiple assignments
  • Working with peers.

Independent living

  • Cooking
  • Grocery shopping
  • Laundry
  • Cleaning.

Life commitments

  • Paid work
  • Caring commitments.

Health and wellbeing

  • Exercising
  • Socialising
  • Societies
  • Downtime.

Therefore, to be an effective independent learner at university you will need to develop good planning and organisation strategies.

Below, you will find a few suggestions as to how you can plan and organise your time effectively, allowing you to make the most of the opportunities available to you at Surrey.

How to plan and organise your study time at university

While your academic timetable will show your weekly lectures and seminars, you will be expected to manage other course expectations, such as:

  • Pre-reading and preparation, including watching recorded materials before sessions
  • Reviewing notes after sessions (see our guide to secrets of university success: active note-making strategies)
  • Planning and completing assessments
  • Organising and sustaining group projects
  • Revising for examinations and tests.

Your course and module handbooks will provide you with exact expectations for assignment submission dates, exam periods and the types of projects you will undertake. By knowing the requirements for each module you can start to plan and organise your study, allocating and splitting your independent study time between each module.

When planning and organising your time it’s important to maintain a focus on:

  • The long-term requirements: Such as knowing assessment deadlines
  • The immediate requirements: Such as weekly commitments and schedules.

Note: You probably already use some good strategies to plan and organise your time, so consider what has worked well and not so well for you in the past. Have the confidence to apply and adapt any previous strategies that have worked well for you.

Strategies to try

Let’s have a look at a few strategies you can try.

Once you start, find out and make a record of:

  • How many teaching weeks there are in each semester; when they start and when they end
  • Holiday periods, including festive breaks and bank holidays
  • Revision and reading weeks
  • Exam periods
  • Assessment deadlines.

Making a record of these, possibly in an online calendar, will allow you to build your other commitments around these. As a Surrey student, you’ll have a university Microsoft Outlook account with a calendar, but you could also use your personal calendar. Most of the main calendars (Outlook, Google, etc.) will allow you to easily set up a ‘feed’ to automatically populate your calendar with your timetabled commitments from your university personal timetable.

Alternatively, you could create a Gantt chart (this allows you to map out your time, commitments and deadlines over several weeks), or you might find it preferable to have a wall planner for the academic year.

Think about what might work best for you and how you remind yourself of key dates!

Some students also find it helpful to maintain a separate weekly list of commitments to stay on top of immediate requirements, though it is possible to do that in your calendar if you are regularly monitoring and updating this.

If you do keep a separate weekly list, this might take the form of a ‘To-do’ list, or an online organiser, a paper diary, or an electronic diary or planner app on your phone. Use whichever works best for you. How you organise a weekly schedule will be personal to you, so remember to create one that you feel you can stick to and which doesn’t make you feel overwhelmed.

When developing a weekly schedule, you may also consider ways to prioritise your tasks for example, the Eisenhower (urgency-importance) Matrix and strategies for setting manageable and realistic goals.

Firstly, add in time-defined (immovable) activities, for example, scheduled lectures and seminars, and submission deadlines.

Secondly, insert routine activities with some flexibility, for example, viewing recorded lecture content or pre-reading requirements: It’s important to keep up with your course and not let these slip.

Thirdly, add in more flexible commitments, for example, reading around the subject, social activities and contingency planning (such as back-up study time to revisit challenging content).

Finally, review progress regularly and update your calendar/scheduler accordingly. Where you need to catch up, identify elements from the third category that you will need to drop to catch up with commitments in the second.

Key takeaways

Before starting university:

  • Reflect on how you currently plan and organise your time: What works and is there anything you can improve?
  • Think about how you might adapt some of these approaches to the requirements of university study.

When you start university:

  • You’ll receive a link to access your personal university timetable, where you’ll also be able to, if you wish, set up a timetable ‘feed’ to automatically populate your electronic calendar
  • Be mindful that tasks often take longer than expected, so try sticking to your plan, but always build in contingency time
  • You will need to review and update your plans frequently and adapt your schedule accordingly.

What next?

Planning and organising your time well involves scheduling opportunities to keep and maintain excellent notes. On the importance of good note-making at University, see guide 4. Active note-making strategies.