The “big picture” plan

Having ana blog oct 2017a study plan is one of the first things that enters our mind when we decide to study, and even more if we do so as International Programmes students. We think in terms of time allocation, ascertaining when we will be able to sit down with our books, juggling many other commitments, perhaps thinking that it is not worth planning study sessions if our lives are so hectic that we are lucky with an hour left for studying.

However, that is, in my opinion, a flawed approach. Planning our study approach is vital to make the most of the material we have to go through, and planning also is an activity that prompts engagement (albeit superficial) with the material. Deciding what you are going to cover, as well as when and how, gets you acquainted with your workload and having an initial plan will be useful when flexibility is needed due to all your other commitments. In other words, you cannot have a plan B if you do not have a plan A.

Step 1: The general approach

I like to plan my study from a general approach to a more specific one. SPlan A/Plan Bo first, I will start by writing down everything I intend to cover and/or read. This general approach is designed to expose potential gaps in my preparation as well as making a first approach to the workload. Having a set number of total pages for both primary and secondary reading will help you in subsequent stages of your planning. Furthermore, this also allows me to strategize how to distribute my readings along different examination sections (I already explained that your reading is different depending on the examination section you are going to use it for).

Step 2: The daily approach

The next stage would be to try and allocate a number of pages a day. Now, this calls for some common sense. For me, it is not the same reading a few poems or reading some chapters of Victorian fiction. The poems are more demanding to me, since I will have to stop and check how they sound, if something catches my  eye (or my ear), the metric, the rhyme… On the other hand, I could easily read 50 pages of Victorian fiction in one go. Of course, I may try and allocate a specific number of pages a day in a broad, general sense, but it really depends on the material I have at hand. This is why a first approach/list of what you are going to read is important — you will already have a list of your strong and weak points and will be able to plan accordingly.

Step 3: The deadlines approach

Coffee and diaryThat is for the broader part of my study plan. This vast and loose sketch will allow me to go to the following step: setting deadlines. One of the things that we may experience as distance learners is the unstructured feeling of independent studying. It gives you a feeling of treading over quicksands or going through a swamp with multiple hidden bogs. Or getting lost without a map or your phone with GPS. You get the idea: I do not like the lack of structure. On the other hand, it lets you explore unchartered waters, and allows you to focus on your interests, it is almost like you are a modern Robinson Crusoe of sorts (minus the imperialist-colonialist approach) and you have to create your abode, which can be very exciting (as long as cannibals are not attracted to your side of the beach). Setting deadlines will give you this feeling of structure.

My first deadline is having all my primary reading done (and ideally notes from it taken) by the 1st of January. However, I try to be flexible, and if it does not happen, I either give myself a bit more time or allow for a change of plans (like last year, when I dropped Faerie Queene). My next deadline is formative assessment, so everything I do is geared towards this (secondary reading, mainly, but also outlining, taking a look at examination papers, writing short paragraphs formulating my ideas etc.). The following deadline is revision month (April), so until then I will try to have all my notes ready and all reading (primary and secondary) done. This may not happen as smoothly as it is set, because by March-April we are already tired and this is the moment when we need to motivate ourselves most.

I try to be flexible and kind to myself, and evaluate my progress realistically when I see myself faltering. However, by then we also receive our formative assessment feedback and up until now, this has always helped me to keep going and motivate myself, whether it meant reconsidering my approach or it has confirmed me in it. Having the feedback, be it good or bad, gives you a reference point for future action. And of course, the last deadline is examination time, and until it comes, I will practice writing timed essays, outlining, familiarizing myself with the examination papers, and all the skills needed for successful performance in the examination room. The last month is critical in digesting the ideas and assimilating them, so you also need to give yourself a break and allow for rest to let the knowledge sink in. 

Step 4: The weekly approach

With those deadlines in mind, I can then proceed to plan week per week. I plan weeks on a weekend basis. On Sunday, before the week starts, I take my time to review how the past week went and how to plan the next one based on that: did I make enough progress? Did some material take more or less time than previously estimated? What sort of material do I intend to cover in the upcoming week? These questions allow me to plan accordingly, but they also keep me in tune with my reading and the material I am covering. Remember: engaging with the material is key to feel at ease with it.

Remember to plan your workload before beginning to study: then the indeterminate mass of books becomes digestible chunks of knowledge. And of course, do not forget to enjoy the journey!

Ana is studying the BA English by distance learning in Luxembourg.

4 thoughts on “The “big picture” plan

  1. Hi there

    Thanks for your articles so far. They’ve been really insightful.

    I just wanted to ask your view on the “suggested syllabus” in the subjects guides, which is a 22 week plan. I started my study early and so have essentially stretched the 22 week plan out over a slightly longer period, with an aim of finishing it up in early April. I’m putting in close to, but not exactly, the recommended hours per week.

    I’m finding that each week/section of study is helping to “fill out” my understanding of English, which is great. I’m learning what areas are of most interest. I hoped that in putting the suggested hours in, whilst following this suggested syllabus, I’d be good come exam time.

    With the startup of the tutor groups, I’m seeing suggestions that covering all of material in the suggested syllabus may not be wisest strategy. This makes sense when I look at the exam papers – it feels like a deeper understanding of less texts or critical approaches is a better strategy, based on the number of questions (provided I do enough to have options).

    You have indicated that you aim to complete your essential reading by January. I was just wondering what that means in relation to the suggested syllabus? Are there simply weeks/areas that you have decided you won’t look at? It’s hard for me to make a decision like that without spending time on them. I’m also concerned that I’l leave holes in my knowledge.

    Hope this makes sense.


  2. Hi Alex! Thanks for your comment!

    I’m a level 5 student now, and my approach is significantly different from what it was at level 4. Nevertheless, I shall try and help you out with my opinion.

    When I say I aim to do my essential reading, I mean primary texts, i.e works written by authors (such as ‘Great Expectations’ or ‘Hamlet’ in the case of level 4). Secondary reading is what we call essays and/or books that deal with topics in the primary books, such as ‘What happens in Hamlet’ by John Dover Wilson. When I say I aim to do my primary reading by January, it means I aim to have all the necessary works read by January. I may intersperse some secondary reading in between, in order to gather ideas and anchor them while the primary reading is fresh, but my main efforts for that are reserved for January and February, when I can concentrate on close reading of excerpts or I can revisit particular points in the books previously read and devote more attention to them.

    About the suggested syllabus, that really depends on you. I generally follow it very loosely, I may read one or two chapters if what is in the syllabus coincides with what I intended to read, but I just refer to it in order to get an introduction to the topics that interest me. However, as a level 4 student, following it may be a good idea in order to familiarize yourself with your studies and how are you supposed to approach texts. When I was a level 4 student, I certainly paid more attention to the suggested syllabus, while now I may look at it to have a few references on secondary reading or suggestions for further study, but I taylor my studies to my preferences and what I feel are the likeliest topics to come up in the examination (again, this only has sense as a level 5 student, level 4 students have more direction and structure than us).

    Regarding holes and preoccupation with what is the necessary amount to cover: as you have noticed, you are encouraged to take a more in-depth approach over a wide ranging approach. Examiners prefer sustained and deep discussion in a few topics/works than an indiscriminate throwing of various information on many topics/works. In-depth engagement with texts usually yields better discussion, so instead of trying to cover everything suggested, try and engage with fewer topic texts.

    If you are still concerned about how many topics/works you should cover, you may drop a message in the Student Cafe forum in the VLE or in the Learning Support Forum. Other students, including myself, will try to assuage your fears and it may be a better place to discuss this with peers than in blog comments.

    Hope it helped!

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Hi

    Thanks so much for your detailed response. I like your approach. As a both a natural “planner”, and from my experience of studying for the past few months, your advice makes a lot of sense.

    I’m going to start by reading more of the primary texts, in order to get a feel for which ones are of most interest to me. I may even go for one or two not in the suggested study plan. I’ll then make a new schedule, targeting those particular texts. I’ll look again at past exam questions, then start my secondary reading. Finally I’ll try and ensure that I have my learning crystallized, ready for the exam, through some question practice.

    Thanks again for your sage advice.



  4. Hi Alex,

    I’m glad my comment was useful to you. Keep in mind that for Explorations in Literature, you should definitely read something out of the prescribed works list, you are not expected to discuss different works than this in the examination.


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