Time spent learning and quality: a curious combination

This post is partly ispired by Mr Michael Gove’s recent suggestions to increase the number of hours children spend at school and reduce their holidays in order to improve learning. The original article can be found here. The idea about time and quality prompted me to think in two directions: my own school experiences and the hours I used to put in every day; and the dear PhD where things seem to be less clear-cut – time, studying and effort merging into a massive 3 year project.

Let me take you back to my school years. I have been educated in Bulgaria, a beautiful post-communist country on the Balkan peninsula. Schools there are different, they neither have the resources of English schools nor the luxury of using the buildings once a day… Bulgarian schools work in a 2 shifts model – half of the year groups attend in the morning (7.30-12.30pm to be precise) and the other half in the afternoons (1.30-6.30pm). These times fit 6 lessons and short breaks in-between. In addition to this, homework is a serious business – while at home, children are expected to do quite a bit of it, whether it will be reading to prepare for lessons or written work to hand in.

I used to do gymnastics for the most time during my educational career. That meant that while the other children could do their homework in the non-school hours, I had to be in the sports hall training for 4 hours a day. So essentially I was spending my homework and study time doing something else. I was preparing my school work for about 2 hours in the late evenings… And don’t get me wrong, this was not easy and required a great deal of discipline and organisational skills but my marks were always well above the average and I was ready with any work in time. So then the little time I had to prepare, did that affect my learning experience negatively? I wouldn’t think so, I finished school with quite good marks and went on to university. And my second question is: Does the time one spent learning define the outcome in terms of longer-better? Not necessarily.

So then do children need to spend longer hours in school to do more work and improve their learning? I wouldn’t suggest so because it’s a matter of quality, not quantity.

Now moving towards my PhD… As a result of my highly structured learning experiences at school I entered higher education with excellent organisation and work ethic in the sense that I knew I was able to put maximum effort in minimum time and make the most of it. Then I moved to England and I had to do it all in another language. Scary! Time consuming! Exhausting!

Time passed, I adapted, got back to my usual ways of hard work. Untill I got to meet my PhD topic and delve into the deep end. I admit that I am a workaholic, I absolutely love my PhD topic and it makes me tick on so many levels. So at a point I could put in many, many hours every day and week. But did that mean that I was over-productive and high-flying? No, it felt more like being stuck. So I started working on a number of strategies to pull me out and keep me going at a brisk pace – To Do lists, study groups, long and short-term goals, you name it. And all of this aiming to get me to a point where I would reduce the hours spent on a single task and increase the quality of the work.

The learning from these stories you’d ask… Now I am strategic about my time – going back to maximum results in minimum time. I work to tight deadlines and tend to push myself beyond my comfort zone and guess what, I achieve more in less time. So once again, is it the time we put in or the effort that makes the difference? It’s a curious thing that, isn’t it?

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One comment

  1. Oh Dimi you are so right.
    About the PhD, it is certainly not the “number of hours” that produces the desired outcome. I have had days when no matter how much I had the will to write, despite having all the materials on the desk, nothing would come through to the keyboard. On other days, the flow is so smooth I almost don’t want the day to end.

    How I have learnt to cope with this is to lay out eery task I need to accomplish on my program – writing, reading and note-taking is just as aspect of the PhD. There are other seeming ‘mundane’ tasks that still need doing and still require time – e.g. putting together that bibliography, organising and re-organising your stash of PDFs, dumping the needed ones in Endnote (or whatever software you use), reading the news and events (as they relate to your research) etc.

    Logging in really good hours is certainly key to achieving the desired result, however, time is simply another scarce commodity that should be managed wisely (like any other scarce commodity like money). In our projects, I don’t subscribe to us becoming slaves of “time”.

    Thanks for this brilliant post.

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