Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Life Hacks - Academic Success Version

Helping students achieve academic success involves working on at least three levels. The first, and most obvious, level is specific to learning the practice of law: helping students master effective outlining, case briefing, and issue spotting are two examples. The second level is learning how to learn on a more general level -- pre-reading strategies, spaced repetition, multiple choice skills, and self-regulated learning techniques come to mind. Work on the third level, however, often is the one that bears the most fruit in my experience. This is the level of trying to work through non-academic situations that affect students' academic success -- life hacks, as it were. Of course, you never know whether a life hack will be a hit or a miss, old hat or new insight. But when a student tells me, "You changed my life!" (quite a wonderful thing to hear at 9:30 on a Monday morning), it's almost always because a life hack we brainstormed together made a significant positive change that helped all the academic pieces fall into place.

Here I offer four life hacks that have generated some of the most effusive student thanks recently. Interestingly enough, all of them center on sleep. To me, that suggests that today's students recognize the importance of sleep in maintaining energy as well as academic performance.

1. "I just want ten more minutes before I get up."
The hack: sitting up and listening to your breath in the morning. 
The problem is a familiar one: you wake up on your own, or to the alarm clock, but you want just a few minutes more of feeling happy and relaxed before you go into full gear and encounter the day. Jumping straight out of bed, especially if you woke to an alarm, feels precipitous and stressful. But you also know that if you hit the snooze alarm, you're going to feel even more groggy in ten minutes, or worse, you might sleep through the alarm and be late for class. So create a gentle transition: sit up (in bed or a comfortable chair) and start off the day with five or ten minutes of stillness. It can be as simple as feeling your breath go in and out, or sending good thoughts to people in your life. You'll feel like you got precious extra minutes for yourself, and you'll start the day in a good mood. (Hint: when I share this hint, I try to be aware of my audience: some students respond well to words like meditation or mindfulness, while others immediately shy away.)

2. "I can't get to sleep because my mind keeps racing."
The hack: Count to four, or practice something similarly familiar and repetitious.
Students who voice this plaint are usually familiar with and practicing the precepts of good "sleep hygiene": they turn off the computer an hour before bedtime, have the bedroom dark and cool, and lay off the caffeine by early afternoon. Yet as soon as their head hits the pillow, the mind starts going a hundred miles an hour with the perceived failures of the past day and the dozens of things they must accomplish on the morrow. They need a gentle transition to help them let go of the cares of the day. One of the easiest is just counting slowly from 1 to 4, over and over again. Another variation is to listen to, or read, or recite, a story that is so familiar that they practically know it by heart. The repetition without judgment gives them permission to let go and unwind.

3. "I can't establish a regular schedule."
The hack: Get up at the same time each morning.
When students tell me the have trouble keeping to a schedule, the first thing I ask about is their sleep habits. Students straight out of college are especially prone to base wake-up times on class schedules. On days starting with an 8 am class, they get out of bed at 7; on days starting with an 11:30 class, they get out of bed at 10:30, and on weekends, anything goes. The result is what I call "virtual jet lag," where the body is continually trying to readjust itself. Often these students stay up late because they aren't sleepy when their brain tells them they should be going to bed: the result is a continual state of exhaustion. I suggest they get up at the same time each school day (and vary by no more than one hour on weekends) so their body and brain know what's coming day by day. Once they establish a regular wake-up routine, schedules tend to naturally follow.

4. "I'm exhausted in the afternoon, but napping is a disaster."
The hack: Nap or listen to your breath for 20 minutes, not more.
It's natural to have a "low" in the afternoon: our internal circadian biological clocks mean that most of us have a two-hour period of reduced energy sometime between one and four pm. Most people push through this low period with exercise or caffeine or sheer willpower, but a nap seems like an obvious choice for others. If you choose to nap, 15-20 minutes is ideal, because that amount of time allows you to rest in
the first two stages of the sleep cycle. Go half an hour, though, and you can enter into deep sleep: at best, you'll have the groggies when you wake up and spend an hour dragging yourself back to alertness; at worst, you'll be impossible to rouse from your nap and end up throwing your nighttime sleep cycle out of whack. A lovely alternative to napping is to allow yourself a 20-minute period of rest, allowing but not expecting sleep. That rest can come in the form of listening to your breath (see #1) or doing something familiar and repetitious (see #2). Practicing any of these during an afternoon rest break can boost your energy to make your late afternoon and evening more productive.

(Nancy Luebbert)

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