Academic Swagger

This article was written by Jacob Amos, a contributing writer for The Concordian.

Almost everyone has at least one of those frustrating friends with the innate ability to do what appears to be as little work as possible while still churning out grades reflective of a student that does nothing but study.

These people have what sophomores Austin Keller and Levi Bachmeier have come to call “academic swagger”: the ability of a student to derive maximal academic output from minimal temporal input.

But how on earth do they do it? Is it some genetic mutation that just allows them to be smart? Or is this “swagger” controllable, something to which the rest of us humans can gain access?

And if so, how does one achieve “the swag?”

While the stress from finals can be overwhelming, there are ways to channel your academic habits to minimize stress by maximizing efficiency and ensure that you finish finals with a sense of fulfillment. Those who have perfected the swag give insight into four such ways.

1. Go to Class.

While this one may seem like a no-brainer in theory, skipping class is often too tempting a prospect for some students to pass up. If you want to do well in a class, though, you must go to class.

As my old AP English teacher, Mrs. Stippel, would tell her classes in preparation for college, “skipping class is the surest way to fail.” Her other piece of advice: if you need motivation, calculate how much money you are spending per class. Chances are, you will be surprised at the size of that number.

However, sitting in a class physically without being there mentally will do no good either. Focus is key.

“The biggest thing is making sure you pay attention in class to whatever the professor says,” Keller said. It’s important, he said, to always be thinking if what the professor says makes sense.

That analysis can guide your studies. If it makes sense, you can probably afford to study it less. If it doesn’t, either ask a question or study hard.

If you do that – and especially if you don’t – professors take notice. When you are in class, “you’re not invisible, and you’re making an impression,” said Fred Sternhagen, associate professor of communications.

Every time you skip class, text in class, or go on Facebook in class, “you are building an impression that you are not serious,” Sternhagen said. “Your credibility matters.”

2. Prioritize.

When it comes to actually sitting down and knocking out that pile of homework, you need a plan of attack: what comes first, what is most important, and what can wait.

“The most important thing is to first figure out what exactly you need to be doing,” said sophomore Jon-Erik Nelson, one of the captains of Concordia’s Mock Trial Team.

Here everyone has his or her own habits.

“I prioritize what I need to get done now, and after that, I get to assignments as time allows,” Keller said.

By contrast, sophomore Kate Engstrom, Student Government Association executive assistant, has a lot of obligations others depend on her to finish, and she does those first.

For her, “usually school work goes last in any day’s work” because homework affects only her, whereas for other duties, people are counting on her.

Engstrom’s habits manifest a key idea for prioritization: not all classes are created equal. For that matter, not all assignments are created equal.

“If I have a paper that’s worth 30 percent of my grade, it’s going to get more attention than a paper that’s only worth 10 percent of my grade,” said sophomore Emily Bosch, a nationally competitive debater with an omnipresent need to prioritize.

For Keller, it’s proximal necessity. For Engstrom it’s social pressure. For Bosch it’s weight of importance. What matters is that you have a set pattern of prioritization and  that you follow through with it. Doing so will allow you to focus less on what you need to do and more the task itself.

3. Focus.

It’s the end of the day and you finally get the chance to just sit down and study. This is where the rubber meets the road and where most students end up fishtailing out of control. How do you keep from crashing come finals? Keller’s advice is one word: “Focus.”

For most that means isolation, both from other people and from one’s own belongings.

Maurice Gavin, a Twin Cities management consultant who advises businesses on how to be most efficient, also had some advice for students.

“You need to study in an environment with no distractions and a single point of focus,” he said in a phone interview. You need to isolate yourself and clear your desktop – no phone, no Facebook.

Jason Regnier, assistant debate coach and instructor of communications, agrees.

“Multitasking is a lie,” he said in explaining that Facebook and focus are mutually exclusive.

Now that you’ve isolated yourself from outside distractions, you need to make sure the time you spend in that environment is spent doing nothing but work. After all, “there’s a difference between being in the presence of work and doing work,” Sternhagen said.

Here again, every person will be different. For Bosch, the key to focus is coffee. “I’m addicted to caffeine,” she said.

Some like set to-do lists to sort out all of their obligations into small, easy chunks. Doing this helps you see your progress by checking things off as you go. Such progress can in turn provide more motivation.

Nelson has his own brand of mental checklist. Admitting to being no stranger to eleventh-hour essay writing, he says it is his structured pattern of thought that focuses his writing.

“First of all, what am I writing about?” he asks himself. “Do I even know what I’m writing about? If not, can I figure it out? And if not, can I write the paper anyway?”

Engstrom’s style, despite all above theories that isolation is best for focus, is to use populated areas to her advantage. She studies in crowded areas because she doesn’t want people to catch her on Facebook, and that keeps her from going online.

Sternhagen, for his part, often keeps himself on track with a timer. He will often set the timer for an hour to make sure he keeps working for the whole time and track his progress. The timer method can give an urgent sense that you are racing against the clock and also provides a clear milestone and corresponding reward. For instance, you make yourself work an hour straight, take a ten-minute break and then repeat.

Alternatively, in lieu of a break, Sternhagen simply advised a change in work. Going from one subject to another can keep your mind moving and refreshed, and “that change can keep you from coasting to a stop.”

Try different methods, mix and match, find whatever works best for you, and get to work. But above all is the mental discipline needed to keep constant tabs on your focus. “You can’t let your mind wander,” Keller said.

4. Know Thyself.

Possibly most important is that you know yourself, your limits, your abilities, your preferences, and what works for you.

If you know that you can’t operate without eight hours of sleep, and if you know when you’re most productive, then you can use that awareness to coordinate your time accordingly.

“I’m freshest in the morning, have the most energy,” said religion professor Ernest Simmons. “More thoughts and ideas come to me.”

Nelson, on the other hand, admits to completing many assignments in the final hours before they come due. He knows that his own personal recipe for intense focus consists of “equal parts adrenaline and equal parts necessity.”

Engstrom also needs a rush to get things done. “I can’t focus on things unless there’s pressure,” she said. “It turns your fight or flight on.”

If this is your style, finals should be a cakewalk for you – as long as your primal response is the former rather than the latter.

Bosch also knows what works best for her. She likes to get work done in the laundry room.

“White noise is the best for studying,” she said.

However, she also knows where she has to draw the line. “I know how late I can stay up, and I know how much time I need in the morning to wake up,” she said. “I know my limits, and I know how to push them.”

Ultimately, “you need to know yourself as a student,” Bosch says. “You need to know what strategies work for you to get things done.”

Such self-awareness is important looking forward to finals. If you know you’re not focused when you have your phone, turn it off. The friend whose text you don’t respond to will probably forgive you. Final exams, tragically, tend not to be quite so forgiving.

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