Advice from The (Peer) Advisors: Doing Homework Is a Skill?

Image of Peer Advisor Gwen Umbach

Check out the following study tips from Senior Peer Advisor Gwen Umbach (CCAS ’20)!

On the second day of this semester, the slam of my apartment door startled me from a social media stupor yet again, to see my homework spread around me, long since abandoned. I hadn’t intended to spend thirty minutes checking my notifications, I actually wanted to get ahead on my work this time.

UHP students are notorious even within GW for doing lots of things at once, and for me one of the biggest challenges of college has been keeping myself focused enough to finish all those things. Though it’s always a struggle, this semester I’ve finally managed to implement some of the great advice I’ve gotten over the years, and I want to share a of the few things that have actually helped me not only start my work, but finish it.

As the brilliant Ben Faulkner pointed out to me, not all homework is created equal, and choosing what to work on first helps maximize time. Whether you’re a morning person, or one who only does homework when it’s dark out, knowing what time of day you focus best (not just when you’re the most
panicked) helps manage those assignments that require the most brainpower. Similarly, when I have lots of assignments to do in a night, working from hardest to easiest, or giving myself easy work between the hard assignments, has helped make my brainpower last much longer than it used to.

The second and the biggest change I made to my work habits was defining where I work. In high school, I always studied at home, and when I started college I continued that without any real thought, but over time it has become apparent that I am terrible at concentrating in my own home. After trying most places on campus, I have finally settled on the DC Public Library as my place for more intensive homework. For easier or less pressing work, I choose a different location—maintaining the sanctity of
the library as a hard-work-only zone has helped me stay on task when it matters the most. Regardless of what the best place is for you, finding it and committing to it makes a big difference.

The last, and hardest, piece of making a work schedule, has been the actual ‘schedule’ part: deciding when to work. This is the advice that I heard repeatedly from professors and advisors, and failed repeatedly to put into place: Block off time for homework, and if anyone asks you to hang out during those times, say you’re busy. In order to stay focused, not just during one afternoon but in the long term, consistency is key. That means tricking your brain into thinking that you absolutely have to sit down and work, even though there is nobody forcing you to follow through. This is a big adjustment to make from high school, where parents, teachers, and coaches oversaw most of our activities and knew if we skipped out on something. And it’s even harder when you start long-term projects like an honors thesis, that might require a lot of self-discipline. Last semester, I utterly failed at this. I ditched my scheduled work hours for activities with friends, campus events, and even peer advisor meetings. Now, though, I’m holding to that schedule (so far), and it has made a huge difference in the amount of work I get done.

It is both frustrating and heartening to realize that now, as I’m about to leave GW, I have finally discovered some strategies for working and studying that I can actually stick to. As useful as this would have been four years ago, it’s remarkable to think about how far my habits have evolved from where I was in my first year. I’ve finally accepted the reality that study habits are a skill to be practiced, and despite the many question marks in my future as a soon-to-be-graduated senior, I’m starting to trust that as time goes on, I will continue to improve at the skills that I’ve gotten a grasp on in college. Even when I still find myself hopelessly distracted, it’s comforting to know that if I’ve come this far, I can get even better in the years to come.

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