The belated third entry of the four-week project is here, and this week I’m discussing how to focus and prioritise as a first-year vet student. However, this can be applied to almost any type of university degree, or transition to a larger amount of coursework, as figuring out the 80/20 of your efforts, that being the 20 percent of work that produces 80 percent of the results, is hugely beneficial regardless of field. Therefore, I hope this entry can serve as a course corrector, and perhaps make you reconsider the way you work, and whether or not you’re reaping the harvest of all your efforts.
1. Start at the end
You should familiarise yourself with the exams before the beginning of the block. I’m not suggesting that you try to complete an exam at that point, because that would be ludicrous. However, by looking at the previous exams beforehand, you know what to be on the lookout for. Are there any reoccurring tasks? What types of tasks are weighted more heavily as far as points or credits go? You should also look at the learning goals, or the ingresses or first pages of the chapters. Oftentimes the 4 or 5 most important subsections will be highlighted there (and in the chapter summaries), and you’ll get a clearer view of what you’re supposed to know after reading the chapter.
2. Don’t get “left behind”
You have to know when to move on, even though you might not fully understand what you’re working on. There will always be time for repetition, and trying to catch up every time you fall behind will be exhausting and be at the expense of the upcoming lectures. You also have to know what type of work is unnecessary work. Take reading the entire chapter for instance. If you have 2 or 3 chapters you have to read and prepare for each day, plus everything from 10 to 20+ tasks to do from the previous chapters for the upcoming study group, it’s pretty self-explanatory that some prioritising is required. Here I would definitely not read the entire chapter, rather go over the headers for the different sections, skim some parts, and watch videos and look at images to familiarise myself with the topic. Afterward, I usually write a simple summary, and move on to the previous chapter coursework.
3. Do the right things at the right time
Prioritising is also about finding the opportune moments. Figure out where your main focus should lie at different times during the semester. I like to section it off into three phases:
The overview phase: As I mentioned, when I’m working on understanding a huge process, I try to get a basic understanding of the entire process before the lecture. Where in the body does it happen? What cells or organs are involved? Why does it happen? In what order? I do not include all the minor details, I simply try to get a quick overview, and give myself a few reference points for later. To give a concrete example, when I was working with understanding some of the metabolic processes, like glycolysis and the TCA-cycle, I started off by just trying to understand why they are important, and in what order certain things happen. I then tried to understand the basics of what certain types of enzymes does, like isomerase makes new isomers, dehydrogenases does this, and so on and so forth. Understanding the basics, and not trying to tackle all of the intricacies of a process at once. It’s like writing an essay – you need a skeletal framework of what the essay is going to be about to not trail off onto unnecessary tangents.
The deep research phase: After the lecture, I enter the second work phase, where I supply my simple explanation with more “substance”, like difficult names or exceptions that I’ve left out for the sake of simplicity. This adding of details can come through doing the assigned chapter tasks, or by watching more videos or doing some close reading, or looking at other resources than the textbook. The different perspectives of the supplementary resources may make it clearer what the most important parts of the chapters are. Perhaps they have left some tangent from the course textbook out completely, or they have added more detail to a process that is only mentioned briefly in your book.
The review phase: I enter the third and final phase the last few weeks before the exam. I have planned out a complete entry on this topic to be published some time before Christmas, so I can only say that it involves further simplification and revisiting the exams that you looked at at the start of the semester. (When the blog post is up I’ll include a link here.)
4. You’re not married to your study techniques
As a closing note, I just want to underscore the importance of remaining flexible, and not getting in your own way. What I mean by this is that sometimes doing all the tasks for the chapter you’re working on will be beneficial, other times you’ll be better off just making your own comprehensive summary. Don’t get locked into one way of working. Some consistency is good, but if something is clearly inefficient, don’t be afraid to change things up. I might only be a couple of months into vet school, but my impression is that the first year is one of trial and error. For cell biology I made complete chapter summaries before each lesson, but for bio chemistry I’ve been going to lectures first, then doing the task sheets/making the simplified notes. This Thursday marks the beginning of the genetics part of this block, and I’ll most likely try out a third way to prepare for the lectures.
I hope this has been helpful as far as getting to know how I stay on top of things. I have to mention that this is by no means gospel, and that this is up to the individual to decide how they work best. However, I hope this can inspire someone to reconsider the type of work they’re doing, to envision the end result before diving into a project or task, to be aware of the amount of effort they are putting in at different waypoints, and find the most time and energy efficient way to tackle the fairly large course load of the first year of vet school.