Studying successfully when commuting means you might need to think differently about how and when to study to achieve the most effective and productive outcomes. There are lots of considerations, depending on the subject you’re studying, the distance you’re commuting, the travel method you use, and other home, work, or family commitments you may have. This guide offers some suggestions and strategies that have helped other students who commute, and helps you start thinking about what would work best for you in your own circumstances.
Having a dedicated study space helps you to stay focused on your tasks. If you can, it’s a good idea to set up a space where you keep your books and files in one easily accessible place – perhaps a desk in your bedroom? Alternatively, if you use a shared space, make sure you have storage for your documents, with a file designated for current work. Keep a pen and notebook where you work, and stick a copy of your timetable and a list of your deadlines into the inside of the lid, so that you can easily find them when you need them.
Not being on campus every day can mean that you miss announcements and information, so it’s important to check your University email at least once a day, as well as announcements on StudentCentral. It’s also a good idea to follow social media accounts for University departments and services.
Whilst you might not be able to access on-campus resources every day, you can make sure you know how to access off-campus resources like StudentCentral, the resources the Library holds, information on using other libraries, the Academic Study Kit website, the international Academic Study Kit, LinkedInLearning, your free Microsoft Office package, and other study skills resources.
Studying at home means that you are in charge of making sure you stay on track. Key considerations include: making sure you have a plan for your weekly studying; knowing how and when you study best; and recognising the things that can distract you from study. You can put a study plan together by finding out when your deadlines are and using them to make a work schedule. Break your assignments down into a series of tasks and fit them into a termly plan. This will help you to know when you’re aiming to have started the next task.
Your School Academic Study Kit website has more advice on organising your time, including a weekly planner. To find it, select the ‘Organisation’ page once you have entered your School ASK site. You can use your termly plan to make weekly to-do lists. Prioritise the top three tasks and decide the night before which one you’re going to start with the next day, so that you have planned ahead.
Think about how you study best. Are you better with or without music? What time works best for you – early on in the day, or are you a late starter? Come up with strategies to deal with the things that distract you. For example, if you’re always looking for an excuse to make coffee, you can fill a vacuum flask up before you start working. If you get distracted by phone notifications, you can put your phone on silent and turn it over so you can’t see the screen.
Sometimes when studying, we just get stuck. When this happens, try talking through what you’ve done so far with a friend to work out what you should do next. Alternatively, you can talk it through with yourself, for example by using your phone’s memo recording program. Or tell the cat!
Using your time effectively
When you’re commuting to campus, it’s important to think about what time you have available and how you can best use that time.
You may have gaps in your timetable that are not long enough to use for extended study. If you’re not on campus every day, you will want to make sure you make the most of your time, and these short periods can feel wasted.
It’s never a bad thing to take time to have a coffee with your peers and discuss the lecture that week, but if there are other tasks you want to get done, the key is to know what can be done in the available time. For instance, you might:
- Browse the library for some extra reading
- Download a chapter from an ebook to read later
- Check your referencing on a forthcoming assignment
- Make a list of things to follow up from recent feedback, and look through resources that might help (e.g. the university’s study skills resources)
- Write a brief summary of your last lecture with any questions you have
- Make a plan for your next assignment
- Draw up a mind-map of the last topic you covered to set you up for exam revision later
Carrying a virtual backpack
It can be tempting when you’re commuting to try and carry everything you might need with you. However, there are a number of drawbacks to this approach: having so much stuff on you can make it difficult to find what you need; you’re still likely to forget something; carrying heavy bags can give you backache; and it can slow you down getting around campus.
What you can do instead is use a ‘virtual backpack’. This involves making the most of apps and e-resources to minimise the amount you need to carry. It also makes important documents easier to find:
- Keep all of your working documents in Cloud-based storage like Google Docs or One Drive, so you can access them wherever you are.
- Use your online reading list for quick and easy access to the reading you need.
- Make the most of e-resources like ebooks and journal articles.
- Try a notemaking app like Evernote.
- Know where to find essential information about your course on StudentCentral
- Get used to using StudentCentral and University social media to keep up-to-date with study and University information.
Always check if there’s an online version before picking up more paper copies of anything.
Studying on the move
It’s can often seem as though the time you spend commuting to university is time wasted. However, there are many study tasks you can do on a commute, and it’s also important to remember that learning is not something that only happens when you’re reading or writing. Thinking is also an extremely important part of study, and you can do that wherever you are.
If you travel in by car, you might want to listen to podcasts or recordings of lectures. It’s also worth considering whether car is the best form of travel for you. For instance, if you need to be flexible and able to get home quickly because of family commitments, you will need the car. But if your on-campus commitments mean travelling in the rush hour, you may be better off using public transport. That way, you can spend the time you’d be sitting in traffic doing something more productive.
If you travel in by public transport already, you could do the following:
- Break down your reading and writing tasks into smaller tasks that you can do in minutes rather than hours: making an essay plan; writing a paragraph or 200 words; or reading a couple of pages, for instance.
- Try listening to podcasts on your subject, or recording your lectures on your phone and playing them back to go over the material covered.
- Do some structured thinking: write out some questions about your subject and think through each one in turn.
- Review what you’ve learnt in that day’s lectures and seminars, and make a note of any unanswered questions you have.
- Sometimes you will just need to take a break, sit back with your earphones in, and watch the scenery. That’s a valid use of your time too!
Hopefully it won’t happen too often, but traffic jams and transport delays can be an unwanted feature of a regular commute. It’s a good idea to anticipate how you might deal with this and having some strategies to call upon, so as to minimise the frustration or anxiety.
- Let people know you commute: Telling your lecturers, your Personal Academic Tutor, and your group project members that you commute can help them understand if an occasional delay happens. It also helps them understand how your routine and life may differ from students living on campus. Remember to keep people informed if you are going to be late.
- Have a catch-up plan: Know what you can do to catch-up if you do happen to miss a lecture. This is when having study buddies is very useful, as they can take notes for you (and you can do the same for them). Don’t let it slip – if you do get delayed, block off time in your schedule to find the lecture notes and keep on top of the work.
- Keep to your routine: Delays are frustrating, but it doesn’t have to mean the whole day is a disaster. If you do get delayed, decide whether it is going to be a short one and you can come in a little late, or whether it is better to work at home. Keeping to your usual routine as much as possible is usually best – you can still have a productive afternoon even if you missed your morning class.
- Don’t let delays become a habit: If delays regularly mean you miss a class, don’t use it as an excuse for just not bothering to come in, as you’ll fall behind and miss out on valuable contact time. If you keep getting delayed, you may need to change your routine or mode of transport. Alternatively – and whilst this isn’t possible for everyone – there may be more creative solutions, such as asking to swap seminar groups, or staying at a friend’s house the night before an early class.
Living away from the campus and the city can make it more difficult to build social networks. When you have other commitments or want to avoid busy travel times, it’s tempting to only stay on campus as long as you have academic commitments like lectures, seminars, or lab sessions. However, this can make it more difficult to get involved in extra-curricular activities like clubs and societies. It can also mean fewer opportunities for informal interactions with your peers, and little chance to meet students studying other subjects.
Some commuter students see this as an advantage, giving them fewer distractions from studying. However, there are many advantages to having friends who are also studying your subject, as is discussed below. It can also be helpful to make friends who are studying a different subject from you. Their deadlines might be at different times, meaning they are not as stressed as your classmates when you need a calming chat! It’s helpful too to see how studying can be different in different disciplines – this can help clarify the particular features of studying your own subject.
Studying together with other students isn’t only for group work projects. For example, you can work together to share lecture notes, to discuss the material covered, and to share your knowledge about what’s needed for assignments. For exam revision, you can share reading and test each other on what you’ve learnt. You can also build virtual meeting spaces (e.g. in a private Facebook Group or wiki) to share ideas and stay up to date with progress.
One great way to find other people to study with is to check whether Peer Assisted Study Sessions run on your course. You can find out here whether it’s running, and then speak to your Module Leader for further information if it is.
You don’t always have to be able to commit to regular involvement to join one of the University’s clubs and societies. You should be able to find a list of them on the Student Union’s website. A good way to get involved is to see if your department has a student society. You might not be interested in the social events they run, but they’re also likely to run events connected to your subject (like visits to galleries, courts, or other places of interest) that would be of real benefit to you in your studies.
Finally, don’t be afraid to ask your fellow students if they’d like to go for a coffee – they might secretly wish they could pluck up the courage to do the same. There are lots of social spaces on campus and you’ll soon find your favourite spot.
Content on this page reused with permission from the University of Reading.