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Department of Physics

Independent study

Advice to students on independent study time

Each 20-credit module at Durham is expected to involve 200 hours of learning time, making a total of 1200 hours per academic year, per student. Typically, only about 30% of this is formal “contact time” that you spend in lectures, labs, tutorials, etc. The remaining time is to be spent in independent study; the nature of this will vary from module to module, but in general it is to be spent on activities such as preparing submitted work (e.g. lab reports and weekly problems), on independent study of the lecture course material and textbooks, and on revision. Physics is, by nature, a time-consuming subject to study; it has a relatively high number of contact hours so you may feel that you are kept busier than students taking other subjects, particularly in other Faculties, but in many of those subjects students will be expected to spend much more time reading, researching material for tutorials, etc. Regarding lecture courses, you should study for understanding, and should include activities such as reading through and understanding your notes (and maybe even writing them out again, neatly), going over things you don’t understand, reading the relevant sections of the text book(s), working through any worked examples provided by the lecturer or further examples given in the text book.

As a general guide, during term-time you are expected to spend at least 40 hours per week studying. Depending on their particular choice of modules, a typical Level 1 Physics student will have around 22 hours per week of contact time (14 hours of lectures, 3 hours of labs, 3 hours of tutorials and 2 hours of workshops). This leaves at least 18 hours per week to be spent in independent study. In other words, as a general rule of thumb you should be spending as much time studying outside timetabled classes as in them. In the weeks immediately prior to the May/June examinations, the number of contact hours is reduced, and you are expected to spend an increased proportion of your time in independent study.

You are expected to study in the evenings and at weekends. As discussed below, it is possible to build into your week plenty of time for extra-curricular activities and relaxation, but evenings and weekends are still prime opportunities for independent study and you should use them wisely.

You are expected to study outside term time, particularly during the Christmas and Easter breaks. Sometimes you will have major assignments such as lab reports to complete, or exams to revise for, but sometimes you won’t. Assuming that you study for 44 hours per week during term-time (for these purposes taken to mean teaching weeks 1–23), this leaves nearly 200 hours of studying to be done over the nine weeks of the Christmas and Easter breaks, which works out, on average, at over 20 hours per week. If you are unable to achieve this (perhaps due to needing to do paid work outside term time) then you can expect to need to spend proportionately more time studying during term-time, although it is generally impossible – certainly inadvisable – to avoid academic work altogether outside term time.

Below is a table showing some examples of how you might spend your learning time over the course of the academic year.

 Typical contact hours per week
(in term time)
Hours spent in independent study per week
(in term time)
Hours spent in independent study per week
(out of term time)
(per year)
Example 1 22 13 44 1200
Example 2 22 18 31 1200
Example 3 22 23 18 1200
Example 4 22 26 11 1200

Table 1: Examples of numbers of hours spent on learning activities.

Time management

You are responsible for your own success or failure; we are here to help, but ultimately it is up to you. You need to take personal responsibility for managing your own time – your academic adviser will be able to give you some general advice but there is nobody to stand over you. Time management is a skill in itself, which for most people must be actively learnt and takes self-discipline to be successful. By being disciplined about the time (quantity, quality and exactly when) spent on academic work, you can give yourself plenty of time left over for extra-curricular activities, socialising and even a part-time job.

There are 24 hours in each day. Let us assume that you spend 8 hours sleeping, and a further 3 hours doing routine things such as eating. That leaves 13 useful hours per day available to you. During term time, on an average weekday, approximately 5 of these hours will be spent in timetabled teaching sessions, and let us assume that you spend a further hour in travelling. This still leaves 7 useful hours per day – these are your most precious hours, but they are also the hours that can most easily be wasted. You therefore need to come up with a means of ensuring that you use them well, and for most people this means being very strict with yourself. 

Let us break down the working week during term time. Of course, everyone has different interests, activities and calls upon their time (mature students with families being notable as having particular challenges), but here are just a few examples of some possible working patterns to show that it is quite possible for a typical Level 1 Physics student to spend at least as much time per week in independent study as in timetabled classes (~22 hours), and still leave plenty of time for other activities. None of these examples is especially recommended more than the others – for example, some students feel that they work best in the evenings, others in the mornings. 

 Student 1Student 2Student 3Student 4
  Daytime Evening Daytime Evening Daytime Evening Daytime Evening
Monday 1 2 2     3 2 3
Tuesday 1 2 2     3 2 3
Wednesday 1 2 2     3 2 3
Thursday 1 2 2     3 2 3
Friday 1 2 2     3 2  
Saturday 7   6     3    
Sunday     6     4    
Total 22 22 22 22

Table 2: Examples of possible numbers of hours spent in independent study.

In addition to reviewing lecture notes and reading text books, each week a Level 1 Physics student will have a number of set tasks to complete, typically consisting of weekly problems for both maths and physics modules (paper-based and/or web-based), tutorial problems, pre-lecture quizzes and lab preparatory tasks. You need to allocate a suitable amount of time for each of these; for example, one evening for the paper-based weekly problem, another evening for the tutorial problems, etc. However, if you get stuck on a problem then don’t grind away at it for hours fruitlessly – leave it and come back to it later – it’s amazing how often this technique can work. To this end, start each task as soon as you can after it has been set – this also gives you time to seek help from your tutor or the lecturer, or from text books, if you really don’t understand the topic.

Some tips on time wisdom

  • Compartmentalise your time, so that you are able to spend good-quality, focused time on studying and good-quality (but entirely separate) time on extra-curricular activities. By keeping them clearly separate, you should find that you derive greater satisfaction from both.
  • Establish a daily (and weekly) routine and stick to it. You may find it helpful to treat your degree like a full-time job.
  • Get up at a decent time every morning, even if you don’t have a 9am lecture. Time is your most precious asset whilst at university.
  • Protect the big chunks of time in your day, for example a three-hour slot in the evening or perhaps a whole morning on which you have no lectures. For many people these longer periods are the most useful for productive independent study.
  • You will almost certainly have gaps, such as one hour or two hours, between lectures in your timetable. These relatively short periods of time may not seem very useful but they add up and you should make the most of them. They normally occur at the same times each week, so you can plan ahead to use them wisely and ensure that they are not wasted. For example, you may find that these are a good opportunity to re-read your notes for the lecture you’ve just attended and to ensure that you understand how it relates to previous lectures, or you may find these times useful for working on weekly problems.
  • Social networking web sites are a notorious time sink. Many people work much more effectively if they don’t have them on in the background throughout the day. You may even wish to consider making a rule for yourself, for example that you will not use social media between 9am and 6pm on weekdays.

The internet contains an abundance of resources on time management for students. One good example is management & study tipsl.doc .