Self Regulating my own Study of Self-Regulation

Who has time not to self-regulate

I have taken on a lot of obligations this term: three graduate courses for my Master's degree, organizing two Edcamps, teaching full-time, volunteering for our local community club fundraisers, and a research project. Add to that the expectations of contributing to the household, maintaining relationships and there is a lot to juggle.

If you have read my previous posts on multitasking, you know I've invested a fair bit of time and effort in exploring and understanding the issue. What follows is a description of how I am personally using that learning to manage my own time. This post also couches the descriptions in the language of self-regulation, a topic I am currently studying as part of my MEd in Professional Inquiry from Queen's.

Think about your own experiences - what happens when the workload piles up? We respond to the stress in lots of different ways: we procrastinate until we have time to do it right, we retreat and let things go unaddressed, or maybe we go into superhero mode activating our superpowers to take it all on. Unlike movie superhero powers, powers of self-regulation can be learned by anyone.

Superpower: Metacognition... ACTIVATE!!

Knowing facts and processes is knowledge - you can know a lot things about a lot of stuff and you can probably do plenty of things with that stuff. That is Cognition. Metacognition is knowing about HOW you know stuff, WHY you can learn things, and WHAT conditions or processes are most effective for your learning. This comes from thinking about your thinking, reflecting on your progress and determining what factors are contributing to your success or your difficulties.

Time Management

So here is how I approached this situation. First, is the time factor. I know if I am going to accomplish everything I will need to make good use of my time. I've done two courses while teaching full-time before so I'm already familiar with the demands. When the opportunity arose to take on a third course I knew the available time would be insufficient to balance all the demands on my life. I made a successful application for some release time from work - 12 days educational leave, supported from our school division's professional development fund, to pursue my studies. I also scaled back on some other commitments. It is hard for me at the moment to commit to ongoing involvement with committees, however, I can, if the timing works out, volunteer for a specific project with a defined start and end time. This strategy keeps me involved with my community but gives me the freedom to regulate my time. When I am asked to participate in something, I can look at my schedule and assess my ability to participate.

On the wall in my office is a four-month calendar to give me the big picture of assignment deadlines and the flow of the classes. One challenge is blending that and our day-to-day life calendar which our family maintains on our shared iCalendar. I don't need to clutter the family calendar with the minutiae of my assignments and readings but I do put in specific time obligations like synchronous meetings with a project team.

Space Management

One's workspace is important to productivity. I have a small office in the basement away from everything else where I can retreat to attend to my work. There is no television, no radio, no bookshelves... just a desk and office chair and a futon. By minimizing the clutter in the room I minimize the distractions.

Grad School Battle StationMy computer workspace also reflects my need to manage many sources of information and facilitate the transition between tasks. On a single monitor, flipping between applications and documents was frustrating and inefficient so I scrounged a couple of additional monitors for my computer.  I found myself getting distracted shifting from one screen to another when working on a project. This lets me access my course management system, the assignment criteria, the readings, and my writing space at a glance. The research into multitasking suggests benefits to minimizing time transition from one task to another. Here's an excerpt from a paper I wrote on the topic:

Cognitive processing time is another element of multitasking. Insufficient time between tasks interferes with transference of information to memory; too much time between tasks may tempt learners to seek other stimuli (Y. Zhang et al., 2005). The benefits of multitasking decrease as the rapidity of task switching increases. Where task switching is a matter of choice, an individual aware of the need for transitional processing time may better appreciate the need to reduce task-switching to maintain focus (Salvucci, 2010; Trafton et al., 2003) and the faster one can process information, the better able one is to multitask (Dux et al., 2009).

Multitasking effects on learner achievement

Project Management (big scale)

Course timelines and project charts help visualize work flow over longer periods.

Course timelines and project charts help visualize workflow over longer periods.

I have a pad of large newsprint chart paper on which I charted out the academic term, one sheet for each course. At the beginning of the course I review the syllabus, plot out the assignment dates, reading lists, and module deliverables. This time spent at the start gives me a broad sense of the workflow to come over the term. I anticipate which modules will demand greater attention and use that to guide my efforts. The large charts give me a nice workspace for keeping track of

The first week of class focuses primarily on orienting to the content and meeting the other students in the class. Because the workload is low, it is the perfect time to get things organized for the term to come.

Often there are substantial projects with a due date near the end of the course. For these, I establish a digital workspace, usually on GoogleDocs, and copy/paste the project criteria and any related information into the first page. Next, I'll break down the big project into a sequence of smaller projects and attach some timelines to each goal. The GoogleDoc also serves as a thinking space to add ideas while thinking and researching.

On the research end, I've made a habit of downloading all my research files into a single folder. Jumbles of random files with odd names makes it tremendously difficult to refer back to readings and wastes a lot of time. For efficiency, I name each file with the AUTHOR (YEAR) ARTICLE TITLE. This makes it easy to skim through the folder listing to find what I'm looking for.

Mendeley organizes readings and research interfacing with Word for easy citations and bibliographies.

Mendeley organizes readings and research interfacing with Word for easy citations and bibliographies.

The folder I have set up to receive all my shared files is a "watched folder" in the Mendeley citation manager program. When I save a file, Mendeley automatically scans the document for citation information. As I import files, I ensure the entries are formatted properly and I tag them in the application with the related course number, the project title, and any other relevant keywords. Mendeley is a great time saver because I can search my entire database of articles, both titles and content. It keeps track of which articles I have read through, I can annotate and take notes within the application and those notes are also searchable. Further, because it interfaces with Word, I can insert a citation and update the bibliography with a couple of clicks.

Task Management (small scale)

Long term planning and goals on chart paper. Daily tasks on sticky notes.

Long term planning and goals on chart paper. Daily tasks on sticky notes.

I'm going to head down to my office and work on my courses. (which course? what part of the course? what do you need to do? what is coming up? what is outstanding? how long do you have? what do you want to finish in that time? how long would that really take? what do you need to get that done? what will you learn along the way?

I use sticky notes to set specific goals for a work session. This helps focus my attention and sets parameters on where my efforts should be directed. Without them it is easy to get side-tracked down a research branch that, while interesting, is irrelevant to the task at hand. If it is really something I want to pursue, I pop the topic on another sticky note and follow up later, if I'm still interested.

I did considerable research into multitasking and it turns out that the best way to multitask is to not to. For all practical purposes, there are no circumstances where multitasking adds to productivity or efficiency. I had a bad habit of launching my web browser, loading up the course management site, then starting my email, social media, and a couple other sites while it was loading, you know, to get a couple of things done while I was waiting for my real task to load. As I was seeing things of interest I'd load them into a new tab so I could get to them later. Before you know it, 40 minutes had passed, I'd have 27 tabs open and I still wouldn't have accomplished anything I came down to do!

This brief minute video titled, "Single-tasking is the new multitasking" is a fun exploration of the multitasking and distraction problem and offers a simple sounding solution that demands some serious self-awareness and self-control.

While I thought I was being efficient with my time, it turns out that multitasking increased the time needed to complete a task (Bowman et al., 2010). Not only that, but the research overwhelmingly finds that the quality of work diminishes when attention is divided (Burak, 2012; Gaudreau, Miranda, & Gareau, 2014; Jacobsen & Forste, 2011; Ragan, Jennings, Massey, & Doolittle, 2014; Sana, Weston, & Cepeda, 2013; W. Zhang, 2015). Sticky notes are my friend. If something comes up - a phone call, meal time, unexpected visitor, etc. and I can't see the current task through to completion, I'll briefly write what I was working on and what my next step is. That note assists with "interruption recovery" and "task-reorientation", the cognitive demands made when we have to switch away from and return to an activity. It helps with the, "ok, where was I... what was I doing?" questions.


Bibliography (small scale)

Bowman, L. L., Levine, L. E., Waite, B. M., & Gendron, M. (2010). Can students really multitask? An experimental study of instant messaging while reading. Computers and Education, 54(4), 927–931. doi:10.1016/j.compedu.2009.09.024

Burak, L. (2012). Multitasking in the university classroom. International Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 6(2), 1–13.

Dux, P. E., Tombu, M. N., Harrison, S., Rogers, B. P., Tong, F., & Marois, R. (2009). Training improves multitasking performance by increasing the speed of information processing in human prefrontal cortex. Neuron, 63(1), 127–138. doi:10.1016/j.neuron.2009.06.005

Gaudreau, P., Miranda, D., & Gareau, A. (2014). Canadian university students in wireless classrooms: What do they do on their laptops and does it really matter ? Computers & Education, 70, 245–255. doi:10.1016/j.compedu.2013.08.019

Jacobsen, W. C., & Forste, R. (2011). The wired generation: Academic and social outcomes of electronic media use among university students. Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking, 14(5), 275–280. doi:10.1089/cyber.2010.0135

Ragan, E. D., Jennings, S. R., Massey, J. D., & Doolittle, P. E. (2014). Unregulated use of laptops over time in large lecture classes.Computers and Education, 78, 78–86. doi:10.1016/j.compedu.2014.05.002

Salvucci, D. D. (2010). On reconstruction of task context after interruption. Proceedings of the 28th International Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems - CHI ’10, 89. doi:10.1145/1753326.1753341

Sana, F., Weston, T., & Cepeda, N. J. (2013). Laptop multitasking hinders classroom learning for both users and nearby peers. Computers and Education, 62, 24–31. doi:10.1016/j.compedu.2012.10.003

Trafton, J. G., Altmann, E. M., Brock, D. P., & Mintz, F. E. (2003). Preparing to resume an interrupted task: Effects of prospective goal encoding and retrospective rehearsal. International Journal of Human Computer Studies, 58(5), 583–603. doi:10.1016/S1071-5819(03)00023-5

Zhang, Y., Goonetilleke, R. S., Plocher, T., & Liang, S. F. M. (2005). Time-related behaviour in multitasking situations. International Journal of Human Computer Studies, 62(4), 425–455. doi:10.1016/j.ijhcs.2005.01.002

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