by PLA CT
When I first started learning about time management, many years back, the majority of my resources were business management books. A few of them made reference to a rule of thumb called the ‘Pareto Principle’ – or more eloquently – the ‘80-20 rule’.
It states that 80% of your results come from 20% of your efforts. Originally a business model, it stated that 80% of your profits came from only 20% of your (best) customers/suppliers.
Being a business model, I never understood how I could use it in my own life. So I shelved the idea in the back of my head; it probably would have been lost there, if not for its curious name. It wasn’t until reflecting on my different studying approaches each year that I finally understood its implications.
80% of results from 20% of your efforts.
So let’s take your upcoming exam, for example. The material for it can come from your lecture notes, your textbook; maybe your lab material, if there’s a lab component too. Some courses have supplementary readings, which are of course, “fair game”. In fact – if you were to ask your prof, I’d say chances are, they’ll add the caveat “but anything can be testable”. Which is of course true. Your seasoned upper-year friends, especially those who studied every part, may not agree.*
That’s a lot of material to cover. If you spread that over five courses, …well, let’s get back to the 80-20 rule. Only a small part of everything you need to study will be worth most of your marks.
What that means for each course and program is different.** But you can clue in to what is needed. For example, written answers would require a response to a specific topic – so study the topics that took a long time to cover, or have a lot of sub-points. In most of the courses I’ve taken the past four years,*** exams emphasize lecture material.
On the flipside, the 80-20 rule implies that 80% of the other material will also be worth 20% of the other results. Let me give an example. In early linear algebra, we spent most of our class-time deriving formulas. None of those derivations were needed on our exams in that class – only the end result, the formula that was derived. It’s easy to see here that it would have been folly to learn the derivations then. But perhaps it’s harder to see, applied to your own courses? What areas in your own courses are taking more attention than they deserve?
For those of you aiming for more than an 80, there is no way studying the ideal 20% of your material will get you the mark you want. Of course, you’ll need to study ‘everything’. But in doing so, I encourage you to keep in mind that you can still study everything, just weigh their importance appropriately. The Pareto Principle is trying to say – give due emphasis to the amount that will give you the most yield. In studying then, study those components more heavily. Don’t let your brain guilt you into studying everything equally.
This is particularly true for the perfectionists out there. You are going to have to learn to say no to whatever good intentions that will keep you from studying in such an unequal manner. I will say though, getting marks back having applied this principle removed all guilt I felt beforehand.
One more case worth mentioning is for situations when time is short. Whether that be the usual university demands, a heavy week, or God forbid, cramming – keep the 80-20 in mind to study smarter. Knowing that you have a neat hack in your toolbox will help the load seem more manageable, keeps you focused on reality by concentrating on that which deserves attention, and reassures you that you have a solution that will get you out okay. Though, you may need to try it out to prove that to yourself, first.
*Side-note: always ask upper-years questions whenever you get the chance. They are easily one of your best resources: from neat tricks to a future course, to view-points that change degree decisions.
** Though there are exceptions, the general trend is that first year courses will lightly touch on every topic within the field; second year courses are a closer look into a subfield of the area, and third year courses are thorough explorations into one topic within the subfield – often the prof’s specialty, or field of interest. However, first year courses tend to be much more knowledge-based than their upper-year counterparts; later courses are where you take what you know and play putty with it – you either apply it, debate it, or similar forms of messy.
The key here then, is that you know what will be expected of you. Lower-numbered courses would request of you to remember theories, facts, concepts. The curveballs are in separating details, compare and contrast questions. So take note in those particulars. Upper-year courses are more theoretical, inquiry-like, applied – so instead of just compare and contrast, you must now argue, which is more appropriate in a given setting?
***Disclaimer – these would be limited to Arts, Sciences, and Commerce courses.