optimism bias

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Optimism Bias and Semester Schedules

Bright Optimism - Shared with Permission of Flickr User Theen at

It’s that time again…the start of the semester. Vacation is over and a new set of classes will soon be getting under way. If you are like most community college students, you are working (part or full time at one or more jobs), taking classes (part or full time) and you may have a family to care for and support as well. Also, like most students, you may have signed up for way too much this semester. In the time before semester when things looked good on paper, you may have THOUGHT that you could work three part time jobs AND take a full load getting A’s in all your classes and see your family AND still have time to exercise and catch all your favorite shows. If your thinking is along these lines, you have come down with a classic case of OPTIMISM BIAS.

As a species, human beings are inherently optimistic which, in most cases, is a great way to be. I would rather be known as an optimist than as a pessimist for sure. However, in some cases (such as the start of the semester), full-out optimism should be diluted with a little realism and logical thinking so as to avoid wearing yourself out and/or signing up for things that you end up not completing.

As you think about your schedule and your life over the next few months. here are some tips and things to think about to help you determine whether your schedule is realistic:

Tip #1: How do you know you have taken on too much? – DO THE MATH and find out. Every week has 168 hours in it. That fact cannot be changed. How do YOU spend that time?

In your schedule, be sure to include time for the following:

  • Sleep
  • Travel
  • Relaxation (not sleep)
  • Study
  • Work
  • Family/friends
  • Exercise
  • Other that is important to you

Tip #2: Build your perfect schedule

  • Using one or both of the schedule tools above, build your perfect schedule.
  • How does this schedule differ from the one you built under Tip #1?

Tip #3: Engage in “Future Thinking”

The goal here is to put yourself a few weeks out into the semester and try to imagine how you are going to feel.

  • Pick a day of the week that is your busiest and imagine yourself studying during that day.
  • Try to imagine how you might feel on that day within the schedule that you have set up for yourself.
  • What adjustments might you make to your schedule now that you might not be able to make later?

Tip #4:Prioritize

Students today must accomplish a lot in a short amount of time. Business is the rule rather than the exception. Busy people get things done but only because they have a clear road map of where they are headed and what is important.

  • What do you feel you absolutely must accomplish in school this semester?
  • What do you feel you absolutely must accomplish in the other areas of your life this semester?

Tip #5: Have a backup plan

If you know you signed up for too much but don’t really have a choice, be sure you have a backup plan.

  • Are any of your courses offered in a format this is more flexible?
  • Are any of your courses offered later in the semester?
  • Could you take any of your courses during summer or a different semester?
  • If you have to withdraw from a course this term, is there another course that you could sign up for with a late start?

Tip #6: Understand the implications of plan adjustments during the semester.

Remember, most students don’t sign up for schedules they think are truly unreasonable. As victims of OPTIMISM BIAS, things look great in early January that feel terrible in early March. Take heart in the fact that this is normal and everyone goes through it. But, you need to realize what the implications are if you have to withdraw from a course or adjust your plan during the semester. Degree plans and financial aid are both impacted if you have to withdraw. Try to give yourself the best schedule that you can at the start of term so as to lessen the chance of withdrawals.

Remember that drop/add week is there for a reason. This period of time during the first week is there for you to “try on” your schedule and see if it is going to work for you. If you find out right away that it won’t, be sure you have some time to make changes and give yourself the best chance of success this semester.

Good luck to you!

[Thank you to Maria Andersen and her blog piece on “Students and Optimism Bias“. Her post got me thinking optimism bias and how it impacts student behavior/success. ]