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Is it Normal to Feel Behind in University?

  • Sean 

Feeling Behind is Normal

Google trends for "behind in school"

Feeling behind in university is incredibly common. A look at the global web searches for this shows that not only is this common but it is also significantly increased in recent years. This is likely due to the COVID-19 Pandemic. According to a Student Voice survey, 52% of college students report that they learned less during the pandemic than before.

52% of college students report that they learned less during the pandemic than before.
Student Voice survey data “Thinking about how much you learned this year compared to pre-Covid college years, would you say:”

It’s clear that, especially after the pandemic, students are feeling behind and this is normal. But what can you do to catch up?

How to Catch up When You are Behind

The first and most important thing when falling behind in your schoolwork is to stop falling behind. This means you must keep going to your classes and stay on top of the new work that you get. If you instead make the choice to “catch up” first you are only going to stay behind consistently. You need to keep your schedule consistent (do not radically alter it) and cover the old material intermittently when you have some free time.

Importantly, there is a particular way to study material you are behind on. You need to focus on the basic and most important ideas in the material. This is the high-yield information. This is information that is easy to learn but covers a lot of ground.

If you learn this you will have learned about 60-80% of the content. This is the content you are most likely going to be assessed on and is the easiest/fastest to learn compared to the remaining 20-40%. This makes the intermittent catching-up system feasible on a limited time budget. This works because there is a law of diminishing returns when it comes to learning new information.

The law of diminishing returns for learning

Law of diminishing returns for learning
Source: Law of Diminishing Returns (

If you are studying a chapter in a textbook there is a law of diminishing returns for how much time you spend learning the material in that chapter. If you spend 30 minutes you might get 50% of the material down. If you spend 1 hour you might get 65%. As you spend more time you learn slower and learn more details. There is an optimal level of studying for maximum learning with the minimal time that you will need to figure out.

How to catch up using high-yield information

High-yield information is information that is highly connected with other information and is relatively less detailed compared to more peripheral detailed processes etc.

For example, if you are studying biology and there are a series of detailed steps for a process, it is likely not worth learning the details of each and every step along the way as this takes too much time and the likelihood that you will get tested on these tiny things is relatively small. Instead, focus on the basic steps and why something is important, to begin with. Is this process relevant to other concepts? If you find that this process is important because it facilitates x and y this is what is more important to focus on rather than the details of the process itself.

How to Not fall Behind in The Future

Not falling behind could be a whole series of posts on its own but I will give some of the basics that apply to most students here. The most important thing is that you are consistent and realistic with your learning in future. All too often students get highly motivated and over-commit to a schedule they cannot follow.

Set a realistic schedule that you can actually follow (do not over-commit)

When scheduling, leave a buffer room between your events and do not fill your schedule with things you think you can do but actually cannot. Ask yourself, can I do this every day for the next 5 years? If the answer is yes then you are on the right track. You need to be realistic with this. It is extremely easy to be overly optimistic with your schedule.

Remove distractions from your environment

Make things that take your attention away from what is important harder to access. This includes putting your phone in a drawer where you cannot see it or installing a blocking app that blocks social media on your computer for fixed intervals of time. These are just some basic ideas but be creative and think of some for yourself!

Set minimal realistic goals each day (maximum 2 per day)

Each day set just a maximum of just 2 things to get done that are important. These should not be tasks like “check your email”. These should include things like “finish this week’s reading”. If you complete 1-2 decently productive goals on a regular basis you will be in much better shape compared to cramming your tasks into a shorter amount of time.

The Takeaway

Feeling behind in school is all too common and in order to catch up again you need to focus on your new work and new material in order to stop falling behind, to begin with, and cover old material intermittently. This is done by covering basic high-yield information. If you learn the first 60-80% of the content this will ensure that you have covered the basic framework of the information that is most important in the least amount of time possible. Do not get stuck in the details of the old material. Finally, in order not to fall behind in future be realistic and consistent with your schedule, environment, and goals.