Certainly only through the Lord’s strength and grace to me, during one whole school year on-campus at Southern Seminary, I took a whopping 61 credit hours of class! How is this possible?
Still, now, I have no idea how all that happened. God’s mercy pulled me through.
During my first six months at Southern Seminary, I crammed seminary very poorly, which I go into detail more in an article on Desiring God. The first six months at Southern were one of the hardest periods in my life, which seemed like it would never end. But the second half of the school year, the Lord graciously guided me on how to cram seminary better. I didn’t slow down my course pace at any point but actually did better in my classes while still taking a huge load.
So why did I need to “cram” seminary at all in the first place? Before going to Louisville, KY for the ’13-’14 school year, we’d only planned to stay one year as a so-called seminary “break” from serving in China. I’d done some classes online beforehand and planned to take a light load at Southern for that year since I was doing a shorter Master’s degree [only 48 credit hours]. But during the summer before moving to Southern, I changed my mind and decided to do the M.DIV [94 total credit hours – usually spanning 3 or more years] instead of the M.A., so I knew I needed to cram tons of classes into that one year on-campus at Southern.
There were many painful points throughout the “cramming,” but here are some very valuable tips I learned along the way on how to “cram” better:
1) It’s important to take breaks in your life. Initially, I was studying Monday through Sunday, seven days a week, from 7 am – 10 pm each day. Don’t do that. You’ll just beat yourself to the ground. Thankfully I eventually adjusted from that brutal schedule to a much more manageable one – 7 am–5 pm, only Monday through Friday. I stopped studying at all on weekends or on weeknights. Taking rests is a way we refresh ourselves. If we don’t have such time for rest, we are constantly consumed by whatever we’re doing all the time, whether it’s schoolwork or work or something else. That means that thing becomes much greater to us than God, family, friends or our church.
I found that the most efficient studying for me was when I took regular breaks in my life. Even though I was studying much less than previously, I got as good of grades as before, although I was spending 15 or so fewer hours each week on schoolwork. A good practice we started doing is setting aside Saturdays as Family Days. We’d have a full, undistracted day together as a family, going out to parks or other places in the city. Even for the single folks, it’s good to have a few long breaks each week, to be doing something else than what you do all week.
2) On your holidays, be intentional not to study if possible. Take a small trip out of the city, or do something special with family or friends. Even if you decide to study during the break, make sure that you have as many days as you can in a row without any studies. When I studied at Southern, I didn’t have too long of a break in between the Fall, Winter, Spring, and Summer terms. But even then, it’s good to take a few days off completely from schoolwork, and longer if possible.
3) Don’t try to work ahead significantly. I found that trying to do reading too far ahead of time doesn’t work out well. By the time I have that class a few weeks later, I will have forgotten most of what I tried to read in advance. Then I have to reread everything I already read. Or I end up failing a quiz about the material because I didn’t remember anything about it. And certainly, don’t try to begin coursework in one semester for a class in another semester. It was helpful for me not to have any of my coursework overlap from one semester to another semester. Have a clear end to one semester, take a break for as long as you can, and then begin the next semester.
4) Learn to speed-read. At least at Southern Seminary, Professors and Seminary Department heads themselves told us not to read every word of every page. This can save you tons of time. This is not valuable for just seminary, but just life in general. I found this especially true when I engaged in speed-reading as I was able to retain a much better idea long-term about the main things from the book. If you read every word meticulously, you may lose sight of the main points of the book. But there may be a few books that are of particular importance to you that you can read slower. These should be the exception, not the norm.
5) Plan your classes well. Do your best always to monitor which classes are offered when. Be on the ball with your classes. I’d suggest making an Excel chart showing all your classes for your degree, and then mark a checkmark under the semester you took that class. If you want to cram lots of courses into a short period, you have to each semester prioritize which classes are required that you need to take. And then think about electives you want to take if you’ve still got time in your schedule. You don’t want to be in a situation where you realize you need a class, but you didn’t take it when it was offered the year or two earlier, and it won’t be offered again before you had hoped to graduate. This can unnecessarily extend your seminary stay an extra semester.
6) Physical exercise. Make sure to have some regular physical exercise. This could be running a few times a week, or playing basketball, or swimming. It could be something as easy as a 20-minute daily pushups and sit-ups workout in your home. Even when the weather may be too cold to exercise outside, still have some way to continue exercising regularly [more than once a week] throughout the year. This will help your mind work better, it’ll also give you more energy, you’ll be able to sleep better, and you will physically be healthier and in better shape.
A couple of things to note in conclusion. During the year on-campus in Louisville, I didn’t have any job. My wife worked full-time, and my mother-in-law watched our daughter full-time. For those of you who work at all, it may be a different dynamic for you. But still many of these main principles still apply.
Also, many of these principles would not be useful just for seminary students, but also a high school or college student.
Tabor Laughlin has been serving in China for ten years and is now a doctoral student in intercultural studies at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He got his MDiv in Missions from Southern Seminary. He is president of a small missions agency in northwest China, writes occasionally at Desiring God and China Source, writes at his own blog, and is author of Becoming Native to Win the Natives.