Surviving Seminary

Study & Self-Care

  1. Welcome to Perkins! There's HELP when you need it [August 10, 2012]
  2. Proactive Time Management [August 17, 2012]
  3. Study Early/Study Often/Study Smarter [August 31, 2012] 
  4. Tips for Students Enrolled in the Houston-Galveston Extension Program (But Useful to All) [September 7, 2012]
  5. Losing the "Next" Career Blues [September 28, 2012]
  6. Exam Preparation [October 5, 2012]
  7. Multitasking Doesn't Work [October 19, 2012]
  8. More Exam Prep [November 16/23 2012]
  9. Self-Care [November 30, 2012]
  10. Deep Learning for Long-Term Survival [February 1, 2013]
  11. Resources for Spirituality and Prayer [March 28, 2013]

Welcome to Perkins! There's HELP when you need it [August 10, 2012]

At the outset of the academic year incoming, and even returning, students can feel like they’re about to getting hit with a trainload of information about things they need to do and ways how to get them done. No matter how carefully you listen at Orientation or Bridwell 101, the process of digesting all this information takes time. If you miss something, don’t panic. Here’s a short list of places to get help:

Bottom line, everyone who works at Perkins wants you to have a positive and productive experience. Ask us for help. If we don’t know the answers, we’ll help you find someone who does.

Proactive Time Management [August 17, 2012]

It’s the beginning of a bright, shiny new term. Grab your syllabi and your calendar and take a little time to plan out your course work.

  • Note assignment due dates and work backwards to pencil in reminders to keep yourself on track.
  • If you want to be really proactive, block out times for reading, writing and study.
  • While you’re at it, plan time for regular exercise, set aside time for friends and family, and even time for quiet prayer or meditation.

Will your plans go awry? Possibly. [Inevitably??] But if you map out a plan for the term, you can spot potential train wrecks in time to avoid [or minimize] them and, incidentally, keep your stress manageable. Time management is self-care! Who knew?

If you would like additional tools for time management, the Altshuler Learning Enhancement Center offers forms and other tools to analyze and improve your use of time at The Virginia Tech Cook Counseling Center offers an online self-guided workshop at

Study Early/Study Often/Study Smarter [August 31, 2012]

You attend class and take notes. You read the assigned reading. You’re done, right? Nope.

Graduate courses move at a faster pace than undergraduate courses and deal with more complex concepts and skills. Research shows that the best way to assimilate the material is to work at it regularly and purposefully:

  • Try to spend some time studying every day. The best times are when you’re rested, alert, and can concentrate.
  • Study with minimal distractions. Sorry, multitasking doesn’t work.
  • Own what you’re learning. Review your notes regularly. Write down key points from your reading. List your questions and get them answered, either in class, in a meeting with your instructor, or with the reference librarians.
  • Seek balance and pace yourself. Research shows that a healthy lifestyle with good nutrition, regular exercise, and enough sleep is an essential component of effective learning.

Learning isn’t easy. View it as a spiritual discipline. If you can establish a habit of study, you will have built the foundation for a lifetime of thoughtful and effective ministry.

The Dartmouth College Academic Skills Center has a listing of some great resources on study strategy and skills:

Tips for Students Enrolled in the Houston-Galveston Extension Program (But Useful to All) [September 7, 2012]

Bridwell Library offers many options for getting resources to students enrolled in Houston-Galveston. The trick is to stay aware of deadlines and allow sufficient time for delivery. It may shock you to learn that, although the Bridwell staff is good, we’re not actually superhuman.

If procrastination is a problem, give yourself artificial deadlines that occur earlier than the true due date. Also if you review an assignment’s requirements as soon as you have them, you can order items early. For large projects, you can join forces with your classmates to share driving to and from Dallas to visit Bridwell. In the meantime, here are the options for getting the resources you need:

Losing the "Next" Career Blues [September 28, 2012]

Seminary is unique in drawing a wide variety of people with a wealth of life experiences. Whether Perkins represents a step on your first, second, or even third career path, rest assured that you possess unique competencies for succeeding in seminary.

The trick is to avoid invidious comparisons with your classmates. The whippersnapper with mad computer skills sitting next to you in Christian Heritage may never have had to speak or write persuasively in a business setting. Your silver-haired classmate in Theology has wisdom and life experience but cannot work through the night to pull a project together six hours before it’s due. And as for the folks in the middle . . . well, for their ability to juggle the demands of small children, aging parents, spouses, school, commutes, etc. they deserve a medal—and fourteen hours of uninterrupted sleep.

Take stock of your strengths and weaknesses and plan your semester accordingly. A small pro-active bit of self-examination can help a great deal. Have you organized the parents’ group at your child’s school? Then you’ll excel at coordinating group assignments. Have you ever purchased or refinanced a house? Then you have the determination to carry out a semester-long project. Can you jog every morning, work part-time, carry a full course-load, and talk with your long-distance sweetie late into the night? Your energy and enthusiasm will carry you over many a rough patch.

Your first semester will be characterized by a sense of overload, punctuated by bouts of panic. You are not alone. Try to maintain a healthy perspective, ask for help when you need it, and take the time to look around and congratulate yourself on your successes thus far. They must be many, or you wouldn’t be here in the first place.

If you need advice and help managing the stress and other challenges of your life, SMU’s Counseling and Psychological Services offers many useful services, including online self-help information and anonymous online screening. Contact them at 214.768.2277 or

Exam Preparation[October 5, 2012]

Midterm exams are coming up shortly. Cramming is never a good strategy. Research indicates most of what is learned through cramming is soon forgotten. The anxiety and loss of sleep associated with cramming can actually lead to poorer exam performance. So what should you do?

  • Relax and breathe. Anxiety is a hindrance. Try to gain perspective and practice stress management. If you’re starting to clench, take a walk around the building to get your blood circulating.
  • Nothing beats regular study but if you haven’t been keeping up with your coursework, don’t give up or panic; make a plan now. Set aside time to study and devise a strategy to review the material that will be covered on the exam.
  • Listen to your instructor. He or she will almost certainly tell you what material will be covered by the exam and what kind of analysis is expected. The course syllabus is also usually a roadmap to the course content. Use it to help you plan your study.
  • Create outlines, diagrams, lists of key concepts, and concept maps as part of your review process. They will help you organize your thinking as well as remember content.
  • Find a study partner or form a study group, but remember, no one can learn it for you.
  • Practice good self-care. Eat a healthy diet. Get regular exercise. Take it easy with the caffeine and get a good night’s sleep before the exam. Research indicates that overall good health and being alert and clearheaded produces better exam performance than all-nighters and artificial stimulants.

For more detailed information on strategies for preparing for and taking exams, the University of Guelph Library’s Learning Services website is excellent:

Multitasking Doesn't Work [October 19, 2012]

The test data is in. Humans are lousy at multitasking, even those who feel that they are good at it. One simply cannot read an article, respond to e-mail, text a friend, and watch TV all at the same time. Research shows that we do each task faster, more accurately and with better recollection if we do it one at a time and, surprisingly, this outcome is true even of those who have been digital from the cradle.

So what are we to do? This is the 21st century and into each life, some multitasking must fall.

  • Never multitask when it would put you or those around you at risk. Texting while driving is obviously a bad idea but talking on the phone while crossing the street also increases risk.
  • Be aware when you are dividing your attention and make conscious choices to focus. If you’re having trouble completing your class reading, perhaps silencing the cell phone for a couple of hours is a reasonable tradeoff.
  • If you must multitask, try to mix tasks that don’t require the same kind of attention. For example, cleaning house while listening to a recorded lecture.
  • Become aware of when multitasking could have a negative impact and develop strategies to prevent the problem based on your personal priorities and values. The habits you develop now will carry over into ministry. So consider whether it’s okay to text when sharing meals? When in class? When at worship?
  • Make sure that you regularly give your full attention to things that you truly enjoy.

If you’re interested in research on the impact of multitasking on human performance, a good place to start is with:

Rosen, Christine. “The Myth of Multitasking.” The New Atlantis, Number 20, Spring 2008, pp. 105-110. (

There are a number of software programs available to help you manage distractions while you’re working on your computer, especially while writing. However, you may want to start with closing the e-mail application and the Web browser and gradually weaning yourself away from Facebook.

More Exam Prep [November 16/23 2012]

Final exams loom on the horizon. Research in psychology offers some suggestions for improving your retention for what you study:

  • Study the same material in more than one place. Varying the environment where you study seems to cause the brain to erect stronger scaffolding for recalling the material. Do remember to limit distractions, though.
  • Involve as many senses and modes as possible. For example, read your notes aloud. Record them and listen to them or if you took notes on your computer, have the computer read them back to you. Take a fresh piece of paper and jot down as many key points as you can remember, then go back and compare them with your original notes.
  • Mix up your approaches to related material. Try out diagrams, timelines, and concept maps as ways of organizing the material you’re studying. For example, for a history course, create a chart of significant individuals and movements and try to summarize how they are related chronologically, geographically, politically, and so forth.
  • Try to space out your study sessions. Research shows that spending one hour on each of three consecutive days studying the same material leads to better retention than studying the material for three consecutive hours.
  • Test yourself. If your instructor didn’t give you sample questions, make up your own. After you’ve written down your answers or at least outlined them, read them aloud. Get someone to listen to you answer the questions orally and help keep track of what you do and don’t remember.

Want more tips for exam success? This post ( from TheUniversityBlog in Great Britain brings together top advice from around the Worldwide Web.

Self-Care [November 30, 2012]

Very little in modern life seems to facilitate good self-care. Sure, we’re told to exercise, eat right, and get enough sleep. We’re also told we need to be connected 24/7, work anywhere anytime, and that all our problems will be solved by consuming more . . . Well, you name it.

Self-care is essential because …

  • It’s an Academic Issue: Apart from actual good study habits, a healthy lifestyle is the best thing you can do to improve your capacity to learn and perform well academically.
  • It’s a Theological Issue: How you treat yourself is an expression of your functional beliefs about who God is and how God relates to Creation.
  • It’s a Spiritual Issue: Your relationship with God and your understanding of where God is leading you should shape your habits and attitudes.
  • It’s a Professional Issue: You cannot perform well professionally if you are not dealing with your physical, spiritual, and emotional needs.
  • It’s a Pastoral Issue: We’re all “wounded healers” at best, but it only makes sense to lead by being the best selves we can muster at any given time.

Self-care is more than just doing things to feel better in the short term. It may require discipline to be stronger in the long term. Start with an honest self-evaluation that is written down. Make sure that you include the joys, gifts, and strengths you want to preserve and build on as well as things you want to change. You may want to share this with a trusted person who can help you be fair to yourself. Find ways to celebrate your strengths and work on what you want to change. Be practical; Do not try to do everything at once and do not try to do it all by yourself.

Depending on your needs, there are many resource people at Perkins and SMU. The SMU Memorial Health Center ( is often a good starting place

Deep Learning for Long-Term Survival [February 1, 2013]

How many of us aced a college course in a subject in which we later rarely worked? And how many of us subsequently lost all but the most basic of those skills when we later had need of them? This could apply to any number of required undergraduate courses: statistics, writing, chemistry, or foreign languages. Consider how much we retain when cramming information into our heads for the short-term goal of passing an exam. In such cases what we take the trouble to learn tends not to become part of our natural repertoire of skills and information that we can pull up without really thinking about it.

Contrast this with the knowledge and skills that become so much a part of us that we may not even recognize them as having been learned. In seminary, for example, the skillful framing of sermons or the ability to build consensus in committee meetings are preludes to our future. This is the place where each of us develops abilities that become second nature and thus contribute to our long-term survival in a challenging career. These abilities are deeply learned because we understand their usefulness for a life in ministry. So we practice them in school and seek out opportunities to exercise them in the outside world.

Reflecting on what makes some things easier to learn than others is a personal process, but can be useful. If we can find clues about what motivates us to learn deeply—and these clues will vary from person to person—we can apply them to subjects and skills that come less easily to us. That could mean the difference between motivated deep learning and mere cramming.

So what are the characteristics of things we know deeply? They might include:

  • Meaningfulness: these are the things that hold significance and interest for me.
  • Connectedness: these are the things that help me connect better to myself and with other people.
  • Joy: these are the things that give joy and pleasure when doing them, or lead to an outcome that will achieve a goal or provide another form of satisfaction.

Practicing these skills is not onerous for whatever reason: opportunities to practice come frequently and are convenient for my schedule, my life-style, etc.
So when struggling to learn something new, we should look for:

  • Meaning: Why is this important / necessary / useful / beneficial?
  • Connectedness: How does this impact others and/or myself? Does it bring people together or keep them apart?
  • Joy: What are ways I can convert this from drudgery and make it fun, or at least accomplish another goal by doing it?
  • Practice: How can I incorporate this into my life so that it occurs frequently and is convenient to practice?

Make your own list and give it a try. For related reflections in greater depth, see the works of Parker Palmer, particularly Let Your Life Speak and Courage to Teach.

Resources for Spirituality and Prayer [March 28, 2013]

In honor of Holy Week, we will take a slight departure from our normal concerns and focus on some resources for prayer and spiritual development.

  • The Oxford dictionary of the Christian Church / edited by F.L. Cross. 3rd ed. rev. / edited by E.A. Livingstone. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005. ISBN 9780192802903

It may surprise you to see this here but this invaluable reference tool contains brief but intelligent entries on a broad spectrum of Christian spiritual leaders and devotional practices. For the nerds among us, it is great casual reading. For those of us who have to respond to questions about “devotion to the Sacred Heart of Mary” from members of our congregations, it beats the Internet for reliable and authoritative information.

  • The Oxford book of prayer / general editor, George Appleton. 2nd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. ISBN 9780199561230

This collection includes classic and contemporary prayers, many associated with well-known individuals. It is a great source of inspirational when you are bored with all your table and pre-meeting standbys. It can also offer thought-provoking insights simply through browsing.

In addition to providing the lectionary texts, this site includes links to artwork and prayers appropriate to the season and day.

  • Spirituality / offers blogs and columns on prayer and spiritual life from a variety of perspectives.
  • Sound / Specific types of sound, such as white noise and pink noise, have been shown to aid in concentrating and blocking distraction. This website provides a source of sustained white, pink and brown noise that may be useful in meditation practice.

A Blessed Holy Week and Joyful Easter!