Guest Blogger · Student Success · Texas Tech · Thoughts from Tutors

The Economics of Studying

By Garrett Wire – TECHniques Center Tutor

Ah, Economics. The ‘dismal science.’ And if economics wasn’t dull enough, why would anyone want to read about the economics of studying?! In this post I hope to show that by looking at our study habits through an economic lens we might be better able to evaluate ourselves and how we learn best.

A scene from a tv show ("The Office") depicting a boss tearing a page out of an economics book.
A rational response to Economics

Thankfully, Economics can be much more than just the familiar supply and demand graphs. Adopting an economic way of thinking can help us analyze situations and examine the unseen sides of everything, including studying and more. Take for instance Abruzzi, a small town in Italy. Many years ago they were having a problem with too many vipers in their village. In response, the town fathers created a bounty for dead vipers: motivation for townspeople to be a part of the solution! Surely this would work- such an incentive would spur the good citizens of Abruzzi to action, and their problem would soon be gone. Instead, the townspeople began to breed vipers in their basements, and there were even more than before! If the town fathers had fully considered what type of behavior their policy might motivate, they may not have tried it in the first place. So how can we apply an economic way of thinking not only to Abruzzi, but to studying?

There’s nothing wrong in wanting to spend the least amount of time possible studying. In economic terms, we all wish to maximize the benefits of studying while minimizing our time (cost) investment. It’s not being lazy- doing so frees you up to do the other things you want- hanging out with friends, pursuing a hobby, or catching up on the latest Netflix show.

A newborn baby sleeps, with "Zzzz" in a cloud bubble above his head.
Or sleeping. Enjoy unlimited naps while you can, baby.

Don’t get me wrong- studying is a fantastic time investment, without which we cannot succeed. But not all studying is created equal! Trying to study when you are hungry or tired is often less productive than when you are well-nourished and alert. And perhaps studying in the library can be more beneficial than studying at home, where there might be many distractions. It’s useful here to think of studying in terms of marginal benefit.

Marginal Benefit: the extra benefit we get from one more time unit of studying

We all want to avoid spending hours in a book or rifling through papers while getting nowhere. We want to be productive during our time, to have a high marginal benefit. If you reach the point where additional studying isn’t really helping, go ahead and stop for now.

Making the Most of Your Time

Here are 3 Quick Tips that can help increase your MB:

  • Plan- determine when, where, and how you are going to study
  • Prepare- gather all the necessary materials or resources you need
  • Commit- Set everything else aside for the time you have allotted

Of course, not everyone is the same when it comes to studying. Some prefer shorter bursts. Others like to sit down for longer periods of time. There’s not a “right” way to study- do what works best for you. There is a wrong way to study, however- that is to avoid studying completely or procrastinate so much that you can’t be fully prepared. Using a planner or calendar program on the computer can be a great way to stay organized, minimize procrastination, and let you know when you have to start preparing for upcoming quizzes or exams. Distracted studying also doesn’t help you- it’s the quality of study that counts, not the quantity! For instance, this used to be me:

A pie graph showing the majority of time spent in a library is spent on "Funny YouTube videos", followed by "Studying," "Social Media," and lastly "Thinking about all the work I have to do."

Sometimes I’d spend three hours in the library to complete a one hour assignment. How inefficient. And especially if you’re in a time crunch, you don’t have much time to waste. Looking back, I could have been more productive in less time if I had set a goal for each study session- for instance, learning about a specific topic or chapter (like balancing chemical equations or something similar). This graph shows that I let too many outside things affect my studying.

Marginal Benefit Visualized

The graph below shows what a study session of mine might look like if I planned, prepared, and committed well.

A graph showing total benefit rising as hours of studying increases, peaking at hour 3. However, after hour 3 of studying, total benefit starts decreasing.
An example curve of a serious study sesh.


It usually takes some time for me to really get going but after a while, between hours 1 and 2, I can become pretty productive. Point A is where I find the most marginal benefit, meaning this is where my time investment is paying off the most. My graph tells me I should look to study in 1 to 2 hour chunks, but no more than 3! After 3 hours I start contemplating burning my books for heat to address brain freeze. However for some people studying in 30 minute increments spread out works really well. Everyone’s total benefit graph will look differently. What does yours look like, and what does that tell you?

You Don’t Have to Study

In middle school a teacher would tell our class, “you don’t have to do homework, you get to do homework”. Pretty hilarious, right? But this is especially true at college. It’s a privilege to attend the fine institution that is Texas Tech University, and we have invested a lot of time and money in furthering our education. We don’t have to study- we GET to study. Personally, it took me a while to see studying as an opportunity, not an obligation. From an economic view, studying is an investment in our human capital, our skills and knowledge. It’s an opportunity to learn about interesting topics and gain valuable experience we can hopefully use for the rest of our lives.

At the End, Finally

We’ve talked about a couple of different ways we can improve the way we study. Specifically, I encourage making a plan, setting goals, and removing distractions. Hopefully some of these things can help you be more efficient with your time. Excessive hours spent studying? Ain’t nobody got time fo’ that! But everyone does need to study! Oh, and don’t forget to reward yourself with something small after a successful bout of studying. You’ve earned it!

A meme of Sheldon Cooper (from "The Big Bang Theory") with the words "Don't you think that if I were wrong, I'd know it?"
Unfortunately, watching the Big Bang Theory does not count as studying. But I have heard that Sheldon himself thinks studying is pretty cool.

*Thank you to all the counselors who shared their thoughts/tips/advice about this subject. Many of their suggestions are contained within. Talk to any counselor for more!

A professional headshot of a young man

Garrett Wire is a Graduate TECHniques Center tutor, currently completing his STEM MBA after earning an undergraduate degree in Economics. 

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