Getting you back on track academically involves more than just saying you want to stay on track. Getting on track and staying on track requires using tools designed to help you create and sustain good habits. Wanting to do well and making the effort to do well are two different things.
The previous post in the Get on Track series discussed the necessity to get real with yourself about last semester and take accountability for the things that really tanked. This post will introduce you to the first of two tools to help you refocus your attention away from bad habits that dragged you down and toward building good habits that will help you excel academically. The good habit presented here involves deadlines and planning.
Tool #1: The Semester Calendar
You may wonder “Why do I need a calendar when you have individual syllabi for each of my four, five or six classes?” Because you have work to keep track of everything dues for four, five, and six classes…plus a life that involves going here, there, and everywhere. Your brain can only contain so much information, and while the information you can retain can be a lot, you are liable to forget something along the way…and forgetting a test, paper, or other assignment can result in zeroes and F’s, and general unhappiness. Having one place to look at deadlines for 4-6 classes is much easier than having to look up dates every day.
Calendars seem useless in this day and age. Everyone has a calendar on their phone and all sorts of bells and whistles that remind you of when you have appointments, etc. That’s all well and good, but the calendar on your phone is not going to help you too much when it comes to illustrating what your semester deadlines look like. The phone calendar is too small, and the reminders don’t always go off (because sometimes we forget to set them!).
I use calendars because I have too much going on and I am too tired to track everything down when I need it. It is just easier to have it all written down in stable and portable places so I can just look up, know what I have to do, and when I have to do it by. I use five calendars:
- I have two semester calendars on my office wall (one has school deadlines to show the students, the other has school deadlines and notes for when I have to start certain projects).
- I have a day-planner that I carry in my bag that I use for daily activities, personal and professional appointments, my to do list, and projects.
- Finally I have my cell phone calendar that has personal appointments (doctors, hair, car stuff) with reminders.
- I also have a wall calendar in my home office that I have home chores listed on (change sheets, laundry, shopping days, etc.).
When I was a student I had two:
- one wall calendar for tests, papers, big assignments, and personal appointments, and
- a day planner that I used to keep track of daily homework assignments and break downs of the work I needed to do for the big projects listed on my wall calendar.
The tool you need to create at the start of each and every semester is a semester-long wall calendar. This can be a generic calendar you get at a store, a semester calendar you may be able to grab from an advising office at your school, or one you make yourself. You can also use the template from AcademicRX here. The purpose of this calendar is to help you plan your semester work-wise, to illustrate when you will heavy periods of work vs. normal work loads, and to literally “see what’s coming” next so that you are not surprised by the 10- or 20-page research paper that is due one the same day you have a math quiz and a psych exam.
You will need:
- A calendar
- X number of different colored pens (x = the number of classes and labs you have)
- X number of colored pens for extracurricular activities (x = the number of clubs, sports teams, etc. to which you belong and that have events that meet throughout the semester)
Step 1: list relevant school-related information
This calendar will the following information:
- School holidays (days on which have no class) and breaks (i.e., spring break, fall break, etc.),
- Special changes to the schedule (for example, a Tuesday that runs on a Monday schedule),
- Reading days,
- Finals period,
- The last day of class and the last day of finals, and
- Dates when mid-term and final grades are due.
If you are making your own calendar, you will want to list these days first. You can find them by looking up your school’s academic calendar online. If you have a calendar from school, it should already have these dates marked.
Step #2: list your big assignments on the day they are due
Separate your syllabi and select one color pen for each class or lab you are taking. Then go through each syllabus and list the big assignments on the calendar on the date on which they are due. List only tests, quizzes, exams, essays, days off (if your instructor is absent), conference days, presentations, etc.–anything that is not a normal, daily homework or reading assignment. You planner is where you will break down your daily stuff, this calendar is for the big stuff that happens less frequently.
Step #3: list any non-academic events you expect to attend during the semester
Select one color per club, sports team, etc. Write down each game time, each meeting, and each special event you have for that particular group. Sometimes you might not know when things are happening, but at least give yourself an idea of when something might happen. You can always modify the calendar as you go.
Step #4: look at the calendar
When you have finished listing everything you have due and every event you will attend, put down the pens, and take a good, long, hard look at the calendar. Answer the following questions:
- When do you have clusters of assignments dues?
- When do you have more than one assignment/test on the same day?
- When do you have a day off from class (i.e., a long weekend, or a school holiday)?
- When are your extracurricular events? Do you have to travel for these events? Do these overlap with some assignment clusters?
- When are your exams?
The point of this assessment is to see when you will have heavier work weeks vs. lighter work weeks, when you have to be strategic about studying and when you may not be able to be as social as you might like, when your extracurricular activities or holidays and school work overlap. If you know you have time management or procrastination issues, you will have to be very vigilant about staying on your study schedule to get things done on time (and done well).
Step #5: plan ahead
In addition to noting when assignments are due, you will also want to note when you should start these assignments so you can get a jump on planning. Here is a schema I like to follow for studying and planning assignments:
- For tests, you will want to start studying at least 7 days ahead of time. You will need a day or two for putting study materials together, 2 days to test your self, and at least 3 days over which you will strategically review materials. (How to strategically study will be the subject of another post.)
- For reflection/general essay-type papers, take the number of pages you are to write then add 2. If your paper is 4 pages long, you will want to begin 4+2 days ahead of time (i.e., 6 days).
- For 10 pages research papers (ones in which you are required to find new sources), you will want to begin at least 21 days (or 3 weeks) ahead of time: 7 days to research, 10 days to write, 4 days to edit and polish.
- Count back from the due date of a specific assignment, and write START _______ on that date (and in the same color as the other assignments for that class). **If you have extracurricular events in that time span, you might want to add an extra day or two to give yourself extra time in case you can’t study or write on a day.**
Feel free to change the number of days you take to study or do a project, these are not carved in stone. If you feel like you need to start studying for tests 10 days ahead instead of 7, use that time frame.
The purpose of planning ahead is not to overload your schedule but to prevent overloaded days, all-nighters (which don’t work FYI), and to reduce your general stress level over all. Doing this type of planning up front allows you to save time later on. You won’t have to think “When is that test/paper? When should I start it? Oh no! It’s due in two days and I haven’t done anything!!”
Step #6: post the calendar at your work space (on the wall, tape it to your desk, etc.)
You want to make sure the calendar is in the place you do your work, so that you can consult it when necessary. Don’t put the calendar on your fridge or something like that since you need to look at it when you are in work mode. The calendar will be easy to avoid or forget about if it is somewhere other than the place you work.
And that’s it! You’ve just created your academic assignment calendar. Now, the trick to making this calendar work for you is active engagement. Read the calendar, start study plans on the days you say you will, and don’t miss any assignments!
The next post will contain Tool #2, the Weekly Planner. The planner helps break the big picture of the calendar down into actionable steps.