This article focuses on skills that benefit all students; however, these skills can be especially important for students with disabilities as they learn to manage their disability in a new academic environment. Higher education places demands on students to schedule their personal and academic lives and demonstrate the discipline to follow the schedule they set out (Field, 2003).
One of the most important academic skills to enable success in the post-secondary environment is the ability to organize academic work. This means that a student needs to develop effective time management and organizational skills; to be able to consistently record assignment due dates and test dates in an agenda; and to learn to effectively schedule their time for the reading, studying and writing assignments needed to support the hours of classroom attendance. Many students, particularly those with learning disabilities or AD/HD, struggle to effectively schedule their time, and need someone to show them. Fortunately, there are a number of skills that can be learned early in a student’s academic career that will help them master organizing their academic work.
The importance of learning how to organize academic work in high school
Ideally, students who plan to attend college or university need to learn and practice organizational skills in high school. There are many reasons why it is beneficial for a student to learn how to organize their academic work in high school prior to attending university:
- Learning organizational skills in high school will give them more time to learn and practice how to organize academic work.
- Students often comment that it would be easier for them in the post-secondary environment if they had learned in high school how to be organized.
- Being able to organize their academic work is a skill that will be used immediately starting post-secondary education. Since there is an immediate increase in academic demands, it is more challenging for students to learn the skill quickly when trying to manage other aspects of the transition from high school to higher education.
- University/college is expensive so students want to make the most of their educational experience. Learning how to organize academic work prior to entry may reduce financial losses.
Why do students need to learn to organize their academic work to be successful in post-secondary studies?
The reason for having to organize their academic work has largely to do with the nature of university studies: university is less structured than high school and this means that students need to impose their own structure to make certain their academic work gets completed (Field, 2003). The only way to make certain the work gets done is for students to know:
- What they have to do (attend class, read, study and write assignments)
- How they have to do it (breaking large tasks into smaller tasks)
- When they have to do it (the deadlines for each task)
There are many advantages to learning how to organize academic work. The following list includes the top reasons that current university students offer for the importance of learning to organize academic work:
- No one else will organize their work for them
- It keeps them up-to-date with a large volume of reading
- It helps them to submit assignments on-time to avoid an academic penalty for being late
- It prevents them from missing assignments and tests/exams
- This helps them to study ahead of time for tests/exams
- It gets them to remember to attend class and arrive on-time
- It helps students feel in control and less stressed, as they know all of the tasks/dates/etc., and prevents vague feelings that they may have forgotten something
Strategies to support organizing academic work
Learning strategies, coupled with assistive technology, is a powerful approach to organize post-secondary academic work. This section of the article will highlight some of the key strategies and technology that high school students can start putting in place immediately with little guidance from teachers or parents. Ideally, students with certain disabilities, such as learning disabilities, are provided with one-on-one instruction to learn the skills thoroughly, so these students (for example, students with learning disabilities) may need to recruit high school special education teachers or mentors to help them.
- Choose an agenda: there are different types of agendas that students can use to track their tasks – paper agendas or electronic agendas. Many students have cell phones or electronic devices such as computers or iPods, which offer an electronic calendar to help organize their time. Portable devices enable students to enter information as they receive it (for example, when a due date is announced in class, the student can input it immediately into their electronic device). Electronic devices can also provide notifications or alarms to remind students about their scheduled task, meeting, etc. Please see below for more information on technology that can be used for time management and organization of academic work. It becomes too complicated to be using an electronic agenda and a paper agenda because students have to look in two different places for the information; appointments may overlap because it was entered in one agenda but not the other, and scheduled events/tasks may be missed because students may forget to bring both agendas with them. If the agenda the student selected doesn’t work for them after they’ve tried it for a while, they can always switch to a different type of agenda. Just be certain that students are not trying to keep two agendas at once.
- Use only one agenda for all tasks: Rather than keeping a high school agenda booklet and a separate calendar for social, work, sports events and healthcare appointments, it is critical to amalgamate all the information into one agenda.
- Calculate how much time is in a week: Many students complain that they don’t have enough time in a week to complete everything that needs to get done. Students learn very quickly that there is sufficient time in the week to get things accomplished once they’ve been shown how much time is available. Here is the calculation:7 days per week times 24 hours in a day = 168 hours per week to eat, sleep, attend class, read, study, write assignments, go out with friends, spend time with family, and have some personal time.
- Determine where the time goes: Figure out what takes up time on a weekly basis. Below is a list of activities many students need to schedule (some of them may not apply or other activities may need to be added). Once students fill out how much time the activities take, they’ll see that they have plenty of time left to read, study and work on assignments.
|Activity||Time it takes|
|Traveling to and from school|
|Working at a part-time or full-time job|
|Meeting with Friends|
- Enter the classes into a calendar:
Figure 1: Example of class times entered into an iCalendar software on a Macintosh computer
- Enter reading/studying time into a calendar:
Figure 2: Example of class times plus reading and study times entered into iCalendar software on a Macintosh computer
- Enter all other weekly activities into a calendar: Now that the academic work is scheduled, all the other activities that need to get done can be scheduled such as spending time with friends, working at a part-time job, etc.
- Review the calendar on a daily basis: This will help students to know what activity is scheduled for the day.
- Make changes to the calendar as necessary: Schedules are meant to be flexible so students may need to move activities around or add new activities as they come up.
- Students need to get help from someone if they aren’t able to follow their schedule consistently: Developing a schedule is only part of managing time well. Students also need to be able to follow the schedule they make. Students who procrastinate may need to get help from a teacher, parent, or mentor to help overcome procrastination.
Technology to support organizing academic work
Note: some examples are included specifically related to University of Toronto students, but students from other post-secondary schools should look into similar options available at their own campuses.
Software/mobile phone calendaring supports
At our office, we train students to use features of Microsoft Outlook (available in the Microsoft Office Professional suite to University of Toronto Scarborough (UTSC) students for $109.99 + HST in May 2012) to set up recurring appointments for the term for their classes, color-coded by subject, as noted in step 5, above. Then, for each subject, students add 2 to 3 hours of reading and study time per each hour spent in lecture. Tutorials and other course-related appointments are also added and color-coded according to subject, as shown in Figure 3, below . Using a full computer keyboard and mouse, entering the information, setting recurrence, and adjusting timing goes very quickly.
The next step is to add the everyday needs of commuting, meals, part-time jobs and regular gatherings with family and friends, to keep the schedule realistic to everyday needs, as noted in step 7, above. Students can then add the one-time appointments for healthcare appointments, meetings and social events to the calendar.
As the student then obtains information about tests, projects, papers and exams, these are scheduled in as appointments with corresponding color coding. The student can then review their “normal” schedule and decide where to schedule or re-shuffle study times for tests and exams.
For assignments, we recommend the use of The Assignment Calculator, which is a free online tool. The purpose of this calculator is to help students break down their assignment or project into manageable steps, direct them to useful guides and services (particularly the Library and Writing Centres). University of Toronto students can log in and supply an email address, and the Assignment Calculator will also email them reminders and links on the schedule calculated1. The student can then copy and paste the task from the assignment calculator into their schedule, to help them plan time to accomplish each task required for the assignment.
While the final schedule with its colourful blocks of time in use may appear very full, it can provide students with a sense of control, as they are aware of all of the needs in the weeks and months ahead and can adjust the various blocks of time and tasks to meet their deadlines and goals. This may prevent the stress of always feeling behind or that they have forgotten something. It also enables them to enjoy their free time, knowing that they have completed their assignments and made their deadlines, and that time is allocated for upcoming events.
Figure 3: Example of a completed schedule on the Outlook Web App with UTmail+ Account
The calendar can then be synchronized with smartphones, iPods or iPads to enable the students to add new dates and information on the fly, as they receive it, and also to check their time commitments on their calendar before agreeing to additional activities. Microsoft Outlook is also useful for listing tasks, contacts, and email, and will also synchronize these with smartphones and other computers in use to keep the information always at hand.
Our office at UTSC also promotes the use of the Microsoft Outlook Web application provided free to University of Toronto students at with their mail.utoronto.ca email account. Using the calendar feature in this mail program, students can access their schedule online at any time and set it up with similar features to MS Outlook, as noted above. The Microsoft Outlook Web application will also send reminders to BlackBerry, Android, or Apple phones.
Use of apps
There are organizational applications available for smartphones/iPod/iPad for download that are free to $25 price range (for example, iHomework, iStudiez Lite, and Informant H, for the Apple family of devices). These are much less expensive than purchasing an Office suite to get MS Outlook, however, have the disadvantage of a smaller screen and small keyboard or touch screen interface making it difficult to make entries, set up recurrences, etc. You can also synchronize smartphone calendar software to a Google account with a calendar for ease of entry on desktop or laptop computer.
Begin at high school
High school students are encouraged to begin using electronic time management aids. Explore the free calendars available through the Google, Hotmail and Yahoo accounts.
Figure 4: Google Calendar example of setting up an exam event
While these free software programs do include advertising and some content tracking features, they can usually be set up with similar reminders, color coding, synchronizing and recurrence as MS Outlook. A student could then log in to the calendar website on a school computer or from their smartphone to update their calendar with upcoming deadlines, events, etc. and then view the same calendar from their home computer. This relieves the pressure of managing the flow of information on assignment deadlines and test dates between home and school. Using technological supports ensures that the information is captured at the time it is given to the student, and that is readily accessible on multiple platforms.
Resources to learn more about time management and organization
It’s important for high school students to know that there are a number of supports available to them in order to learn time management and organizational skills. Here are some resources available to students to support learning these skills:
- Participate in high school courses that teach time management and organizational skills
- Work one-on-one with special education teachers in high school
- Find a mentor (perhaps a parent, older sibling, relative or family friend) that is highly organized and ask them for advice
- Hire a professional coach like a life coach or ADHD coach who can teach organizational skills (there will be a fee charged by a coach)
- Attend workshops offered by local organizations (for example, in Ontario, the Learning Disability Association of Ontario and its chapters)
- Participate in transition programs offered by post-secondary institutions (many of these programs teach time management and organizational skills)
- If it wasn’t possible to learn time management and organization skills in high school or if students want to improve them further, students can use academic services available at their post-secondary institution
- There are a number of websites that provide information about how to develop time management and organizational skills. A website to start with would be the Study Guides and Strategies website
- Books dedicated to teaching about time management and organizational skills would also be a good resource to use. Some books to begin with are: Manage Your Time; Power Over Time; Student Time Manager; or Learning for Success
We outlined a range of learning strategies and technical tools available to support students in learning to organize their academic work and manage their time effectively. The overall goal is to enable students to be prepared and on-time for homework, assignments, tests and exams, decreasing stress levels and ensuring more work is completed. With mentoring, modeling and technical training support, students can successfully master these skills at a high school level, and arrive at their post-secondary institution well prepared to successfully take on the additional workload in a less structured environment.
1.The University of Minnesota Libraries’ Appointment Calendar is open source and can be downloaded for customization from the Appointment Calendar’s open source page.
Cheryl Lepard is a Disability Consultant with AccessAbility Services, University of Toronto Scarborough.
Linda Petty is an Occupational Therapist and the Assistive Technology Consultant with AccessAbility Services, University of Toronto Scarborough.
Field, S., Sarver, M. D., & Shaw, S. F. (2003). Self-determination: A key to success in postsecondary education for students with learning disabilities. Remedial and Special Education, 24, p. 339–349.
Published June 2012