With many of my students, one of the first things we work on is finding a planner system that works for them, and using it to record all of their assignments — including daily homework, study plans, and milestones for long-term projects and papers.
Why is this so important?
In addition to improving time management, there are a number of psychological reasons why planners help with memory and focus.
1. Writing tasks down makes it easier to remember them
Writing and listening utilize different areas of the brain – so when both are activated simultaneously,memory is enhanced. What does this mean for students? When they write their homework down when it’s announced in class, they are far more likely to remember it. Not to mention that it also gives you a written reminder you can refer back to, just in case your memory is not 100% accurate.
2. Having a written plan frees up working memory, which makes it easier to focus on the task at hand.
Unfinished tasks occupy your attention and make it more difficult for your brain to focus on the task you’re currently working on. (this is called the ‘Zeigarnik Effect’.) When students record all of their assignments and planned activities in a planner, their brains can stop struggling to keep track of everything they have left to work on, and focus fully on the task at hand. Just like freeing up RAM on a computer, this enables students to pay closer attention, learn more effectively, and complete their work more quickly.
3. Written plans act as an external memory ‘cue’ and enable long-term planning
The closer students get to college, the more important it is for them to be able to keep track of deadlines and submit assignments on time with few — if any — reminders from parents or teachers. In college, professors may assign a long term project at the start of the semester and expect students to work on it over the course of several weeks or months with few intermediate deadlines.
Students often assume that they will remember upcoming due dates and projects without having to record them. But memories tend to be triggered by physical cues, not dates or times, so you can’t rely on your brain to remind you on March 22 that you need to start studying for your test on March 25…unless there is an external cue in your environment (like a note in your planner!) to serve as a reminder.
When students have only a few classes, relatively simple assignments, and work that is due 1-2 days after it’s assigned, they can usually get along OK without a planner — especially when they have parents or teachers who are very organized and are acting as their external reminder system. But in the long term, students need to have a way to keep track of assignments and due dates on their own, set intermediate deadlines for long-term projects, and create external reminder systems to keep themselves on track. A planner is a great way to do this.
There are a number of different planners that work well for students.
My favorites are planners like the one pictured above (from Order Out of Chaos), which have a box for each class each day so students can see a week’s worth of activities in one glance.
Google Calendar is another great option — especially for creating exam calendars and laying out intermediate deadlines for long-term projects.
There are also phone apps like phone like MyHomework and iStudiez, which can work well if students are allowed to use their phones in class and are able to turn off distracting messages & notifications during homework time.
The MOST important thing is to find a planner that your teen enjoys and is willing to use.
Is your teen using a planner regularly?
If not, it may be worth having a conversation about this topic to find out more about their current method of managing deadlines, and their ideas about using a planner. It may be that they dislike their school planner, but would be open to trying a different one or managing deadlines through a task manager on their phone.
Getting more support
What if using a planner sounds like a great idea, but if YOU suggest the idea to your teen, there is no chance it will happen?
If you don’t think your teen would be open to brainstorming ideas with you, another possibility is to get some outside support, in the form of a teacher, mentor, or academic coach. If you’d like to talk with me about your teen’s situation and how academic coaching could help, you can sign up for a complimentary consultation by clicking the link below.