Teaching Students the Art of Effective Scheduling


"Well, it sounded like a good idea at the time!" Brandon exclaimed as he sat down across from me. "I thought, if I can fit all my classes back to back on Tuesdays and Thursdays, then I would have five days a week to study or work at the coffee shop or…"

"Or nap or play video games or hang out with your girlfriend?" I teased. Brandon blushed.

"Yeah, okay, I guess I thought about that too. But it seemed to make perfect sense! And now, I find that I spend all day Wednesday exhausted, recouping from a marathon Tuesday, until I realize on Wednesday night that I have to do literally all my reading for every class before the next day. Then, I do my marathon Thursday and spend all day Friday exhausted and recouping. Then it's the weekend, and I tell myself I'm going to spend it chained to my desk, but then…."

"Weekend stuff happens?" I asked, knowingly. Brandon nodded. "Yup," he replied. "If I want one of my buddies to knock on my door with an invitation to fun-town, all I have to do is try to get some work done. It's like the universe can hear the sound of a textbook being cracked open and immediately sends in something or someone to thwart me."

So much of my job is about the little things a student just can't know unless either A) he or she has been there, done that, or B) been given the skinny by someone who has been there. A lot of these little things have to do with structuring your own time, a skill at which most college students are relatively inexperienced. I've mentioned it in previous blogs, but I know that I always benefit from reminding myself how different my own life was in high school vs. college. For most of us, we spend our first eighteen or nineteen years having our entire lives structured for us, then we enter into a university setting or the world of work and suddenly all these decisions are largely or solely our own.

Now that I have indeed "been there done that," I can pass some of these pearls of scheduling wisdom on to my students. And the key word, as in many of life's big challenges is: balance. I've seen a lot of my students, especially freshmen, go down Brandon's road. Brandon thought he could have his cake and eat it too by over-scheduling two days of his week so that the other five would be relatively free, but he soon found himself completely out of balance. He was exhausted, over-exerted on Tuesdays and Thursdays, while the lack of structure on his Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays left him feeling less free than at sea. He hadn't yet learned the careful art of structuring one's free time to be both balanced and productive, and it was making him feel stressed and like he was always playing catch-up on sleep, on work, on everything.

So at the beginning of a new semester, in addition to going over a student's various syllabi, we look at his or her schedule together. I've seen some students who've gone even further than Brandon, trying to cram all of their classes into one day, sometimes not even leaving themselves time for lunch. I try to play out the likeliest outcome of this plan. "Okay," I say, "your first class is at 9 a.m., and you haven't given yourself a break until 1:30. So, knowing that you won't be able to get lunch until almost 2 p.m., you tell yourself you're going to get up early and make sure you have a good breakfast. But you stayed up late studying the night before, and come morning that snooze button is really calling your name. So you give in to the sweet indulgence of five or, well, twenty-five (it's so cozy in here and so cold out there!) minutes in bed, and now you're lucky if you have time to grab a cup of coffee and a banana before frantically diving into the last available desk of your 9 a.m. class at 8:59." Once students can see the realistic trajectory of a particular plan of action, they better understand its drawbacks.

We also talk about how long things actually take. A student may think it only takes him twenty minutes to get dressed, eat breakfast, and walk to class when it actually takes him forty. Another may really, truly believe that it will only take her an hour or two to write a ten-page paper only to find herself, four hours after she's begun and one hour until her submission deadline, typing the last sentence of a now rushed, somewhat sloppy introduction.

In addition, my students and I talk about balancing their course loads. I try to bring up the questions that students don't even know to ask such as, "how many of your courses are writing intensive? Is it too many to confidently complete the amount of writing you will be assigned? Where are your academic weak spots? If it's math, are you taking more than one math class at a time? If so, will you be spending so much time trying to slog through these classes that your performance in other areas will suffer? I also have more and more students who are taking courses either fully or partially online.

While online courses are, in my opinion, changing the face of higher education for the better, some students may just see them as a shortcut (I'll never have to give a presentation in front of a roomful of people! I can go to class in my pajamas while simultaneously watching funny cat videos on Youtube!). However, acing an online course actually requires a great deal of self-discipline, and I don't think I'm the only human in history who has gone down the rabbit hole that always begins with, "okay, but this time I'm going to be really really self-disciplined." (diets, New Years' resolutions, promises to totally keep it to just two Youtube cat videos a day- I'm lookin' at you!)

Now, some students do have experience with creating daily, weekly, and semester-long schedules which set them up for the greatest possible success. Some people are naturally disciplined, punctual, always on task. Sure, and some people never have a bad hair day! Life isn't fair! But for many of the students who end up walking into either my office or that of one of my success coach colleagues, scheduling is just another piece of the learning curve- a piece that I am happy to help them fit into the puzzle of collegiate success.

Susan Marion is the Coordinator for Success Coaches at Tiffin University, in Tiffin, Ohio. She was instrumental in starting success coaching at the institution in 2007.  The program now has fifteen part-time success coaches and supports almost one hundred students who are at risk academically.

Blog, UncategorizedSusan Marion