Helping Students Manage Part 2: Developing a Task Manager

Students are often unaware of how overrun they really are, and how deeply they need a system for managing the vastness of tasks they need to manage. I've discovered that the best way to help students find peace is by showing them how overwhelmed they are, and then offering a solution to mitigate the mess.

Step 1: List out the assignments

I encourage my students to bring their syllabi to a meeting with me, and we go through them listing all of the assignments that are due in the semester. When we've exhausted those, we'll discuss the other tasks that are looming in their futures (pay the cable bill, purchase plane tickets for break, register for the next semester, etc.). This list should precede any discussion of which tool they will use to manage tasks. In fact, I don't discuss tools until they have a an exhaustive (and exhausting) list of tasks to freak out about.

Step 2: Identify the Projects

Students will often times list "Write English Paper" as a task. We discuss the steps that will need to go into that project, and list them accordingly (with due dates). It's a great time to discuss the difference between a task and a project, and help the student identify which is which.

Step 3: Find a Tool

Once the tasks are laid out in on paper, the student can clearly see the need for a tool to manage tasks. I have found that students typically like Wunderlist, in part because it is free, and in part because it seems to make sense to them. Asana and Todoist are also great options. In spite of the fact that I LOVE my OmniFocus, it is simply overwhelming to a student who is trying to navigate task management for the first time. If they are willing to pay for it, I think Nozbe is another excellent choice.

Other Tips

  1. Be Vulnerable - I think it is very helpful to students when they can see that we also have a lot of tasks on our plate. It is also useful to show students that things happen best when they are planned for. I show my students my task list, and share problem areas with them in keeping things managed. To date, every student I have helped has said something like, "Oh, I get it!" when I've shared my own task list with them.
  2. Be Transparent - I mentioned this in a previous post, but I will oftentimes ask a student to wait while I enter a task into my OmniFocus. I believe that this is a necessary teaching moment, but it also communicates to the student that she is important enough to me that I keep track of my promises. Being transparent to allow students to see my process has proven VERY valuable.
  3. Be Strategic - I don't scaffold assignments for upperclassmen. I figure that they need to have the ability to scaffold assignments on their own. I do, however, give suggestions for how major assignments can be broken down. In recent years, I've even started doing this with my freshmen - instead of grading scaffolded assignments, I share with them a plan for breaking the major assignment down. Many are initially confused - "You mean I don't have to turn this in?" But it's a great way to reinforce learner-centered instruction while showing them a path to self scaffolding.
  4. Be Helpful - I recently had a student ask me, after class, "When is that assignment due?" As you might imagine, I had stated three different times in class that day that the assignment was due on Friday by 5:00. My initial reaction was to dress him down - "Didn't you listen during class?" I caught myself in time to ask him a different question - "Are you having a hard time keeping track of assignments?" As it turned out, he was overwhelmed. The question he asked was not so much a problem of listening, but that he was trying to hold all of his due-dates in his head. We met after class, and he is using Wunderlist to keep all of his assignments and due-dates managed.
  5. Be Available - Research indicates that students the more time students have contact with faculty, the better their chances of academic success. I have a text-expander snippet for all of my class emails that states that I am available if they need any help managing their tasks or calendar. Some students wait until they are overwhelmed to take advantage of the offer, but it gives me the chance to help find solutions when they are overwhelmed. And as much as we are likely to forget this, students are never quite sure whether it is appropriate to spend time with us in the office.

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Posted on October 26, 2015 and filed under Task Management, GTD.